The Battle for Aleppo and Beyond

December 12, 2016

On December 4, 2016 Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the Saban Forum (*). More than anything else he vented pent-up frustration with the Middle East. He was extremely blunt in his criticism of Israel’s settlement policy. And, this is how he described the complexity of the Syrian conflict:

“… There are about six wars in Syria, folks. I mean, you’ve got Saudi Arabia and Iran, you’ve got Israel and Hizballah, you’ve got Turk versus – you’ve got Turk versus Kurd, Kurd versus Kurd, Kurd versus Turk, PKK, you’ve got Sunni-Shia, you’ve got oppositionists against Assad, you’ve got – I mean, it’s just – it’s extraordinarily complicated in the proxyism.

“So you’ve got Turkey with its interests – its own Islamic and other interests – you’ve got the differences between Egypt and Kuwait and the Emirates versus Saudi, Qatari, and Turk…”

Two days later in Brussels he said:

“Even if it did fall, Aleppo will not change the fundamental underlying complexity of this war. If Assad takes over Aleppo, is the war going to end? No. Will he have solved the political challenge of bringing people together to unite the country? No… The violence will continue…”

Indeed, with external meddling, shifting alliances and different agendas, an end to the conflict is not in sight. While everybody agrees that there is not going to be a military solution to the conflict, a peaceful solution remains just as elusive. However, coming to the table in a position of force matters. This is why Moscow is using the transition in Washington to put the Assad regime in a stronger position for Syria’s political transition if the warring parties would ever come to that. The truth is Moscow has been leading a smaller but more effective coalition than Washington. Russia and Iran always had more in common than the US had with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. On the ground also, Russia and Iran have supported the Syrian army, a regular force despite its shortcomings whereas the US and its regional allies had no chance of turning the “moderate opposition” into a credible fighting force. There were too many factions some of which eventually marbleized with terrorist groups leading to loss of purpose and confusion.

In early October 2016, the UN Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, urged Al-Nusra to leave the city, saying that he was willing to personally escort them out. But, the question where Al-Nusra fighters would go remained unanswered.

Following a meeting between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov last week, technical talks are once again underway in Geneva. Again, the objective is a pause in fighting that would allow for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the safe departure for those who would wish to leave the city. And again, the separation of the “moderate opposition” and Al-Nusra is the critical issue. Last Sunday in Paris Mr. Kerry said:

“… Now, what is it that complicates these talks? Well, here it is. The fighters, who are being bombed and who have been mercilessly prosecuted by the Assad regime in ways that, as we all know, defy the laws of war, don’t trust that if they indeed agreed to leave to try to save Aleppo that, in fact, it will save Aleppo or that, in fact, they will be, in fact, unharmed and free to move and able to go to a destination where they also will not be immediately attacked. The choice for many of them as they think about it today is die in Aleppo or die in Idlib, but die. That’s the way they see the choice…

“… Russia and Assad have a moment here where they are obviously in a dominant position; they have an ability to be able to show a little grace. And sometimes in diplomacy, a little grace goes a long way…”

As for Turkey, it is abundantly clear that ruling Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) Syria policy has become country’s worst foreign, security and economic policy blunder since the founding of the Republic. Burning one bridge after the other with the West and desperate to restore Turkish-Russian economic cooperation, Ankara is now trying to strike a balance between its hostility towards the Assad regime and having to accommodate its main supporter Russia, the emphasis being on the latter.

Ceaselessly advocating dialogue between President Assad and the opposition would have been a safe and principled game plan for the Turkish government than trying to force regime change in Syria. Ankara often tells others to “know their place”, yet it overreached in Syria.

Last Friday, the BBC reported the following:

“At least 50,000 militants from so-called Islamic State have been killed since the US-led coalition started fighting in Iraq and Syria two years ago, a US military official has said.

“The senior official described the figure as a “conservative estimate”.

“The figure showed air power and a small number of US figures supporting local forces were having an impact, the official said.

“The US has, however, repeatedly warned that IS can replace fighters rapidly…”

This “conservative estimate” and the news regarding the recapturing of Palmyra by the Islamic State reflect the enormity of the problem rather than the success of the anti-IS campaign. Many analysts agree that even when the IS and Al-Nusra are dislodged from Mosul, Raqqa and Aleppo the problem is not going to disappear.

Muslim countries including Turkey need to worry about this because increasingly frequent use of the expression “Islamist/jihadist terror” serves neither their faith nor their worldly interests. Should the present trend be allowed to continue, the cultural/political divide which separates them from the rest of the world would become impossible to bridge and millions of Muslims living in other countries would become suspect. Member states of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) can no longer escape facing the challenge posed by sectarianism and radicalism. They have to diagnose the root causes of the problem and agree on the methods of cure. Unfortunately, all of this requires enlightened leadership, a rare commodity in today’s Middle East. Day after day Turkey mourns those who have lost their lives in terrorist attacks; the economy has taken a downturn; yet, legislating an autocratic presidential system remains JDP’s top priority.





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