The brutal assault on Aleppo has understandably stirred calls for action in the West, especially in America. Once Syria’s biggest urban conclave, the rebel-controlled city is being bombed and starved into submission by Russian jets and Syrian artillery. Hospitals have been destroyed, aid supplies to civilians have been cut off, and children are making up a disproportionate share of the casualties.
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If the Assad regime seizes Aleppo, it will control most of Syria that’s not empty desert, boosting Iranian and Russian ambitions to be regional strongmen. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s failure to get aid to the city and his hapless diplomacy seem to confirm the widespread view that the United States is a weakling, unwilling or fearful of becoming involved.
Whether for humanitarian reasons or great-power calculations, the urge to do something is aching. But at this point, what can be done?
Look at Aleppo, the prize that Assad and his allies are determined to snatch. The city’s population, at 2.5 million people before the civil war began in 2011, is estimated at a tenth of that now. Homes, factories, infrastructure and Aleppo’s historic center have been pulverized. Even if the rebels abandon the city, Assad doesn’t have the manpower to occupy and control it, and Russia won’t commit ground forces to do the job. It’s hard to imagine many former Aleppo residents rushing to return to rebuild the smoking hulk.
No one will be the victor in the war for Aleppo because there’s nothing left. And what’s true for Aleppo is true for Syria.
Like the city, Syria has effectively been reduced to rubble too. Of a prewar population of 22 million, the United Nations estimates 4.8 million are living as refugees abroad and another 6 million are internally displaced. BMI Research, a British firm, estimates that by the end of this year the Syrian economy will have shrunk to nearly half its prewar levels.
Satellite pictures of nighttime light intensity – a barometer of economic activity in countries where the chaos is so deep there are no conventional numbers – show an 80 percent decline. Where Assad is in control, his rule is largely fictitious.
As Tobias Schneider, an American analyst who follows developments in Syria closely, wrote recently in the War on the Rocks website, the Syrian army has long ceased to be a fighting force. The regime relies on a collection of warlords and militias that are incapable of organizing sustained offensives or cooperating with each other. They are answerable to Assad only in theory. Iran adds to the anarchy with its own militias and Hezbollah, each pursuing its own interests. Russia supplies air power but isn’t dispatching the troops needed to control territory.
Moscow’s marketing campaign
When the day comes and the civil war in Syria winds down, the country’s situation will remain dire. In better times, when they were really in charge, the Assad family ran a fossilized command economy with an overlay of corrupt cronyism. There is no reason to assume that Bashar, advised by two countries whose own economies are wrecks, will now turn Syria into an economic miracle. Neither Russia nor Iran has the money or resources to help with a rebuilding effort. The smart refugees will stay where they are if they can; the naive ones will put a burden on a country ill prepared to take them back.
The militias that helped Assad win the war will want their share of the spoils, ensuring continued political chaos and the same kind of anarchy that has gripped Libya, Iraq and Yemen. So while Tehran may be counting on victory in Syria to turn the country into a second front against Israel, it’s more likely to find itself preoccupied with shoring up a feckless and weak regime in Damascus against internal enemies.
Aleppo’s and Syria’s suffering is dreadful, but the solutions that have been offered up, like more military aid to the rebels or no-fly zones, are prolonging the problem by ensuring the fighting continues without a conclusion. Washington made far bigger military commitments over many years at the cost of trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan and didn’t bring peace, prosperity or democracy to either. Syria’s chaos looks equally hopeless. Aleppo’s suffering might be eased in the short term by American action, but the trouble would move on to other places.
Nor is there any reason for America to worry about the strategic implications of a Russian victory. Putin’s military intervention was a marketing campaign aimed at making Brand Russia look like a superpower. But it’s all show. Russia has no economic interests that would profit by a friendly government in Damascus and, unlike the Cold War Soviet Union, it has no ideology to spread and cement alliances.
If the Russians think keeping Assad in power is a strategic prize, good luck to them.