Syrian boys, evacuated from Aleppo, sit in a field hospital bed near Idlib, Syria, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. Picture by AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.As I write these lines, residents of Eastern Aleppo are being evacuated or forcibly displaced after years of siege by the Assad regime, and all-out bombardment of the erstwhile rebel-held part of Syria’s largest city by Russian and Syrian aircrafts. The convoys carrying hundreds of injured are being dropped off in either rebel-held countryside of Western-Aleppo or the Idlib province dominated by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. The evacuation comes days after at least 82 civilians, including 13 children, were executed point-blank by regime forces and allied Iraqi militias. “Numerous bodies are lying on the streets,” said the UN Human Rights Commission, in one of its recent reports
While people from Eastern Aleppo are mourning the loss of their homes, or whatever was left of them, and the lives of their loved ones, images from regime-held Western Aleppo show people celebrating. This might be explained by the fact that, throughout the past years, regular rebel shelling from the Eastern parts of the city has killed hundreds of civilians in the Western one and injured thousands others.
While emphasizing upon the fact that the people who lost their lives are not mere numbers, it must be noted that of the nearly half a million who have been killed, the actions of the Assad regime have killed most of them (more than 90%), followed by armed opposition factions, (1.81%) and then Russian forces (1.71%). This goes to show the scale of regime- atrocities against ordinary civilians, while also underlining the impossibility of a meaningful reconciliation under Assad’s reign.
Assad and his foreign backers, mainly Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, call this the “liberation” of Aleppo.This indeed marks a significant development in the 6-year long brutal war, tilting the balance in Assad’s favor, but Syria is still far from any semblance of stability.
Armed rebels are still in control of parts of southern, central and northern Syria, including enclaves around the capital Damascus. Kurds hold a significant territory in the North, and ISIS still occupies large swathes of land in the east of the country. Furthermore, with Iraqi/Iranian militias, Hezbollah, and Iran’s IRGC operating all over the country, restoring any credibility in Assad’s tyranny is a remote possibility.
The fall of the Eastern Aleppo enclave could lead to two major developments in the future, both disastrous for the resolution of this intractable conflict.
First, the Assad regime and its foreign backers are now emboldened to employ their tactics of brutal siege, starvation, and bombardments to force surrender in other areas still in the hands of the opposition or under the control of groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and ISIS.
A city like Idlib, which is primarily controlled by Fatah al-Sham and its allies, has almost half a million residents. An Aleppo-like situation in Idlib will be undoubtedly more catastrophic in terms of civilian casualties. Moreover, unlike Aleppo, few states will come to the rescue of Idlib with al-Sham’s now rescinded affiliations with al-Qaeda. The fall of Aleppo also serves the regime discourse of conflating legitimate opposition with terrorism.
The regime will focus on regaining full control of the country at any cost, while the foreign backers of the opposition are too busy elsewhere to present any significant hurdle: Turkey is stuck in its war with the PKK and its persecution of ordinary Kurds, the Gulf states are busy killing and starving Yemenis, and the US is focused on Mosul and the transition. If the past is any indication, this ultimately means loss of more innocent lives.
Second, after the fall, foreign-dominated groups will have increased credibility and large scale defections to groups like al-Sham and ISIS might ensue in the near future. This, again, allows the pro-regime elements to justify the use of disproportionate, if not preposterous, lethal force and to murder countless innocents in the process.
The street revolution in Syria that turned into an ugly war, primarily due to the scorched-earth response of the Assad regime and the opportunistic foreign meddling, is far from over. So is the immense suffering of the Syrian people who face daily ordeals in the form of death, injury, torture, rape, hunger, imprisonment and expulsion.
The fall of Aleppo should not restore faith in a war criminal like Assad, whose forces committed crimes against humanity and wrecked the nation to create a vacuum, allowing groups like ISIS to emerge. Also, the vulgarity of Russian claims that it is in Syria to mainly fight ISIS is confirmed by the fact that while Eastern Aleppo, where there was no ISIS presence, was being decimated by its aircraft, ISIS took over the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in a lightning advance.
It is way too late to look for stability under the Assad regime. The political process that ultimately leads to a transition from tyranny to meaningful democracy in Syria must start not on sectarian terms, nor on the terms of myriad foreign interests, but on the terms of the Syrian people, who have lost so much blood, sweat, and tears in these past six years.