How Sunday's Rebel Attack On Aleppo Has Reshaped The War In Syria
2 Million Lives On The Line - Why The World Must
Pay Attention To Aleppo
In recent weeks the situation in the Syrian City of Aleppo has been oft compared to the situation faced by UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica in 1995, a situation which led to the genocide of more than 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, a crisis for the UN and two decades of war crime prosecutions .
Over the past five days, the already hellish situation in Aleppo has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Caught unawares by the developments the global superpowers appear to have few ideas of how to respond. Writing from France Scoop's Alastair Thompson backgrounds the unfolding crisis and considers its implications for global security.
A map of the area where Jabhat Fateh al-Sham broke through Syrian Government lines on Saturday – source Southfront.org
On August the 1st Jabhat Fateh al-Sham a newly minted anti-Assad Islamist army launched an offensive against Syrian Government positions in the south of the besieged city of Aleppo in Syria. We now know the carefully planned operation had been supplied with significant amounts of new weaponry via Turkey in recent weeks, and included a significant fighting force relocated from Idlib province on the western front of the Syrian civil war.
In mounting their final assault Jabhat Fateh al-Sham employed tactics used by Daesh (ISIS) in their 2015 attack on Ramadi Iraq. Suicide vehicles packed with explosives drove through a no-mans land and detonated adjacent to Syrian Army positions. Youtube was awash with dramatic video footage of the assault. By the end of the day the rebels were publicly claiming they had lifted the siege.
On Monday it was clear that the attack had succeeded – a counter attack spearheaded by Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery failed to dislodge the rebels from their positions in a former artillery base and apartment complex. In holding on to the ground they had taken on Saturday Jabhat Fateh al-Sham had cut off West Aleppo and massively altered the balance of power in the Syrian conflict. A period that had been expected to be the end-game for the rebels in East Aleppo - who have been holding out for several years morphed – albeit briefly – into a celebration.
In the map image below [source Southfront] you can see the outcome of the 8 days of fighting up till Sunday.
The city of Aleppo is divided in half. The rebels control the area to the right in Green, the Syrian Government the area to the left in purple. Two significant populations of civilians are now besieged by enemy forces – in the height of summer water supplies have been cut off and neither side in the conflict is able to get any significant quantity of aid or supplies through to the trapped civilian populations.
In the green area on the right hand side of the map the rebel - East Aleppo, there are an estimated 300,000 civilians and 9000 fighters. On the right the area in purple contains an estimated 1.3 million civilians and an unknown number of Government fighters plus a contingent of Kurdish fighters who control the area marked in yellow which they have only recently taken.
Yesterday a UN spokesman called for an urgent ceasefire to enable water pumps to be repaired and food and medical supplies to be supplied to the besieged areas. Their appears to be little chance that this will happen however and both sides are rushing reinforcements into the area.
Global media is caught by surprise
If you are unaware of this news you will not be alone. So far the dramatic developments in Aleppo have been receiving only minimal global media coverage, and what coverage there is has been overshadowed by the Olympics.
A possible reason why the media coverage makes so little sense
And if you have been reading the news then you may well be a bit confused as to what is happening. It has been very hard to determine in particular what the main parties to the conflict are making of the latest developments.
This op-ed from July 31 (the day before the offensive began) by former executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian is illustrative of the difficulties the media have been having.
Nougayrède is writing about the Syrian Govt's siege of East Aleppo. She makes a very strong argument for the West somehow changing the game and defeating Assad in order to reduce the radicalisation of young Sunni men.
It's an argument that appears to be on all fours with the official position of the US, UK and French Governments on the Syrian conflict as expressed in public statements in the days since the Aleppo siege became two sieges. [See in particular the testimony and statements made in this hearing of the UN Security Council held on Monday.]
In fact the similarity between the statements made on Monday by Clarissa Ward of CNN and this column written 10 days earlier is so striking that the best explanation is that what was said in New Yorkon Monday wasn't in fact informed by the events of the weekend at all.
"In recent days, Bashar al-Assad’s army, assisted by Russian air power and Iranian-connected ground forces, has achieved its long-held objective of encircling eastern Aleppo, where 200,000 to 300,000 people are now helplessly stranded and under attack. Any European who remembers the 1990s should think about parallels with the siege of Sarajevo, and the Srebrenica massacre 21 years ago. As one UN official put it this week: “In the 1990s, we said never again. Aleppo is the new Srebrenica.” Those who rightly express solidarity with refugees need to go one step further and ask why nothing has been done to prevent the mass atrocities that have sent so many people struggling over land and sea to reach our world. We should question the faulty western strategies that have focused entirely on combatting Isis and not on protecting Syrian civilians.
Right now more questions should be asked about Russia’s behaviour in Syria than about its cyber warfare in the US (however huge that story) because the consequences of Moscow backing Assad are a bigger threat to Europe’s liberal, democratic order. If Assad stays in power, which seems to be the ultimate goal of recapturing Aleppo, more – not less – radicalisation will ensue; the absence of political transition in Syria will fuel the Sunni anger that Isis thrives on. That, in turn, will lead to more terrorism in Europe, providing even more fertile ground for far-right movements who want to up-end fundamental democratic principles."
In the diplomatic discourse that followed the successful rebel attack in the south of Aleppo so far the only subject being discussed in public has been the siege of East Aleppo - humanitarian aid to East Aleppo, and in particular the alleged systematic Russian targeting of hospitals in airstrikes - a subject which has become a familiar theme in this conflict.
Nougayrède's article is a useful touch point when we try to fathom why the international community has now found itself in such a bind in Aleppo over the past four days.
What Nougayrède appears to be wishing for in her Op-Ed has now become an active possibility. Surely this should be a positive development?
But in light of a growing understanding of who the rescuers of East Aleppo really are – and vulnerability of the 1.3 million civilians in West Aleppo the gloss has very quickly faded from what was initially reported as if was a victory for the "good guys".
The problem with the Assad must be deposed thesis
With the possibility that Assad could be defeated back on the table the question then arises who could replace him as the Government in Syria.
First we can rule out ISIS the group which occupies the largest portion of Syria that is outside the Government control.
Presumably also not the Al-Nusra Front who hold Idlib province and area an officially designated terrorist group with Al Qaeda affiliations. They will likely be involved in any peace negotiations however as they have been proved to be very effective fighters both against ISIS and against the Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah coalition.
Then there is is the newly rebranded Al Nusra – the rebel heroes of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – who changed the "boots on the ground" equation in Aleppo last week and in the process created the impossibly dangerous situation which the world's diplomats are now watching unfold in horror.
While Jabhat Fateh al-Sham claims to not be Al Qaeda affiliated as it was when it was called Al Nusra Front, it is to all other intents and purposes the same group. They are Islamist extremists like ISIS but different - and in fact enemies of ISIS. It has been reported that part of the purpose of the rebranding effort was to send a message to the West that the Al-Nusra Front is only interested in the war in Syria, and not in starting a holy war against the West. If this message was delivered it wasn't received however as days after the rebranding Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was officially designated a terrorist organisation by both Russia and the United States - meaning that it is a legitimate target for both of their airforces.
While the claim that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham doesn't mean any harm to the West may possibly be true, it certainly seems implausible foolhardy to take at face value in circumstances such as these.
The rebranding certainly seems to have been timed rather conveniently on 28th July, just three days before the very well financed and armed offensive in Aleppo began. This offensive is reported to have been financed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia & Qatar – whose enmity for Assad is far from secret. There are strong indications of US involvement too given the use of large numbers of advanced US anti-tank TOW missiles on the battlefield in Aleppo.
The moderate opposition forces in Syria including the Free Syrian Army certainly won't be forming the next Government of Syria. The remnants of this force are presently surrounded in East Aleppo. While their hopes may have been buoyed by their rescue by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, they remain trapped are out-numbered and are a largely spent force.
Maybe the Turks, Saudis or Qatari's can bring peace and reconciliation into this God-awful mess. Speaking in Munich earlier this year the Saudi Foreign Minister - after declaring that removal of Assad was non-negotiable - suggested that a new government could be formed from moderate Sunni tribes. Maybe this is theoretically possible, but right now it is less a plan than it is an idea.
So in summary there is no suitable candidate to take over running Syria. Nor is there any force other than the Syrian, Iranian, Kurdish and Russian coalition that is capable of ending this war.
And yet the "Assad must be removed" objective remains one on which three of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK and France) are fixated.
The problem for the West – notwithstanding Clarissa Ward and Nougayrède's arguments about radicalisation caused by Assad – is this. I f the defeat of Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Kurdish allies were magically delivered tomorrow. Then Syria would then be mostly in the hands of a group of extremist Sunni Islamists – different from but very similar to ISIS.
Was this really a surprise? Who knew? Who didn't? Why?
The burning question in all this is were the US, UK or France Governments aware that this offensive was being planned and resourced? And if not why not?
The build-up of arms across the Turkish Border was definitely observable – and we know from reports was in fact observed. Turkey remains a key member of NATO so one might also expect there to be a no surprises policy in place.
What does seem fairly clear that Assad's Syrian forces and the Russians weren't sufficiently prepared to defend against the offensive and possibly left West Aleppo's southern flank exposed while they were conducting their offensive in the north of the city.
And two days after the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham victory it appeared to be a surprise to that West Aleppo and it's 1.3 million inhabitants had been cut off from their supply lines. While the forces in East Aleppo are set up for a siege - and have been for years – those in West Aleppo are not.
For their part the flat-footedness of the UK, US and France points to them either not knowing or knowing and engaging in an appallingly cynical charade.
Robert Fisk's perspective on who what happens next
Few people are as well acquainted with this area than the legendary Beirut based Independent Newspaper correspondent Robert Fisk. Writing on 4 August, after the offensive began but before the most recent developments Robert Fisk gave his take on the developing situation :
Aleppo, Sunni Muslim militias are fighting largely Sunni
Muslim soldiers of the Syrian army whose Alawite (Shia)
leader is supported by Shia Muslim Hezbollah militiamen and
Shia Muslim Iran. Only three years ago, the same Sunni
militiamen were besieging the surrounded Syrian army western
enclave of Aleppo and firing shells and mortars into the
sector where hundreds of thousands of civilians lived under
Now the Syrian regime’s forces are surrounding the Sunni militiamen in the eastern enclave of Aleppo and firing shells and mortars – and dropping bombs and explosives – into the sector where hundreds of thousands of civilians live under rebel control. The first siege didn’t elicit many tears from the satellite channel lads and lassies. The second siege comes with oceans of tears.
There are no "good guys" among the Syrian warlords; yet still, despite all the evidence, we want to find them. At the same time, we can’t really work out who the "bad guys" are.
Of course, Isis – or the “so-called Islamic State” as the BBC likes to refer to them, for they are neither Islamic nor a state – must be liquidated. But the American supplied and reinforced Syrian Democratic Forces – which are never referred to as "so-called" by the BBC, even though they are neither a force (since they rely on US air power), nor democratic (since they are not elected), nor Syrian (because they are largely Kurdish) – must be supported.
Having thus divided the cult-like evildoers of Isis from the groupuscules of “moderates” – be they old Dave Cameron’s 70,000 ghost warriors or just CIA clones – we are having problems with the Nusrah-whoops-changed-our-name-to-Sham-and-no-longer-with-the-al-Qaeda chaps.
Because they hate Assad, but they also kill Christians, blow up churches, chop the heads off their enemies and do other rotten things which make it hard to like them, even though they are financed by Qatar – one of our wealthy "moderate" Arab Gulf allies – as opposed to Saudi Arabia, another of our wealthy "moderate" Gulf allies, which still unofficially supports the horrific Isis. And it’s the Nusra-Sham-no-longer-al-Qaeda rebels who are now besieged in Aleppo, along with 300,000 civilians.
While Fisk hasn't written another piece since we know what he thinks as he did say this to BreakingNews.ie yesterday:
Middle East expert Robert Fisk
says the army look likely to take power in Syria: “There
is, within the Syrian army now, a fighting force that
“They like fighting, which usually means, they won't give in.
“And I think the Syrian army will decide the future of Syria.
“I think the Syrian army will have to rebuild Syria and they will end up by deciding its future.
“Ultimately, the west is going to have to deal with them.”
Nougayrède paints Aleppo in cold war colours.
Meanwhile the Guardian's Nougayrède appears to have come to a similar conclusion about the likely outcome. In this piece published on Sunday she compared Syria now with Afghanistan in the 1980s, concluding that Putin is now in a position in which he now must win in Syria.
While it is possible this piece was penned before the events of Sunday the argument she makes is not affected by those events.
"There are lessons from the Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s of which Putin may well be mindful. Mission creep is something he will want to avoid in Syria. The recent downing of a Russian military helicopter by Syrian rebels (all five crew members were killed) may have rekindled painful memories. Just as the Soviet army could not “hold” Afghanistan, neither Assad’s forces nor Hezbollah, nor the Iranian forces involved in the fighting, can hope to ever control the whole of Syria.
Still, Russia has so far successfully shored up Assad by intervening – whereas the Soviet Union ultimately failed to save an ally regime in Afghanistan (its then proclaimed objective).
It is impossible to say how sustainable Russia’s gains are today. But Putin surely remembers how the man he has often tried to imitate, Yuri Andropov, a powerful Soviet intelligence chief, said in a politburo meeting in 1979: “We cannot lose Afghanistan.” Putin thinks he cannot lose Syria."
In this analysis another important aspect of the Syrian crisis is revealed.
In Afghanistan the warring parties were really the Soviet Union and the United States. And in Syria the cloak has now come off too and the ultimate warring parties are the same. This has of course been obvious for several years – but it is not normally reported in such an obvious manner.
The Syrian situation is vastly more complicated than the situation was in 1980s Afghanistan, but if the United States, the UK and France have the stomach to see another half a million civilians killed in Syria in order to engineer a quagmire to ensnare Putin – that option is arguably back on the table.
The question is will they take it. The US Military certainly seems to be keen and may in fact be involved covertly or overtly in the latest offensive. In his August 4th analysis Fisk seems to think that both Clinton and Trump will be keen to keep on talking up the demise of Assad.
But what about the national interests of the UK, France and Europe?
I have argued above that Nougayrède's thesis that Assad must be removed to prevent radicalisation and terror attacks in Europe - which also seems to still be the default US position - cuts both ways as soon as you consider who will replace Assad.
That said her view is clearly the dominant Anglo-French perspective, both Governments have been for some time among the most vocal opponents of Assad.
Hints of rapprochement among the P5
On the other hand several more years of war in Syria means that the refugee and migrant crisis will grow. At which point the clearly evident frustration shown by the Russian Ambassador at the UNSC starts to make sense. Towards the end of the session on Monday he complained that he understood his Government was having fruitful talks in Europe with the French at the same time as Russia was facing a barrage of attacks at the UNSC.
And then yesterday it was reported that Theresa May had had her first conversation with Vladimir Putin. A conversation that both sides reported as having been productive.
Putin & May agree to personal meeting, speak of mending ties https://t.co/niYpioZpRc— Alastair Thompson (@althecat) August 10, 2016
BBC News - Russia-UK relations: May and Putin pledge to improve ties https://t.co/SgGJdwJ4Tq— Alastair Thompson (@althecat) August 10, 2016
Even the Russian/US relationship may not in fact be as frosty as it appears to be. In this article in the New York Times published on Saturday August 6th the day before everything changed on the ground in Aleppo there are strong signs that a rapprochement is in the air.
Obama administration is now talking with President Vladimir
V. Putin’s government about a plan to share intelligence
and coordinate airstrikes against the Islamic State and
other militant groups in Syria, and Mr. Putin has thus far
met his goals in Syria without becoming caught in a quagmire
that some — including President Obama — had predicted he
But even Mr. Obama has expressed wariness about an enduring deal with Moscow. “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference on Thursday. “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”
At the same time, some military experts point out that Mr. Putin has saddled Russia with the burden of propping up a Syrian military that has had difficulty vanquishing the rebels on its own."
Around the time this report was published news came through of another apparent rapprochement, this time between the two principle protagonists in the unfolding situation, Turkey - the principle sponsors of Al Nusra and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and Russia.
MOSCOW— Russia and Turkey are taking unprecedented steps to directly coordinate actions in Syria after a rapprochement between their presidents and despite disagreeing over support for Damascus.
The level of cooperation in the five-year civil war was made possible after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconciled face to face Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg.
Putin announced that Russia would begin rolling back sanctions and restart important energy projects such as a stalled nuclear plant, which would be Turkey's first, and the Turkish Stream gas pipeline from southern Russia to the Black Sea.
Russian officials said trade with Turkey could be fully restored by the end of the year.
What then is to be done?
The best way out of the Syrian obscenity which stands before us would be for a joint Russian and US effort to secure peace in Aleppo, to defeat ISIS, bring an end to Turkish, Saudi and Qatari engagement in the theatre and bring the remaining warring factions to peace talks in Geneva with a clear path towards peace.
As for Europe, a timely and lasting peace in Syria is both what Europe needs for its security and what the people of Europe want.
If the US was in recent weeks actively considering the idea of meaningful close military cooperation on the ground with Russia - and considering that in Iraq they are already actively working with Iranian militias against ISIS – then why can't Europe also directly work with Russia.
Srebrenica was a moment of great failure for the UN and the international community. A second crisis like Ruanda where a disaster was imminent but no action was taken and a terrible massacre followed. In his article Fisk makes a comparison with Kosovo where a similar situation arose and the US and Europe did intervene.
The situation in Aleppo is different than both but also comparable.
Fisk concludes in his piece that there is no chance of a Western intervention in Syria. And when he wrote his analysis in early August that conclusion was most probably certain. But the background to the events which are unfolding right now is much more complicated than it was seven days ago.
In the present Syria situation we now know there are armed forces or proxies of at least eight nations including two superpowers, one emergent nation (the Kurds) and at least two global terrorist groups in the field.
The direct involvement of so many national parties in this conflict means that there is also a much stronger responsibility for the international community to be concerned with what happens.
And with 2 million people besieged inside a battle ground the potential for loss of life is also much much worse that the situation in both Srebrenica in 1995 and Kosovo in 1998.
For these reasons the arguments in favour of a coordinated urgent international response in Aleppo now is very persuasive.
That said, so far the spectacle at the UN Security Council provides no cause for any comfort.
As Angola's representative eloquently put it on Monday: "May God save the people of Aleppo".
- Alastair Thompson 500 Words, Thursday 11 August 2016