The long convoys of Syrians now crowding around the Bab al-Salam crossing on the Turkish border, their numbers estimated at anywhere between 20,000 and 70,000, with many more thousands on the way, are some of the last survivors from what was once, not long ago, a city of 2 million. They remained in Aleppo, despite the bombardment and shortages, to cling on to their homes and livelihoods, and in the case of many young people, to complete high school or college (which incredibly continue to teach in some cities in Syria), in the hope that a diploma could somehow ensure their future. Now they are fleeing, through what seems to be a rapidly closing window, before the Syrian army and foreign Shi'ite militias complete the pincer-move, encircling the city and cut off the last supply routes.
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For four and a half years, a unending stream of refugees has left Syria, but this sudden surge toward the Turkish border could be the peak of a new crisis and perhaps a turning point in this terrible war.
As in the crisis at the end of 2014, when the ISIS attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani caused a similar stampede for the border, international attention is once again, momentarily, drawn to the Syrian tragedy. The fact that the attack on Aleppo has coincided with the beginning and immediate failure of the cease-fire talks in Geneva this week serves to intensify the sense of impotence of the international community to end the bloodshed.
Since mid-2012, most of Aleppo and the area to its north, up to the Turkish border, were controlled by rebel groups. The Syrian army, together with Hezbollah, launched a series of operations to recapture the city, but failed. Now, with Russian and Iranian support, the tide is turning towards Bashar Assad’s regime. Instead of advancing directly on the city and the rebel strongholds in its eastern suburbs, the regime forces have swiftly attacked on two fronts in the north and now the distance between them is shrinking rapidly – just a few kilometers – a narrow corridor through which civilians are escaping on foot.
For the first three months of the Russian deployment to Syria last year, the airstrikes carried out by the Russian warplanes failed to bring about change on the ground. The operation by an Iranian brigade got bogged down. But the air campaign bought time for the Syrian army, which was on the brink of collapse, and now, after replenishing its arsenals, thanks to the Russian airlift, fresh troops are going forward, under the umbrella of the Russian barrage, reinforced by Shi'ite militias of Iraqi and Afghan fighters, trained and commanded by Iranian officers. They are close to encircling Aleppo. The siege and perhaps the fall of the city will be a massive blow for the rebels, who for the last two years have been fighting both the regime and ISIS. Their supply routes from Turkey and Jordan are under increasing threat, and the American administration, which pushed for a diplomatic solution, has even warned it would cut off their arms supplies in attempt to bring the rebels to the negotiating table, despite the unceasing Russian bombardment.
This is a turning point in the conflict which began with local demonstrations in the southern town of Daraa and has evolved from a civil war into a regional confrontation with global implications. From the perspective of the regime and its allies, now is the time to press forward its advantage, complete the siege of Aleppo and reduce the rebels to isolated and besieged pockets of resistance. At that point, Assad, or more likely his Russian and Iranian patrons, can decide whether they want to try and wipe out the rebels or redirect some of their resources to bombing ISIS, which has not been the main focus of their efforts. Then, their interests will coincide with those of the West, which has only been targeting the Islamic State that threatens the West with a wave of terror.
Led by the Obama administration, the West so far has refused to directly confront the Assad regime. Now that diplomacy has failed in Geneva, the spokespersons of Western governments are blaming Russia for bombing civilians and obstructing any possibility of a cease-fire. But there is no sign that aside from these weak protests, Barack Obama is about to change his policy of not intervening militarily in the Syrian conflict. Syria’s civilians will once again be left to their fate, and when the battle for Aleppo is over, there will be calls once again in the West to resume cooperation with the Russians against ISIS. Statements this week from the Saudis of ostensible plans to send ground troops to Syria could change the picture. The first regular army fighting in Syria on the side of the rebels could lead to a direct conflict on the ground between arch-rivals, Iran and the Saudis, but so far there do not seem to be any real preparations for such a deployment. Like the West, the Saudis will most likely make do with talking while Syrian civilians are starved and butchered.