West has questions to answer as Syria lies in ruins

Peter Apps looks at the complexities of the conflict in Syria and says that while blaming Vladimir Putin is easy, the US and the UK must also take responsibility.

IN ITS 7,000 years of existence, Aleppo has been fought over by Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. The modern battle for the ancient Syrian city, however, may yet be as significant for the future of the Middle East as those fought by the kingdoms and empires of the past.

The four-year battle for Aleppo now seems to be reaching its final stages. More than any other place, the city — one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world — has been the epicentre of the Syria conflict.

In time, Syria may be seen to define the early 21st century the way the Spanish Civil War did the 1930s — a perfect storm of all the worst trends in global politics and conflict. If it is, then Aleppo will be its Guernica, the Spanish town carpet bombed by Nazi aircraft in 1937 in a savage precursor to the horrors of the coming world war.

As long as it held out, Aleppo made a mockery of President Bashar al Assad’s ambition to once again be seen as ruler of everywhere important in Syria. Even now with Russian support, the Syrian government’s attempts to seize it back have been largely unsuccessful.

And in diverting its forces to the most recent Aleppo assault, Damascus left Palmyra too lightly defended and vulnerable to Islamic State, which recaptured the ancient city on Sunday.

Aleppo might always have been doomed. The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, however, appears to have settled the matter. Had Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton prevailed, those fighting to protect the last handful of rebel enclaves in the city might finally have seen Washington drawn into the fight, if only through enforcing a no-fly zone against Syrian and Russian aircraft.

Tens of thousands of people have fled Syria during the country’s four-year conflict.
Tens of thousands of people have fled Syria during the country’s four-year conflict.

That might have been dangerous for the rest of the world. But it would have offered at least a limited salvation for those still fighting in Aleppo.

Trump has signalled that he intends to take a very different approach, pledging to work with Moscow and prioritise the fight against Islamic State. European nations still want some kind of political transition deal to remove the Syrian leader — something Washington now seems much less likely to support.

The battle is not quite over. The failure of Assad’s forces to take the sprawling city suggests they lack the combat power to do so. Russian and Syrian bombing may kill hundreds if not thousands of civilians, but the attacks will not in themselves bring victory to Damascus. Nonetheless, it increasingly looks as though that relative lack of military strength will not matter. The opposition now knows it cannot win.

According to reports, US and Russian officials have been brokering a deal to allow surviving rebel forces to escape the city. That isn’t just the Syrian regime and its backers showing mercy — it is also them taking advantage of an offer that allows them to claim diplomatically a prize that might have required months or years to achieve through force of arms.

The end of the siege will be in some ways a humanitarian blessing, whoever might win. If fighting is over, supplies and medical services will likely get through to a suffering population.

Targeting hospitals and blocking aid shipments have been key parts of the Syrian-Russian tactics. Once the city has been captured, restoring such services will likely be a part of reasserting authority. The darker side of the fighting’s end, however, is already also becoming clear, with reports of perhaps hundreds of fighting age men “disappeared” or killed after surrender.

If the Assad government regains control over the rebel city, it will likely use brutal measures to reduce any prospect of further insurrection — especially if it feels neither the United States nor other major powers will take any action.

Bashar al Assad
Bashar al Assad

Any harsh response by Assad shouldn’t be surprising. What has and will happen in Aleppo is little different to that in thousands of other sieges throughout history. But as it appears to be ending, it’s worth examining why it took so long to reach this point.

The West’s half-hearted approach to Syria’s civil war — giving support to rebel forces, but never enough to beat the government or its Russian allies — has been an unmitigated failure. Perhaps the United States, the United Kingdom and others should share the guilt for the horror that has come with it.

The Syria conflict has always had many moving pieces. Even now, formulating policy is complicated by myriad rival interests — Kurds, Arabs, Alawites, the competing concerns of half a dozen nations. In the process, the wider political landscape of the Middle East has been redrawn. In the early days of the uprising, the Assad government was heavily reliant on Iran as its main ally, the opposition on rival Arab states. In the last two years, however, Russia has been calling the shots.

If Aleppo is to fall shortly, then much of the credit — if that is the right word - must go to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has established a potential new role for itself, a source of military power for autocratic regimes the West might rather see gone. What we don’t know is whether that will be a sign of things to come.

In Libya in 2011, the West looked at a similar situation — the looming fall of Benghazi to forces of Muammar Gaddafi — and launched itself into a military intervention that many policymakers now regret. In Aleppo, in contrast, Western governments never did more than dabble.

In some ways, that was inevitable. After the disasters of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the feeling in Washington and Europe was that there was little to gain and much to lose. With the migrant crisis, Europe in particular found itself paying a much higher price for the bloodshed in Syria than it ever anticipated — but that in itself did not appear to justify any intervention.

In Islamic State, the West was persuaded it had found an enemy it was necessary to fight — in part because it was indissolubly linked to the fight for the future of Iraq, a battle in which the United States and its allies at least largely knew which side they were on.

Syria — and Aleppo in particular — never had good options. As I’ve written before, it might just have been best never to have encouraged the opposition at all.

Aleppo after an airstrike last April.
Aleppo after an airstrike last April.

If the battle of Aleppo is seen as some kind of regional historic turning point, historians may well be arguing over it for generations. As it draws to a close, however, only one thing is truly apparent — that a city that started the century as a relatively cosmopolitan metropolis and destination for Western tourists has been reduced to rubble.

And that all the fighting and international handwringing may ultimately have made little difference to who actually runs Syria.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues.

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