15 12 2016

The Aleppo blame game

“Save Aleppo” has been the appeal for the last couple of years. It is a bit misleading, as there has for years been two Aleppos: East Aleppo under rebel control and West Aleppo under Syrian Government Control. The civil war between the two parts has imposed immense suffering on both East and West Aleppo, but most on the East, as the Syrian Army has superior fire power and dominates the sky. Urban warfare, when the civil population has not been evacuated, is cruel and barbarian, as the civil casualties are horrifying. And now that the battle of Aleppo is over, the recriminations begin: we should have done something to save Aleppo, and we didn’t.

But the question is: what should we have done?

The most obvious answer is: pressed for a negotiated solution to the war. It was tried, but it didn’t work. Many civil wars have ended with negotiated solutions (the maoist rebellion in Nepal, the insurrections in El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia, the Nicaraguan "contra"-war, the liberation wars in South Africa and Zimbabwe, to name a few), but many have ended with one part winning outright: Franco's military uprising against the elected Government in Spain, the Sri Lankan Governments repression of the Tamil separatists, the rebellions against the dictators Batista in Cuba and Somoza in Nicaragua, the jihadists rebellions in Afghanistan and Libya etc.

Civil wars end with negotiations, when none of the parts is able to win and war fatigue starts to set in. That can take many years and have immense costs in human lives and destruction. Experience shows that when there are strong outside powers supporting the different sides of a civil war, it tends to become even more protracted. This is the case of Syria.

The internationally sponsored negotiations in Syria never succeeded, and the most likely reason is that none of the warring parties really wanted a negotiated solution. They were still convinced that they could win the war. The rebels have very powerful and generous international sponsors (apart from the US and EU, they receive weaponry, military training and funding directly from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar), while the Syrian Government has support from Iran and Russia – and to some extent Iraq.

A recent report quoted in the Guardian reveals that the two main international sponsors, Turkey and Iran, were close to a deal in 2013: “The plan envisaged a ceasefire followed by a national unity government and constitutional reform aimed at constraining presidential powers. Most importantly, there would then be presidential and legislative elections under UN supervision. The plan was the subject of several months of shuttle diplomacy between the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu, but it eventually collapsed over the future role of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.” So the sticking point was that Turkey insisted Assad could not participate in the elections, even though they were to be supervised by the UN. Turkey was probably backed by the US and EU in this: the butcher from Damascus would not be allowed to stand. How could he? A war criminal? We have principles!

Or did they fear that he might win? Elections are tricky, as the wrong guys may win. As Hillary Clinton stated in a speech in Israel in 2006, taped and published by one of the attendants (referring to the victory of Hamas in Gaza): “I do not think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.”

So, unfortunately, the peace negotiations led nowhere, and the civil war went on. Perhaps we could have done more. Or we can just blame the Russians and the Iranians for not backing the demand that Assad should step down as a precondition for a negotiated settlement. They insisted that if Assad left, it would create a power vacuum that would be filled out by jihadist rebel groups, Libyan style. Unreasonable claim? Outrageous?

If a negotiated peace was not an option, what could we then have done? An appeal not to fight in urban areas? Hardly realistic in a civil war. An appeal not to use air force and artillery in urban areas as it is impossible to distinguish between fighters and civilians? An absolutely reasonable demand, but there is not much precedence for that in urban warfare, as it has an enormous cost for the attacking part. One of the recent experiences with large scale urban warfare was the Operation Phantom Fury carried out by the US marines and allies in 2004 in the socalled second battle of Fallujah, a city of 300,000 inhabitants in Iraq:

Before the attack started, the area was cordoned off, and civilians were encouraged to leave the city. It is estimated that over 70 percent of its civilians departed from Fallujah before the battle even started. The battle started with an intense artillery barrage and air attack. The process of clearing the city was slow, as many houses were booby-trapped. To reduce casualties, the soldiers entered the buildings only after tanks had rammed holes in their walls. (...) More than 100 coalition soldiers were killed, and 613 soldiers were wounded during the operation. However, there is limited information on the number of insurgent casualties. Some estimates place the number of insurgent killed during the operation at about 1,200, while others claim that more than 2,000 insurgents were killed. The Red Cross estimated that about 800 civilians were killed during the offensive as well. Of the roughly 50,000 buildings in Fallujah, between 7,000 and 10,000 were estimated to have been destroyed in the offensive and from half to two-thirds of the remaining buildings had notable damage. 60 out of 200 mosques were destroyed. There were persistent allegations that the US had used white phosphorous and depleted uranium during the assault on the city.

Does all this sound familiar? Depressingly, so. As the US Ambassador to UN, Samantha Powers, said in the UN Security Council on December 14: “Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit?” She was of course referring to Aleppo, not Fallujah.

But the Syrian Army barbarians could have let the civilians get out of Aleppo before assaulting? The civilians actually did leave Aleppo, but only after it was clear that the rebels would be defeated and many civilians had already been killed. There were different claims. They couldn’t leave, because the relentless bombardment made it too dangerous. The rebels would not let them leave and they would shoot at people trying to leave, using them as human shields. They preferred to die rather than return to the Assad dictatorial rule. Etc. Perhaps we may learn more about what really happened later on. Perhaps we will never know.

One aspect distinguishes the battle of East Aleppo: the repeated offer by the Syrian Army to let the rebels and those civilians who wanted so, leave for other rebel territories: the Idlib province (under control of Al-Qaida affiliate Al-Nusra) or the area North of Aleppo (under control of the Free Syrian Army and other Turkish supported militias). There are few civil wars I can think of, where similar deals have been offered. They were certainly not on offer in Fallujah, neither are they on offer in the ongoing battle of Mosul, where tens of thousands of civilians are trapped inside. However, these offers were repeatedly rejected by the rebels in Aleppo, until the battle was almost over. But could they be expected to trust the Assad dictatorship to keep its word? Actually yes, to judge from the repeated deals done with other rebel factions in other parts of Syria (Homs, Damascus, Qalamun). Bravery? Certainly, but with enormous costs in human and physical destruction.

So nothing of all this worked or only very partially. What could we then have done to save Aleppo? It seems that the claim is, that we – in this case NATO and our Saudi and Qatari allies – should have intervened militarily in Syria, under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. Several attempts were made by the U.S. government in the course of 2011 to 2013 to pass Security Council resolutions invoking R2P to justify military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. These were vetoed by Russia and China. But there are many proposing that it should de done anyway, with or without the authorisation from the UN Security Council. Among the more well-known are Hillary Clinton, John Mccain, Francois Hollande, David Cameron, just to mention a few. And how could it have been done? Well, it seems that what they want is a repetition of the successful intervention in Libya, establishing no-fly zones, destroying the Syrian airforce and bombing other Syrian military installations. That would have weakened the Assad dictatorship so much that it would have collapsed, and our rebel allies, “moderate” or jihadists, would be able to take power in the country.

So is this what we wanted to do to Save Aleppo – and failed to do? Is that our mea culpa?

Now that East Aleppo is back under control of the Syrian Government, what can be done to stop more suffering in Syria? The perspectives for a negotiated solution still do not look well, but there is to my opinion no other way, even if this will mean that we will have to break off our cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Syria to reach a realistic compromise. I don’t believe the R2P scenario will bring anything good, even if some Human Rights Warriors think so. The most obvious is acute humanitarian aid for the people of Aleppo, East and West, and to demand that the Syrian Government gives UN organisations immediate access to East Aleppo. The destruction has been enormous and so are the needs. Even before the last battle in East Aleppo there were, according to Red Cross, 400,000 internally displaced people in West Aleppo. There are already some initiatives, but they are slow in coming. Of course, there are those who would say that now that the Syrian Dictator has the power in Aleppo, this is his problem. I think they are wrong.

Further reading

The following recent articles on Syria and on the media coverage of the conflict from the UK internet daily The Independent are quite instructive: Robert Fisk: There is more than one truth to tell in the awful story of Aleppo”, and Patrick Cockburn: “This is why everything you’ve read about the wars in Syria and Iraq could be wrong”.

As a footnote: In a report in the Guardian regarding the December 13 evacuation deal with the rebels cornered in Aleppo, two moderate rebel groups are mentioned: Nour al-din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham. The moderate guys from Nour al-din al-Zenki, headed by Omar Salkho, posted on July 19 a video where they – laughing – decapitate a Palestinian boy. Yes, our guys have the right to some fun also, right? Unfortunately, Robert Fisk is right when he writes: The rebels of Aleppo are no heroes.


Our allies from Nour al-din al-Zenki having fun decapitating a Palestinian boy and posting it on YouTube.

Regarding the other moderate group, the salafist Ahar Al-Sham, the US magazine Foreign Affairs argues that it should not be designated a terrorist group, as it could be a useful instrument in US foreign policy in the region: “Its obvious sympathies to al Qaeda certainly augur ill for the future. But so do many other aspects of the Syrian conflict, including the role of Iran and Hezbollah and the murderous policies of the Assad regime. Rather, the designation of foreign terrorist groups should be seen as a tactic in the service of a larger strategy -- a tool in the hands of a discriminating president.”

Our allies from Ahrar Al-Sham

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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