Analysis

After Defeat in Aleppo, Syrian Intellectuals Pin Hopes on Diplomatic Arena

Country has seemingly reached the limits of its endurance and readiness to mobilize against the Assad regime, but that doesn’t mean rebels will stop fighting.

A boy walking in front of damaged buildings in the northern Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai, Syria January 5, 2017.
Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm died in Berlin last month at age 82. The eminent Syrian philosopher was the author of numerous books and articles in which he pondered why the Middle East lags behind the West, and called on Arabs to conduct a critical self-reckoning – especially in his 1968 book “Self-Criticism After the Defeat” (translated into English in 2011).

Azm was a mentor to many important Arab intellectuals and an opponent of many of the old school Orientalists in the West, as well as of Muslim fundamentalists. He was the kind of intellectual who didn’t stop at analyzing the existing order, but also looked for ways to rattle it. Naturally, he clashed with those who preferred to keep on wading in the quiet murky waters.

One of his many friends was a Syrian activist 20 years his junior, Wael Sawah, who published a trenchant piece in Al-Hayat last week. In the article, which bore the same title as Azm’s seminal book, he called for Syrian rebel leaders, army officers, political leaders and, above all, intellectuals, to do some rigorous soul-searching in wake of the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo.

Sawah is a senior contributor to the The Day After website, which aims to outline objectives and paths of action for Syrians to take in order to rebuild Syria after the war. Although no one can say when that day will be, Sawah feels that, at this point, the regime’s victory is something that must be accepted and faced.

But before presenting a vision for the future, an understanding must be gained of why the rebellion failed. Sawah does not present a list of causes for this outcome, but does warn against adopting suicidal measures that would prolong the fighting and sink the entire ship. He also warns against those who would seek to exploit the situation in Syria for their own benefit, writing: “Syria needs leaders who can genuinely and critically analyze what went on there, and themselves, and seek practical, principled and moral solutions to the Syrian tragedy.”

What is the desirable practical and moral solution? Definitely not continued warfare after the defeat, but instead a diplomatic and political response. And so, just added to the rebels’ poisoned chalice – which continues to fill – is the decision by the leadership of the rebel militia coalition to lend a hand to Russia’s moves to convene negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, in anticipation of the Geneva summit planned for early next month.

People riding a vehicle stacked with their belongings after fleeing clashes in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab, January 7, 2017.
Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

To demonstrate goodwill, Russia announced at the end of last week that it plans to withdraw a significant portion of its forces from Syria and to continue managing local cease-fire talks. The Russian websites Sputnik and Russia Today are already publishing reports about life “returning to normal” for Aleppo’s residents now the Syrian Army has seized the eastern part of the city. “The sounds of manufacturing in the factories are again echoing in the city’s alleyways,” proclaimed Sputnik, which augmented its article with pictures of bulldozers working to clear rubble. This is because the victory has to be presented as one of pure profit for the civilians, and the regime army the only path to hope.

But the pro-Russian sites aren’t the only ones reporting on positive change. The opposition website Enab Baladi tells of thousands of refugees who’ve begun returning to the eastern side of Aleppo, just like civilians who had fled from other cities such as Jarabulus and Azaz (where a terror attack last Saturday killed nearly 50 people), and other cities that had been captured by ISIS and were retaken by Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army. Food shops have reopened in these areas, and refugees who fled to Turkey were permitted to return with their belongings and start rebuilding their homes – if they can afford to.

But the war is still far from over, with large areas still under the control of dozens of different militias, and President Bashar Assad has no intention of stopping at Aleppo. The next target is Idlib, which has recently taken in tens of thousands of people fleeing Aleppo, as well as many rebels.

Turkey warned Assad over the weekend against trying to take Idlib, saying it would annul the cease-fire if that happened. And since Turkey and Russia are coordinating their moves in Syria, Assad may actually heed the Turkish warning. The question is what Russia will offer as a solution and incentive to the rebels to let the cities under their control revert to Assad. Will they adopt Sawah’s proposal – acknowledge their defeat and try to extract a maximum of assurances? Or will they try to keep their grip on their strongholds by force, until they are ultimately smashed by the regime and its partners?

In the past six years, nearly half of all Syrians have become stateless refugees and approximately 500,000 people have been killed. The nation has seemingly reached the limits of its endurance and readiness to mobilize against Assad. Logic would dictate that the rebel commanders now see a big flashing stop sign in front of them, but the same sign kept flashing during the 15 years of civil war in Lebanon and eight years of civil war in Afghanistan. Logic doesn’t necessarily have much of an effect on these civil wars. Nor does the advice of philosophers.

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaking with French journalists in Damascus.
AP