Thursday, December 15, 2016

So, who "won" the Battle of Aleppo?

With the news that the so-called Battle of Aleppo may be finally "over" (maybe), and that government forces are evacuating the last rebel holdouts from the centre of the city, come questions like: so what actually happened? who won? what has changed? is this a good thing? Simple questions perhaps, but not so easily answered.
It's hard enough to understand who is fighting in Aleppo, and in Syria in general. On one side, certainly, there are the pro-Shia Syrian government forces of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iran (which sees it as their duty to support any conflict against Sunni Arabs) and Hezbollah, and more recently (and decisively) by Russia. Russia, of course, has its own agenda in all this, not least the protection of its Mediteranean military base at Tartus, Syria.
The other "side" is much more nebulous and difficult to pin down. They are usually described as "the rebels", but that label can cover a multitide of sins. According to the BBC guide to the Syrian rebels there are literally hundreds of different armed rebel groups in action throughout Syria, comprising perhaps a hundred thousand fighters in total. Among the largest and best known groups are (in their English translations): the al-Nusra Front, Islamic State in Syria, the Army of Emigrants and Helpers, the Free Syrian Army, the Martyrs of Syria Brigades, the Free Men of Syria Brigade, the Northern Storm Brigade, the various groups that make up the Islamic Front, the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, the Army of lslam, the Falcons of Syria, the Battalion of Monotheism, the Battalion of Truth, the Supporters of the Levant Brigades, the Kurdish Islamic Front, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, as well as a whole host of equally scary-sounding "independent groups" like the Grandsons of the Prophet, Authenticity and Growth, the Shields of the Revolution, the Gathering of the Supporters of Islam, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the National Unity Brigades, etc, etc. In Aleppo itself, the main players appear to be the Free Syrian Army, the Levant Front, and the Army of Conquest (or Jaish al-Fatah), the latter being a loose alliance of several Sunni Islamist groups. And then, just to confuse things, there are also the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which are fighting from a cultural and ethnic point of view, rather than a religious one.
Before the war, Aleppo was Syria's largest city, with a population of around 2.5 million, as well as its commercial capital and a treasure trove of architecture and history (its centre is - or was - a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although much of it now lies in ruins). After weeks of government/Russian air strikes and indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks, the rebels have been squeezed into just a few blocks, and the 50,000 or so civilians left in the beseiged eastern sector are struggling to escape in the shaky on-again-off-again cease-fire. There have been many reports of government troops going door-to-door and shooting whole families of civilians at random, and killing those who are escaping into what they thought were non-combat zones. Allegations of war crimes are being bandied around on both sides (although principally against the Syrian government forces).
So, even if the rebels do eventually completely relinquish control of the city, to say that Aleppo is "free" or "relieved" or anything of that sort is unhelpful hyperbole. Indeed, it is almost impossible for Westerners to even decide which side SHOULD be supported - the brutal repressive regime of Assad or some other hell made up of a variety of disparate Islamist and other single-issue groups. I don't blame in the least the reticence of President Obama and other Western leaders to get caught up in such a quagmire of moral ambiguity, particularly looking back at the long-term results of previous engagements like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc. Any engagement that might topple Assad risks, at the same time, strengthening the hand of Islamic State and other equally undesirable Islamic groups, and, given Russia's apparent commitment to Assad, it may also serve to exacerbate global tensions in a hugely dangerous way.
Any "victory" in Aleppo for Assad will almost certainly be short-term, and his forces have been severely stretched in the Aleppo offensive. But even a short-term success will also have the effect of boosting Assad's morale, therefore making the prospects of a negotiated political solution to the ongoing Syrian war even more unlikely. The fighting will doubtless continue, and in reality no-one has actually "won" anything.

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