Aleppo's fall will start a new chapter of the war, not end it. How rebels respond will decide if a united Syria can emerge from its ashes
Whether by habit, or tradition, the US presidential transition is the ideal time to deal with unfinished business. The handover from one administration to its successor offers tempting opportunities to create new facts on the ground in the Middle East.
Israel used the transition between George Bush and Barack Obama to launch Operation Cast Lead on Gaza which stopped two days before Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009. Russia is now using the transition from Obama to Trump to do the same in Aleppo.
Both sides in the Syrian civil war understand the significance of timing. The rebels foolishly depended on Hillary Clinton’s assurances to hang on until she came into power. They had no plan B for a Clinton defeat.
Conversely, the Russians understand that they have to finish off east Aleppo by the time Donald Trump is inaugurated. With the Old City fallen, the task is almost complete.
Vladimir Putin does not simply thinkhe has just won back Aleppo. He also thinks he has won the argument with America. This much was clear from the tenor of Sergei Lavrov’s speech last week in Rome. He thinks the incoming administration has finally got the message that “terrorists” - however Russia happens to define them - pose a greater threat to US national security than Assad does.
His argument is one that few would now disagree: from Afghanistan to Libya, America used Salafi jihadis as levers for regime change only to find these weapons turned on them. Russia, Lavrov continued, was not married to Assad. But it was wedded to the Syrian state.
A fear of victory
Russia’s actions, as opposed to Lavrov’s words, tell a different story. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, just over 10,000 people in Syria were killed by Russian airstrikes between 30 September 2015 and 30 October this year, of whom 2,861 were members of the Islamic State (IS) group, 3,079 fighters from rebel and Islamic factions, 2,565 males over the age of 18,1,013 children under the age of eighteen and 584 women.
Displaced children walk through the streets of Aleppo (MEE/ Zuheir al-Shimale)
Like all colonial powers, the Russian Federation has arrogated on itself the choice of deciding which Syrians live and which die
From these figures alone, and there are others, it is clear that Russia has waged total war on an unprotected population in rebel-held areas. War on its people, its hospitals, and its markets, just like it did in Grozny 16 years ago. Its actions differ little from those of the Syrian army. Like all colonial powers, the Russian Federation has arrogated on itself the choice of deciding which Syrians live and which die. And if they are in rebel-held areas, they all die together.
But that is not what worries Lavrov. Privately, Lavrov, like Pyrrhus before him, fears what victory looks like. What does “inhabited Syria”, the phrase I used earlier, actually mean, when victory has been declared? A pile of rubble, one ruined city after another, whose citizens will be totally dependent on aid for years to come?
To support the areas their bombers have destroyed, Russia will have to start putting hospitals and doctors on the ground, which they have already started doing in east Aleppo. These, in turn, will require protection, Russian boots on the ground who will then become targets for rebel attacks. Air power is no use in a guerilla urban war.
Think of how long the Taliban have survived the might of US and allied air power. For, with the fall of Aleppo, the tables will turn once again, as they did when Russia entered the war. Rebel forces will no longer be protecting areas from the assault of pro-Assad militias. They will instead mount classic guerilla hit-and-run attacks on areas under government control. Assad does not have the capacity to provide the physical protection conquered areas need.
The fictional Syrian state
More shattered than the physical infrastructure of Syria is its political one. After five years of murderous civil war, the Syrian state is a fiction, in which sectarian and foreign militias are free to roam. The main function of the Central Bank, to take just one example, is to manage Rami Makhlouf’s portfolio. A state which commands the loyalty and trust of each Syrian denomination does not exist.
Buildings in east Aleppo on verge of collapse after months of heavy bombardment (MEE/ Zuheir al-Shimale)
In the Stalingrad analogy that right-wing nationalist Russian commentators are so fond of using, the ruins of Aleppo are unlikely to be the symbol of resurgence of a new Syrian state. More likely, these ruins will become the battleground of resistance to militarily superior foreign invaders, of whom Russia is one, Iran is another, Hezbollah is a third. Russians are not the liberators of Aleppo, they are Friedrich Paulus's 6th Army, and if they stay around, they will meet the same fate.
There are two scenarios after the fall of Aleppo. The first is that the Syrian opposition in all its forms, both FSA and Islamist, will disintegrate and vanish. Assad will be left in power while talks about a transition will continue indefinitely. No elections will take place that include the refugees outside Syria for the same reason that no Palestinian elections include the Palestinian diaspora in the camps. Regime preservation will be key to all the calculations of Assad’s foreign backers, who have paid a heavy price in maintaining him in power.
Man carries dead bodies away in Aleppo (MEE/ Zuheir al-Shimale)
For this reason, when Aleppo falls, Putin and Lavrov will work overtime to declare mission accomplished as Bush did in Iraq and end the war officially. This is wishful thinking. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was right to warn Lavrov in Rome last week that the fall of Aleppo will not be the end of the war. The degree of destruction and human displacement in this civil war will only fuel more resistance. This is not a repeat of Hama, the scene of a Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in 1982, which was contained when the city was destroyed by Assad’s father, Hafez.
Will rebels learn? [I DOUBT IT !]
The fall of Aleppo will only increase the crisis of Sunni leadership. A reaction will surely come. The big strategic question is whether it will be irrational, jihadi-led and destructive, or whether the rebels can fashion a rational response.
And this is the second scenario. Will the rebels learn the lessons of their huge strategic and military failure? These are many. They believed the various assurances from America, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar that they were about to get the battlefield weapons they needed to fight this war. They never came.
The political wing of the Syrian opposition which consisted of defected diplomats and academics in the diaspora simply could not cope with the task in hand
Michel Kilo, the exiled Christian Syrian dissident, whom the Russians tried hard to conscript, furiously accused Saudi of “committing a crime against the Syrian people”. He said: “Our brothers in Saudi Arabia are neither capable of drawing a plan nor are they able to lead a comeback against the campaign that is being waged against Arab and Islamic societies. They live just because they have money; they live in the desert. But tomorrow they will see.”
Kilo went on: “I swear on the lives of my own children we shall not leave the Gulf intact and we shall dismantle it stone by stone. You are destroying the best country in the Islamic and Arab worlds; a country whose name is Syria.”
The lesson from this is that the Syrian opposition can rely on no one. But in order to be self-sufficient, they need unity. The political wing of the Syrian opposition which consisted of defected diplomats and academics in the diaspora simply could not cope with the task in hand. They were riven with schisms. They were weak, deluded about the help they would get from America, outmanoeuvred and outgunned.
The Syrian rebels have to recover their multi-confessional face. The war started as a unarmed civilian uprising against a family-run dictatorship. They are forgotten now, but the faces of this revolution were George Sabra, a Greek Orthodox Christian and the first president of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, a Sunni chairman of the Transitional National Council, and Fadwa Soliman, an actress of Alawite descent.
The faces of fighters are today jihadi, sectarian, or in Kilo’s words, “non-democratic”. The original face of this revolution has to be recovered if a united Syria is ever to emerge again from the ashes of Aleppo.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.