The map of areas controlled by the various armed militias operating in Syria resembles a dance of mutant amoebas. Not a single straight or stable line marks the boundaries of these areas, which change daily, sometimes even hourly – like the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope.
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Even the most detailed maps make do with general terms like “rebel territory,” “Kurdish territory” and “Syrian Army territory.” But within each of these territories, including those controlled by the Syrian regime, dozens of militias are operating independently, financed by countries near and far – including Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria and Turkey. These militias are constantly joining forces with or breaking away from each other, and sometimes even wage internal wars on one another.
Aleppo is a microcosm of all these Syrian fronts. Until three days ago, its eastern side was controlled by “the rebels.” That term includes the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly called the Nusra Front), which is affiliated with Al-Qaida. It also includes a militia affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, as well as 12 other militias – some Islamist and some secular.
Within this medley of militias, a dispute broke out over the cease-fire agreement proposed last week by Russia and Turkey. Before that, they were at odds over whether to end their cooperation with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – despite the importance of this cooperation from a military standpoint, since Al-Qaida’s fighters have demonstrated impressive military capabilities. Some of the militias supported severing ties; some also agreed to withdraw from eastern Aleppo and leave Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to bear the brunt of Russia’s aerial assault.
In the end, they accepted the cease-fire deal reached in Turkey, after Russia pounded the rebel areas relentlessly. But when the time came to implement the deal, the Iranian and Hezbollah forces that had fought alongside the Syrian Army in the battle for eastern Aleppo prevented residents from boarding the buses that were supposed to evacuate them from the city.
Hezbollah and the other militias took this step on direct orders from Iran. Iranian spokesmen later explained that because the truce was reached without consulting either Tehran or Damascus (the latter apparently didn’t even know about the negotiations), they didn’t consider themselves bound by it. Only massive pressure by Russia finally allowed the evacuation to begin on Thursday.
There are still some pockets of resistance in parts of the city, but the main battle has been won. Aleppo has returned to the regime’s bosom, producing a major strategic victory – perhaps the most important of all – for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The question now is what he does with the victory. Aleppo isn’t the end; that kaleidoscopic map still shows many parts of the country outside the regime’s control. The Islamic State recently recaptured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra – a harsh blow for both the Syrian regime and Russia. Each blames the other for the failure, but it seems the main reason for ISIS’ achievement is that the war in Aleppo forced the Syrian Army to neglect other fronts.
The armed rebels in Aleppo are supposed to be evacuated to Idlib, which is an important rebel stronghold. Recapturing that city will be another tough fight for the regime.
In the north, part of the Turkish-Syrian border is controlled by Kurdish militias, who are also fighting the Turkish forces that are helping the Free Syrian Army in its fight against ISIS. The area around Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital, is a patchwork divided up among ISIS, the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army; the same goes for parts of the Deir ez-Zor region. And the south is divided among regime forces, ISIS and militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
So, Assad is still far from controlling many areas of his country. But will the victory in Aleppo cause the rebels to reevaluate their situation and show a greater willingness to negotiate, when it’s clear that Assad’s representatives will be coming from a far stronger position than during the previous talks in Geneva? Or will the rebels continue to fight?
Riyad Farid Hijab was prime minister of Syria for three months in 2012, subsequently defected to the rebels and is now heading the negotiation team of the recognized opposition. He said last week that the rebels’ “first choice is the diplomatic solution.” Hijab did not mention any preconditions for talks, thereby signaling that the negotiating team will not condition negotiations on Assad’s ouster, or his resignation during the tenure of an interim movement – if and when one arises.
But Hijab and the group of militias he represents are not the whole story. The Syrian Kurds, for example, are not partners to the negotiating conference (in line with Turkey’s demand and contrary to Russia’s position). The strong Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is defined as a terror organization and therefore will not be a part of the negotiations, along with a number of other militias. The most important of these is Ahrar al-Sham, which has declared that it’s prepared to unite with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in order to show solidarity.
Most of the militias are acting without any real diplomatic backing. U.S. President Barack Obama has only about a month until the end of his term in office and President-elect Donald Trump has declared that the United States doesn’t need to be involved in toppling regimes – which is to say the rebels can forget about any support in their fight against Assad.
American military aid has almost come to a halt, apart from support for the militias that are fighting ISIS. Turkey, meanwhile, is providing aid to the Free Syrian Army battalions that are fighting alongside it in Kurdish areas by the border. The Arab countries are continuing to back some of the militias, but the promises of military aid in Aleppo – which would have included sending Arab army units, or at least Saudi planes – evaporated into thin air. The Saudi planes that landed in Turkey a few months ago, in order to demonstrate a willingness to fight, returned to their home bases in complete safety.
European countries aren’t planning to offer anything other than active diplomacy, either. Of course, this doesn’t include sanctions on Russia but rather, encouraging the convening of an international conference for a diplomatic solution, even though it’s obvious that Russia and Iran will control the diplomatic process.
Russia, it seems, has internalized the lessons the Americans learned after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: It’s better to occupy a country without toppling the regime while cooperating with the local army, thereby creating an enclave of influence, without being committed to reconstruction or direct administration as in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost hundreds of billions of dollars. This way, when the reconstruction stage comes around, Russia will be able to dictate who will benefit from the funds coming in from donor countries – and how to use them.
The battle for Aleppo has shone a light on the West and the Arab states, and exposed all their ugliness. If it is possible to understand the diplomatic considerations that prevented Western countries from intervening in the war in Syria – mainly in light of the negotiations on the nuclear agreement, which shunted aside any possibility of annoying Iran, or fear of a military confrontation with Russia – there can be no explanation for the dearth of humanitarian aid.
The slaughter in Aleppo is relatively small when compared to the murder of hundreds of thousands of people whose number is unknown during the course of five and half years in Syria. Even before Aleppo, it’s hard to understand why no-fly zones weren’t established, or security zones to which the refugees and displaced persons could have come and received food, medicine, education and other services.
The Russian war in Ukraine gave rise to a series of U.S. and European sanctions on Russia, so it’s impossible to understand why the West has avoided taking similar measures in Syria. It’s also hard to accept any longer the UN Security Council veto system, which gives a monopoly to one country over the fates of other countries.
The battle for Aleppo will necessitate a reexamination of the plans for military operations in Mosul. This week, Nechervan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, said, “Liberating Mosul will be much easier than administering it.” About 1.5 million people live in the city and its environs, 10 times more than in Aleppo.
Containing ISIS will be a kind of warm-up act – hard enough in and of itself – for the battle for the spoils. This is because the Kurds, the Iraqi army, Iranian Shi’ite militias, Turkey and Iran all have their eyes on Mosul. The city promises fights and settling of accounts in a religious and ethnic context, along with a war for control of natural resources like oil and gas.
At the moment, there is no real plan to absorb and care for the refugees who flee the battlefields of Mosul. There are no diplomatic preparations to try and shape the situation in a way that will prevent the expected bloodshed. Nor are there scenarios that suggest what ISIS will do after Mosul. However, it’s already possible to hear the tongues clucking over the expected fate of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. These are exactly the same indignant noises now being heard about the fate of the Syrians in Aleppo.