In a matter of few days, rebel eastern Aleppo fell rapidly to pro-regime forces.
The pro-regime forces entered eastern Aleppo like an occupying force, like an army conquers a foreign city. They were fighting to occupy the terrain, with or without the population. When east Aleppo was besieged in September, UN estimates put the number of civilians trapped in it at 275’000. It also estimated the number of opposition fighters at nine thousand, belonging to more than 50 different groups, including those linked to al-Qaeda. The refusal of the government to let relief aid going in, indiscriminately bombing hospitals and medical facilities, as well as civilians, showed indifference to the fate of the civilians there. The situation became alarming in the last days as tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in the remaining last few neighbourhoods, while pro-regime forces continued their offensive, increasing the risk of civilian casualties.
Equally worrying is the fate of pro-opposition groups who are now being “filtered” by pro-regime forces. Just for a reminder: even civil defence units, known as “White Helmets” those volunteers who were saving victims from under the rubble caused by aerial bombing, are considered to be collaborators with “terrorists” by the Syrian authorities. There are legitimate fears to the fate of these people.
The fall of Aleppo was very rapid. By all estimates there were several thousands rebel fighters in Aleppo. Even a smaller number of determined fighters could defend an urban area for months, with a minimum of armament. How come east Aleppo fell in a matter of a week? The explanation available is that the Syrian rebels continued to remain deeply divided, did not trust each other, and continuously fought each other. Even as they were besieged, being bombarded daily, and under the threat of imminent attack, infighting did not stop. In November, Fastaqim kama Umirt, a “Free Syrian Army” affiliated group, was attacked by Nour al-Din al-Zanki, allied with Fath al-Sham (former al-Qaeda branch in Syria) and took over its arms and ammunition depots. Only in eastern Aleppo there were over 53 distinct armed rebel groups, a military situation that is evidently not sustainable on the long term. Russian firepower as well as rebel divisions are the available explanations for the rapid military changes in Aleppo.
The internal divisions of the rebel groups is not limited to Aleppo: in East Ghouta, in-fighting between Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman permitted the pro-regime forces to make major gains earlier this year. More recently, Ahrar ul-Sham is going through major internal power struggle with the formation of “Ahrar Army” from its ranks, which threatens to explode this formation between a more jihadi-wing, and another that could be described as “national-Islamist”.
Turkish President Erdogan is unusually silent over Aleppo. The fall of east Aleppo is one of the outcomes of Russian-Turkish understanding after the Putin-Erdogan meeting in Saint Petersburg in August this year. While details of their agreement on Syria is not public, it is evident that there was a distribution of roles agreed upon: Turkey creates a zone of influence to the north of Aleppo by attacking ISIS held Jarablus and al-Bab, to block the possible emergence of a Kurdish area in northern Syria; in return, Russia pushes for complete retake of Aleppo city, and may be beyond.
It is an illusion, at least at this stage in the conflict, to imagine that the Syrian government is capable in stabilizing the country. As pro-regime forces marked victories in Aleppo, they lost once again Palmyra and its surrounding strategic positions including gas fields to ISIS. This reveals that in spite of massive foreign aid, the power of the regime has eroded after six years of continuous fighting. Today, the Syrian government does not have the necessary manpower to impose its control all over the country. Now, the regime policy is to recruit former rebel fighters into newly established units, to have them fight on the side of the regime. This is the Russian strategy that was followed in Chechnya. Will it work in Syria?
The fall of eastern Aleppo will further radicalize positions within Syria. First, Assad has no reason to negotiate with any “opposition” which has no more influence on the ground. For Assad, the only remaining opposition is al-Qaeda in Idlib, and ISIS in eastern Syria. The same mechanism will also radicalize opposition groups, as some remnants of the former Free Syrian Army will join the radical groups, just as developments of al-Zinki group and the new Ahrar Army indicate. With east Aleppo under rebel control, there was still some – very thin – possibility for a political process. That possibility is much further today.
Once again, it seems we did not learn from the lessons history could tell us. All legal, religious and moral systems prohibit targeting civilians, targeting medical units, torturing or executing prisoners. Whatever one’s political ideas and preferences these principles should remain valid. The Middle East is going through a process of a long and treacherous conflict. Existing alliances can still change many times, friends could still become enemies, neighbours could become “existential threats”. If basic laws of war are not respected, then all sides will be hurt in this process.
In times of wars, let us not abandon the humanity in us. Especially in times of wars.