Bashar al-Assad has just clinched his greatest victory in the almost six-year-old Syrian civil war. Aleppo, which was the country’s largest city before the civil war broke out, was one of his early and biggest losses. But having recapturing the rebel-held parts of the city, his regime now controls all major population centres in Syria, stretching from the Druze city of Suwayda to the Sunni-majority Aleppo.
The victory will certainly boost the morale of the regime forces, while the opposition militants, left to some enclaves, will find it difficult to sustain the fight in the long run, unless there’s a foreign intervention in favour of them. From the Syrian perspective, the regime has defeated armed gangs in Aleppo which they had been illegally occupying. But that’s not how the battle for Aleppo was received. The regime faces serious allegations of human rights violations. The U.S. accuses Damascus of war crimes, while France claims Mr. Assad’s “destructive drive” is harming the “defenceless civilian population” in Aleppo. Besides, the dominant narrative in the international media about Aleppo in particular and Syria in general is that a rogue regime is massacring civilians while fighting a political opposition, aka “moderate rebels”, who strive for the “Syrian revolution”.
The larger context
It is important to understand the broader context of these claims. The regime lost the eastern half of Aleppo to militants in 2012. At any point of the conflict, it sheltered a large majority of Aleppo’s more than two million residents. The militants’ initial plan was to capture the whole of the city. But they were stopped halfway by regime forces, and from 2012 there was a stalemate, though both occasionally attacked each other, killing fighters as well as civilians. The balance of the conflict changed only after Russia intervened in favour of the regime in September 2015. Government forces launched a massive operation early this year, assisted by the Russian air force, fighters from Hezbollah and Iran-trained militias.
Secondly, who are these “moderate rebels” the Syrian government is fighting in Aleppo? In the initial days of the conflict, it was the Free Syrian Army (FSA), largely composed of rebel soldiers and helped by Turkey, which fought the regime forces in Aleppo. But as the civil war turned uglier and spawned jihadist groups, and FSA lost its influence, its fighters either withdrew to Turkey or merged with local militant factions. One of the most dominant jihadist groups was Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria founded by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, a former lieutenant of Abu bakr al-Baghdadi, now the ‘Caliph’ of the Islamic State. When he was leader of al-Qaeda of Iraq, Baghdadi sent Jolani across the border to join anti-government forces in the civil war. The ideologically-charged, ferocious al-Nusra soon emerged as a powerful militant group in the Syrian opposition. Baghdadi later split with Jolani to found the Islamic State, but since then, the IS and al-Nusra acted as two competing movements of the jihadist project in Syria.
Eastern Aleppo soon became a key base for al-Nusra. In early 2016, when the Syrian regime launched an operation to retake the eastern city, militants were divided into three blocs — Aleppo Conquest, Ansar al-Sharia and Euphrates Volcano. Of this, the Euphrates Volcano largely comprised Kurdish militants not directly fighting the regime but the IS. The other two, the real anti-government forces on the ground, are dominated by al-Nusra Front, aka al-Qaeda. The major militant groups in the Aleppo Conquest are Jama’at (a sub-unit of al-Nusra), Fajr al-Khilafa Brigades and Ahrar al-Sham (both are allied with Nusra). Ahrar al-Sham, which wants to overthrow the Assad regime and build an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia, is financed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Aleppo Conquest has been accused of war crimes.
The other coalition, Ansar al-Sharia, was formed by al-Nusra in July 2015. As of October 2015, the coalition had 11 militant groups as its members, including the Qaeda branch. Their common goal was to seize all of Aleppo and impose Sharia. Though Nusra rechristened itself as Fateh al-Sham and announced it had severed ties with al-Qaeda in August this year, it was basically a stunt to repackage themselves as the “moderate rebels”. Neither its world view nor its operational strategy has changed, and the leadership remains intact. In the last days of the conflict, the remaining fighters in Aleppo are members of this coalition. There were reports that the rebels prevented civilians from fleeing the city even after the government opened humanitarian corridors. On December 14, the UN Commission for Inquiry for Syria referred to allegations that “opposition groups are preventing civilians from leaving as well as opposition fighters embedding themselves within the civilian population”. By political ideology or actions, these groups are not substantially different from the IS. While the IS wants to establish a caliphate across the borders, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham want to turn Syria into a theocratic state. They share common views on non-Sunni sects, women and the future of the Syrian society. What they differ on is who should hold power in Damascus.
To be sure, Mr. Assad is no saint. But the situation in Syria is too complicated to make a simple moral choice among the two warring sides. However ruthless Mr. Assad may be, there is no military alternative in today’s Syria. If his regime, which still offers protection to a majority of the people, is militarily destroyed, the country will only plunge deeper into the civil war between jihadist militia groups, similar to what happened in Afghanistan after the communists fell or what’s happening in Libya now after NATO “liberated” the country in 2011. But there could be political alternatives to Mr. Assad — a diplomatic solution that seeks to rebuild the country instead of further weakening its state. For that, two things have to happen. One, the government should be ready for a dialogue on Syria’s future with the non-jihadist opposition groups. Two, the outside powers that are involved in Syria’s civil war through proxies need to rethink their approach. The political rebellion they started financing has long been hijacked by extremists who are now on the run. To keep bankrolling them will only further destabilise the region.
A chance for peace in Syria
The coming together of Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis is a welcome development. That they decided to go ahead with Tuesday’s Moscow summit despite the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, the previous day, demonstrates their commitment to stay the course, something that was missing in previous efforts. The summit also marks a shift in Russia’s approach, which initially involved negotiations with the United States about possible diplomatic options for Syria. Washington has been kept out of both the deliberations on the Aleppo evacuations and the Moscow conference. The last time Russia and the U.S. reached an agreement, in September 2016, there had been great hope that they could mentor a sustainable ceasefire. But within days of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announcing the deal, the American-led coalition killed dozens of Syrian soldiers. Though the U.S. later “regretted” the strike, the peace process had been hit. The wider bilateral tensions between Moscow and Washington were also an impediment to finding a breakthrough in Syria.
The current initiative appears to be more promising. Russia and Iran have direct leverage over the regime in Syria, while Turkey still helps several militant groups. Besides money and arms, the militants need Turkey’s help for any communication with the other side. And there is a reason for Turkey coming forward for talks. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have realised that his anti-regime Syria policy has backfired. Turkey faces severe security challenges, from both Islamic State jihadists and Kurdish militants. If Syria remains at war and the instability spawns more radical militia groups, it could worsen Turkey’s security problems, while Kurds on the Syrian side could grow in strength. Russia, on the other side, has pursued a ‘war and talk’ approach since its intervention — it will continue to defend the regime militarily, while looking for avenues to deal with other stakeholders. The recent improvement in relations between Ankara and Moscow, which had hit a low after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft last year, has also helped get the peace process going. But this convergence of interest for both sides in stabilising Syria doesn’t mean that peace is within reach. Turkey is only one of the countries backing the rebels. The others include Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, all allies of the U.S. The Saudis were instrumental in ending the civil war in Lebanon in 1989. Like Lebanon, Syria too is a regional problem that needs a regional solution. For this, Arab stakeholders may have to give up their ‘Assad-must-go’ precondition and join the peace process, as Turkey did.