Fo­cus on so­lu­tions to save Aleppo


THE pro­posal put for­ward in Par­lia­ment to shoot down Rus­sian and Syr­ian air­craft over Eastern Aleppo in a bid to end the bom­bard­ment of this part of the city is wholly un­re­al­is­tic. The West is not go­ing to risk a war against a nu­clear power and its Syr­ian ally in or­der to help the 250,000 to 275,000 civil­ians trapped there. To pre­tend any­thing else is empty bom­bast de­tached from the re­al­i­ties on the ground. The dan­ger of such wild schemes is that they di­vert at­ten­tion from more re­al­is­tic plans to save the be­sieged from fur­ther suf­fer­ing and death.

Th­ese re­al­i­ties in Aleppo are that the city has been split be­tween gov­ern­ment in the west and rebels in the east since 2012. In the course of this year, the Syr­ian army and Shia para­mil­i­tary forces from Iran, Iraq and Le­banon have sur­rounded East Aleppo, which is be­ing bat­tered into ru­ins by Rus­sian and Syr­ian air strikes and shelling. Hos­pi­tals and health­care cen­tres are be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroyed. There is an eco­nomic block­ade with UN aid con­voys un­able to pass through gov­ern­ment check­points.

East Aleppo was first fully en­cir­cled by pro-gov­ern­ment forces in July when they cut the so-called Castello road north of the city, which was the last link to rebel ar­eas in the west. The main sup­ply road from East Aleppo to Turkey had been sev­ered in Fe­bru­ary. A rebel counter-of­fen­sive briefly broke through the siege lines in Au­gust in the Ra­mouseh Road in south Aleppo only for the Syr­ian army and its al­lies to reim­pose the siege in Septem­ber.

It looks un­likely that the en­cir­clement can be bro­ken by mil­i­tary means. The les­son of all the many sieges tak­ing place in Syria and Iraq over the last year – Daraya in Da­m­as­cus, al-Waer in Homs, Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah in Iraq – is that rebel light in­fantry stands no chance in the long-term against heavy air attacks di­rected from the ground.

The UN es­ti­mates that there are 8,000 rebel fight­ers in Aleppo of which 900 be­long to Fatah al-Sham, pre­vi­ously the al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate Jab­hat al-Nusra. They can in­flict heavy losses on pro-gov­ern­ment forces in street fight­ing if they fight to the last, but at the end of the day they will lose un­less there is a change in the mil­i­tary bal­ance in Syria through one or more of the out­side pow­ers in­volved in the con­flict, in­ter­ven­ing more force­fully in the air or on the ground. Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad has made clear that he is not go­ing to re­lax his grip on East Aleppo. It is un­likely that any­body will stop him.

The UN Spe­cial En­voy to Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, has pro­posed that there be mass evac­u­a­tion of fight­ers and civil­ians to re­bel­held Idlib prov­ince. He says that he per­son­ally is “ready phys­i­cally to ac­com­pany you”. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment says that it is will­ing to give safe pas­sage, but this sounds bet­ter than it is be­cause of the ex­treme dis­trust on the rebel side of any as­sur­ances from Da­m­as­cus that they will be safe from the Mukhabarat se­cret po­lice, now and in the fu­ture. The UN says that about half the civil­ians in East Aleppo are ready to leave now, but this is ac­com­pa­nied by un­der­stand­able wari­ness.

Dur­ing the siege of the Old City of Homs two years ago, which in many ways re­sem­bles the siege of Aleppo to­day, I talked to a mid­dle-aged man who had ev­i­dently been on the rebel side and two of whose sons were miss­ing. He him­self was free and liv­ing with other dis­placed peo­ple in a school in Homs, but he could not go to Da­m­as­cus to ask about the fate of his sons be­cause he rightly sus­pected that he him­self – the last adult male in his fam­ily still free – would be ar­rested on the road and de­tained for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod. I said that I sup­posed that all men of mil­i­tary age were at risk. He laughed hol­lowly and replied that “we are all at risk, ev­ery sin­gle one of us”.

This fear of the Syr­ian se­cu­rity forces is the main rea­son why civil­ians and oth­ers will not want to leave. Other rea­sons in­clude the sheer dan­ger of ap­pear­ing on the streets in or­der to go and the at­ti­tude of the rebel fight­ers. In most rebel-held dis­tricts in Syria and Iraq rebels of what­ever stripe do not want civil­ians to de­part be­cause they act as hu­man shields. In some cases, they are forcibly pre­vented from do­ing so and those that get out have to pay large bribes, as has hap­pened in Mo­sul and Raqqa in re­cent months. An or­gan­ised with­drawal from East Aleppo un­der the aus­pices of the UN may be the best op­tion for the civil­ians re­main­ing there, but the col­lapse of the Rus­sian-US cease­fire shows how dif­fi­cult it will be to ar­range.

Are there al­ter­na­tive sce­nar­ios if not so­lu­tions? In Syria there usu­ally are be­cause there are so many play­ers in­side and out­side the coun­try, all claim­ing hyp­o­crit­i­cally to be act­ing in the in­ter­ests of the Syr­ian peo­ple but in­vari­ably con­sult­ing their own in­ter­ests first, sec­ond and third. It is dif­fi­cult to see where any out­side force will­ing to break the siege will come from. Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, nor­mally so bel­liger­ent on be­half of the Syr­ian in­sur­gents, has been sur­pris­ingly mute about the fate of Aleppo. This is prob­a­bly be­cause he is more con­cerned with the threat from the Syr­ian Kurds and on fos­ter­ing goods re­la­tions with Pres­i­dent Putin with whom he has just signed a gas deal.

A fur­ther as­pect of the Syr­ian cri­sis tends to be un­der­es­ti­mated in the West, which is over-ob­sessed with Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion. Iran and Shia com­mu­ni­ties in Iraq and Le­banon see the strug­gle for Syria as a strug­gle for their own ex­is­tence. They pro­vide many of the fight­ers at­tack­ing East Aleppo and they are not go­ing to give up un­til they win. – The In­de­pen­dent

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