What happens when Aleppo falls?
The Russians have not stopped bombing it for one day in the two months of ‘ceasefire’
The most remarkable thing about the current ‘ceasefire’ in Syria, as it is teetering on the edge of collapse is the fact that the city of Aleppo was only included in the ceasefire agreement in the last minute. The Russians have not stopped bombing it for one day in the two months of ‘ceasefire’. Why is that?
Ostensibly, it is because Aleppo is controlled by terrorists: Russian speak for anyone who is not with their ally, Assad. And since Russia, as a matter of policy, makes no distinction between ISIS and the non-ISIS opposition, they present this as the same battle against global jihadism that the US and the West are waging, even as they are targeting groups who are, or have been in the past, supported by the Western allies. And groups who themselves are bitterly opposed not only to president Assad, but also to ISIS.
In reality, Aleppo is targeted because it is Syria’s biggest city and its economic capital – not Damascus. It is also one of the oldest cities in the world with a history and symbolic importance that rivals Damascus in every respect. So long as it is held by the rebels, the opposition can claim a power base every bit as significant as the Syrian capital in Damascus.
So long as it stands, the rebels will keep fighting. And, the Russians and President Assad believe that if they capture it then that will be the decisive turning point in the conflict with the non-ISIS opposition.
If the rebellion continues in other parts of the country despite the fall of Aleppo, Assad and Russia have already demonstrated that they are not above revenge massacres of civiliansDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Of course, simply recapturing the city will not spell automatic victory. But it will strengthen Assad’s position significantly, both strategically and psychologically. Standing as it does, 50 km (~31 miles) from the Turkish border and the main rebel supply route, Aleppo is the key hub of logistics for the rebel operations in the north of the country.
Currently, it is being attacked from the south, the west and the east, with only a narrow northern corridor still open to supply the rebels. Assad’s forces and the Russians are also mounting an increasing offensive to capture even this northern corridor, looking to complete the siege of the city and force the local fighters (and the local civilian population) into submission, as they have done with hunger sieges in many of the other rebel-held areas in the country.
Best case scenario
And what will happen when the city finally capitulates? In the past week and a half, over 250 people have been killed in the city. Will the bloodshed end? Or at least, will the situation get better? In the best case scenario, the violence would be slowly brought under control but only if the rest of the rebellion also folds. If the rebellion continues in other parts of the country despite the fall of Aleppo, Assad and Russia have already demonstrated that they are not above revenge massacres of civilians.
The problem for Aleppo is that it is not enough for it to fall. In the strategic calculation of Assad, and especially of the Russians who are still keen to resolve this quickly and with minimal investment, it is also necessary that the city should not be capable to re-emerge as a threat to the authority of the regime. In other words, surrender will not be enough. The city needs to be dismantled.
Whether this will be done through carpet bombing prior to a takeover, as things stand at the moment, or whether it will be done by ‘bringing terrorist elements to justice’ after a takeover and the imposition of government rule, for the people of Aleppo, fighters and civilians alike, the worst may be yet to come.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim