ENDGAME IN ALEPPO
City to be remembered as death of a dream of more democratic Syria
Awounded Syrian woman from the al-Sukari neighborhood is helped onto the back of a truck Wednesday as she flees amid the government forces’ ongoing military operation to retake remaining rebel-held areas in the northern embattled city of Aleppo. With the rebels clinging to a tiny dot of territory in one corner of the city, it is now only a matter of time before the government reclaims full control over the country’s biggest metropolis, an architectural and historical jewel that has now become a symbol of the catastrophe of the Syrian war.
When Syrian rebels surged into Aleppo in summer 2012, it was the high point of their still-young, still-idealistic revolution against President Bashar Assad.
Nearly five years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, troops loyal to his government were poised to take the city back, heralding the end of an era for the rebellion.
With the rebels clinging to a tiny pinprick of territory in one corner of the city, it is now only a matter of time before the government reclaims full control over the country’s biggest metropolis, an architectural and historical jewel that has now become a symbol of the catastrophe of the Syrian war.
A cease-fire to evacuate rebel fighters and civilians from the remaining opposition-held neighborhoods of Aleppo unraveled Wednesday, once again raising the specter of a bloody end to the battle for Syria’s largest city.
Opponents of Assad accused the government and its allies of scuttling the deal by adding new conditions, including the lifting of a rebel siege on two pro-government Shiite villages in the nearby province of Idlib.
However, hours after it crumbled, the rebels said the deal was back on. There was no comment from the government or its allies, and minutes after the new cease-fire was to take effect at 11:30 p.m. local time, there were still reports of shelling in the few blocks of the city under rebel control.
“We remain skeptical,” said one U.S. offi-
cial, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’ve seen these kind of declarations before by the Russians and the regime, and just as many times we’ve seen them violated and broken.”
If the evacuation does not go ahead, an even bigger nightmare could unfold, U.N. agencies and human rights groups warned. Jens Laerke, the U.N. humanitarian spokesman, called the scenario in Aleppo “a complete meltdown of humanity.”
There have been disturbing reports of abuses as Assad loyalists converged in recent days on former rebel strongholds that had been fighting against the government. The U.N. Human Rights Council said it had been given the names of 82 civilians who were killed in summary executions in two neighborhoods Monday. According to Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the reports asserted that Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi militiamen had entered homes and killed people “on the spot.” Among them were 11 women and 13 children, he said.
Tens of thousands of people who fled the neighborhoods overrun in recent days have sought refuge in the tiny enclave still under opposition control, joining the residents who already were there and creating chaos in the cramped streets. People stumbled over the bodies of the dead as they fled for their lives ahead of advancing government troops, and they now fear for their lives should they be caught, said Zouhir al-Shimale, an activist who lives in one of the last rebelheld neighborhoods.
Most people now only want the chance to escape the area safely and welcomed the news of Tuesday’s deal with “a kind of shock of happiness,” said Shimale, who was among those who joined in the uprising against Assad’s rule. But now, he said, all anyone can think about is getting out.
“It’s dead. It’s over, and no one cares,” he said.
The rout of the rebels gives the Assad government its biggest victory yet in the 5-year-old war, which has killed, by most estimates, more than 400,000 people. It won’t, however, change the course of the conflict, which was all but sealed by Russia’s military intervention more than a year ago. That Assad is in no danger of being toppled has been clear since Russian airstrikes began turning back rebel gains, putting beyond doubt that the opposition would ever be able to overthrow his regime in Damascus.
It also won’t end the war. The rebels still control large areas of northwestern Syria, much of the countryside of southern Syria and several pockets of territory around Damascus and near Homs.
But the endgame in Aleppo does change the parameters of the conflict, leaving the rebels with no hold over any strategically significant area of the country and no real bargaining chip to try to force the government into a negotiated settlement. Coming weeks before the inauguration of a new U.S. president, Donald Trump, it leaves the Obama administration’s 5-year-old policy of using rebel gains to force Assad to compromise in shreds.
The bloodshed could now intensify, diplomats fear, as an emboldened government, backed by its Russian and Iranian allies, intensifies its efforts to fulfill Assad’s promise to reclaim all of the territory lost to the rebels.
Whether they can, at least any time soon, is a different question. It has been three years since government forces turned the tide in Aleppo and began taking back rebel areas.
“Two things are absolutely clear here,” said the U.S. official. “One, the regime doesn’t have capability to end this war, even with Russia’s backing, and the scorched-earth approach that they’re taking is only going to attract more extremists.”
Aleppo will nonetheless be remembered as a symbolic milestone, the final death of a dream of a more democratic Syria that had waned long ago. The brutality of the government crackdown and the reluctance of world powers to pressure the Assad regime into softening its tactics exposed shortcomings in the global system of laws and norms designed to ameliorate the suffering of civilians in war.
Aleppo represents “the death of respect for international law and the rules of war,” according to David Miliband, who heads the International Rescue Committee, an aid agency.
U.S. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have long advocated a more assertive U.S. policy toward Syria, said Aleppo would go down in history as one of the great failures of the international community to halt human rights abuses.
“The name Aleppo will echo through history, like Srebrenica and Rwanda, as a testament to our moral failure and everlasting shame,” the senators said.
aleppo • aug. 20, 2011. The marketplace in the historic city center is bustling with shoppers and sellers. At the time, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city, with a population of about 2.5 million people, which is a little more than that of Houston.
aleppo • sept. 16, 2016. Syrian government soldiers walk in the damaged al-Farafira marketplace in the city center. More than five years of war have left an estimated 400,000 dead and forced hundreds of thousands to flee.