Alarm bells are ringing that the Syrian regime forces have nearly encircled Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Regime forces are about to capture Handarat hill that overlooks the last supply line for the opposition-held areas. Once cut off from supplies, many experts feel the opposition in Aleppo will only be able to hold out for weeks.
Given its size, the possible refugee crisis if Aleppo were to be taken could see as many as 400,000 additional refugees add to the 3.3 million Syrian refugees already displaced from their homes. Already there have been around 1.78 million displaced from Aleppo. The city’s fall would be a massive boost to the regime, its confidence of ultimate military “victory” and it would mark the death knell of the armed Syrian opposition in the north. As a recent International Crisis Group report suggested what is “at stake in Aleppo is not regime victory but opposition defeat.”
All this is happening to one of the oldest, most historic cities in the world whose mosques, souqs, baths, and other magnificent sites have attracted visitors for millenniaChris Doyle
All this is happening to one of the oldest, most historic cities in the world whose mosques, souqs, baths, and other magnificent sites have attracted visitors for millennia. No city in the “West” can come close to boasting Aleppo’s length of human history. Sadly, the bombardments, a year of barrel bombing, the looting and arson have pulverized many of these sites. According to one friend, “barely a building is left unscarred.”
Aleppo was relatively quiet during the uprising until the eastern half was seized in July 2012 by opposition forces from outside the city. Ever since then there has been a quasi-stalemate, no one party able to dominate. For long periods the city has been without water or electricity.
So there is a very real threat that the regime will prevail and crush what opposition remains in Aleppo.
As ever, the world watches dazed and confused. Key international actors have since the start of the 2011 uprising been reactive and usually months behind the latest trends. It is not clear that any major players are ready for the impact the fall of Aleppo would entail.
One person engaged in pushing a plan is the new U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura. He succeeded Lakhdar Brahimi in July 2014, weeks after ISIS had seized Mosul in Iraq and declared a “caliphate.” The veteran diplomat sees this as a chance. The rise of ISIS and the military coalition against it just perhaps is the opportunity the crisis presents.
De Mistura has presented a plan to freeze the fighting in Aleppo. He desists from using the term ceasefire, partially he argues because a ceasefire requires conditions and negotiations, but also because ceasefires have acquired a dreadful reputation in much of Syria. In so many areas, ceasefire agreements have been no more than terms of surrender to the Syrian regime.
Syrian opposition groups are divided on De Mistura’s fledgling plan. There are around 18 opposition fighting groups in the Greater Aleppo area, nearly all of which would have to sign up the deal. The envoy is engaging them as well as the regime, which is no doubt waiting for the opposition groups to kill the plan for it.
Only game in town
De Mistura says it is the only game in town and this is the trouble. For too many it is still just that a game, not a realistic proposition. The envoy has chosen the toughest area to kick-start his program and many argue that there were easier areas for such plans to bear fruit. Nevertheless the envoy is fully committed to driving this through, meeting with all the key actors locally and internationally. He has international support, but how much? Ultimately he will require a clear United Nations Security Council mandate with the Russians ensuring the regime not only agrees but implements a freeze. De Mistura also needs buy-in from the rival regional powers.
The principle opposition fear is that the regime will use the time to redeploy its heavy armor to other areas whilst much of the western pressure will be on the opposition to redirect its efforts against ISIS? The extremist group is no more than around 20 kilometers away from Aleppo. Yet can these issues be overcome with guarantees that heavy weaponry is not moved and that the opposition in Aleppo cannot be expected to handle ISIS as well. There are American officials who believe that an Aleppo freeze could see both regime and opposition groups redirecting their efforts to combat ISIS.
Why would the regime shrink back from taking Aleppo? The prize is huge and seemingly accessible. The morale boost amongst Assad’s support base, already shaky after over three years of war and loss, would be dramatic. Assad clearly wants to mop up the non-ISIS opposition hoping the U.S.-led coalition will smash ISIS for him.
But there are restraints. The opposition has been making inroads in the south and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have just captured two major military bases in Idlib this week. Surrounding Aleppo is one thing but taking it requires a massive effort. However, many loyalists also fear a U.S. mission that could choke the regime in the city - American planes could bomb their forces as well as ISIS. The confidence that NATO forces would do nothing has evaporated into a haze of uncertainty.
So, how will the U.S. react if the Syrian regime surrounds Aleppo, chokes it as well as barrel bombs it. The pressure on Obama may be too much for the analyst-in-chief, as one Syrian friend called him. Can U.S. warplanes and drones just watch? To the extent that there has been an American strategy it has been to keep the Syrian moderate opposition alive on life-support whilst hoping that somehow a political solution will present itself. Should the city fall, the accusation that the U.S. has tacitly made a deal with the Syrian regime selling out the opposition it backs to defeat ISIS will grow stronger. Nevertheless, based on Obama’s record so far, no Syrian opposition should count on further military support from the U.S..
In the unlikely event that De Mistura can cajole all the local, regional and international actors to actively back the freeze, how can he build on this? The freeze will melt away fast unless there is a serious peace dividend from the freeze. A freeze could give hope to a beleaguered people who have had enough and allow in vital humanitarian aid. Those not involved in the fighting largely want an end to the devastating conflict. Who wouldn’t? Any real cessation of fighting will kick start momentum, but lacking a political process, will this spark not just get extinguished? Can De Mistura reinforce the Aleppo freeze with other areas at the same time, perhaps ones with greater chances of success? He has no option but to try and those who cherish an end to the Syria crisis must do more than just wish him well, but actively do everything to make his plans a success.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.SHOW MORE