Syria

Liberation of Aleppo

Print edition : January 20, 2017

Aleppo city on December 3, with the Aleppo citadel and smoke rising after an air strike in the background. Photo: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

People evacuated from Eastern Aleppo reach out for food in the government-controlled Jibreen area of the city. Photo: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Syrian troops in the Ansari neighbourhood of eastern Aleppo on December 23. Photo: SANA/AP

The defeat of the rebel forces in eastern Aleppo seems to have tipped the scales in favour of the Syrian government, though it does not mean the end of the ongoing civil war.

ALEPPO, SYRIA’S BIGGEST CITY AND commercial capital, has finally been liberated after a struggle lasting over four and a half years. The last of the rebel soldiers were evacuated on December 22, 2016. The safe passage of civilians went ahead despite dire predictions from Western governments and the media. In a week-long operation, 34,000 civilians and fighters were escorted out of the city despite harsh weather conditions. Since then, the only gunfire heard in Aleppo has been from its residents holding impromptu celebrations. Most of the city was under government control anyway because of the unwavering support of the populace for the secular government of Syria.

Civilians displaced from their homes have slowly started returning to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble. They celebrated Christmas in the historical church of St. Elias, which was located on the front lines. The Christmas tree was lit up in eastern Aleppo after a gap of four and a half years. After the war started, the Christian population shrank to 50,000 from a high of 250,000. Many of Aleppo’s historical sites, including its famed Souk al Madina (market) and the Umayyad mosque, have been badly damaged. It is “game over” for the West and its regional proxies in Syria. With the ouster of the rebels from the last remaining pockets of eastern Aleppo, the Syrian government now has complete control of all the major cities in the country.

President Bashar al-Assad described the liberation of the city as a historic turning point in the war. He praised the people of Aleppo for their courage and their will to resist the terrorists, and the Syrian Arab Army for its courage and sacrifices. Among the more than 300,000 killed in the war so far, the army has taken the bulk of the casualties. President Assad thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for being Syria’s main partner in the battle, saying that the liberation of the city could pave the way for a political solution. Assad also thanked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his government’s support. Rouhani told Assad that it was Iran’s duty “to support those trying to force out takfiri [Sunni jehadi] forces out of their territory”. Western governments, on the other hand, are viewing the defeat of the jehadi forces as a huge setback to their plans to effect a regime change in Syria.

Disappointed West

Besides the capital, Damascus, the main cities of Homs and Hama are also under the firm control of the government. These cities, where the bulk of the population lives, are known as “Syria’s southern spine”. The rebels now have influence only in sparsely populated areas such as Idlib province, situated to the west of Aleppo, and on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo, where they are waging a losing battle. Raqqa, a small city which remains under the control of the Daesh (the so-called Islamic State), is under siege from all sides. President Assad has said that the next priority is to clear the rebels from the vicinity of Damascus and then focus on eliminating them from Idlib province and Palmyra. In Idlib, it is the al-Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate, which holds sway. The overstretched Syrian Army is not in a position to take on the rebels. Washington and its allies wanted to use the presence in Aleppo of the jehadists they had armed and trained as an important card to wrest diplomatic and military concessions from the Syrian government and its allies when peace talks resume in Geneva.

The Barack Obama administration tried its best to prevent the total liberation of Aleppo. According to declassified reports, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was spending as much as $1 billion every year to help train and arm jehadi forces in Aleppo and other places. The U.S. tried to help groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham by selectively bombing Syrian military targets. The targeting of the Syrian Army in Aleppo in October by the U.S. Air Force even as a humanitarian truce was in place is an example.

As Syrian forces moved in to flush out opposition fighters from the last pockets of resistance, the U.S. tried to get the United Nations Security Council to intervene and slow down the liberation of Aleppo. The Western-sponsored resolution called for a seven-day humanitarian pause. When the rebels were pounding the civilian populace of Aleppo at the beginning of the war, the West did not try to bring into effect a ceasefire. Syria’s Ambassador to the U.N. has alleged that the main purpose behind the West asking for a seven-day humanitarian pause at the Security Council was to smuggle out the foreign intelligence agents who were helping the rebels in east Aleppo. The Syrian government has since published the names of 12 such agents, most of whom are from Saudi Arabia. Others are from Qatar, Jordan, the U.S., Israel, and Morocco. Russia and China, however, allowed the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that allowed U.N. monitors on the ground in Aleppo once all the rebels holding out in Aleppo surrendered or were neutralised.

The Western media was full of stories about schools, hospitals and orphanages in east Aleppo being targeted. All the reports were based on stories provided by the well-oiled jehadi propaganda machine. There was not a single Western correspondent on the ground in east Aleppo as the Syrian forces closed in. The Syrian government’s concerted attempts to prevent unnecessary bloodshed were ignored by Western governments. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, instead drew false comparisons between Aleppo and the massacres in Srebrenica in 1995 and Rwanda in 1994. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, accused the Syrian government of “carrying out nothing short of a massacre” in Aleppo. Kerry also issued a dire warning saying that the “fall of Aleppo” would not “end the war in Syria”.

U.S. hypocrisy

The brutal tactics employed by the U.S. forces in Falluja and other parts of the world have rarely been mentioned as comparisons. The hypocrisy of the West is all the more glaring given the fact that the U.S. Air Force is using massive firepower against the residents of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, in the ongoing fight against the Daesh. More than a million people are trapped in Mosul. The fight to free Mosul is expected to be much bloodier than that witnessed in east Aleppo. The U.S. and its allies have refused to acknowledge the documented war crimes committed by their all-weather ally Saudi Arabia in the war they have unleashed against Yemen. The U.S. and British bombs and missiles used by the Saudi air force have already killed over 11,000 civilians in the impoverished country in the past 21 months.

Although much of east Aleppo has been reduced to rubble, the number of casualties and the people trapped there was exaggerated by the Western media and even by international refugee agencies. The Syrian government had been saying that not more than 100,000 people were residing in eastern Aleppo during the final weeks of the siege. The U.N. had put the number of civilians in Aleppo during the siege at between 200,000 and 250,000. The Western media rarely bothered to mention the attacks on hospitals and schools in the much more populous western part of the city that was under government control. One of the first major terrorist acts of the jehadi forces led by al-Nusra was the bombing and destruction of Aleppo’s biggest government-run hospital.

Instead, Western governments and the media focussed on fake stories of mass massacres during the fight to liberate east Aleppo. There were reports of pro-government militias going on the rampage and of summary executions. The U.N. reported 82 cases of summary killings. Many were killed by rebels as people tried to escape to government-controlled areas. But it was nothing on the scale of mass beheading and killings that the Daesh have indulged in and advertised. The U.N. had also reported that the rebels used civilians as “human shields” during the fight and had prevented them from fleeing to the western part of the city. Both the Syrian and Russian governments tried for weeks to get the civilian population safely out of the conflict zone before the final onslaught on east Aleppo began. The Syrian Army and the Russian Air Force suspended their military attacks for almost a month to facilitate the safe passage of civilians from the besieged parts of east Aleppo.

The liberation of east Aleppo will now help the tens of thousands of displaced residents to return to their houses. Under a deal with the rebel groups, their fighters have been allowed to leave Aleppo to join rebel groups in Idlib province, which is among the last remaining provinces under their control. Under the terms of the deal, people in two besieged Shia-dominated villages were allowed safe passage by the rebels. One reason for the Syrian government allowing the rebels the option of leaving unharmed is that a few pro-government areas such as Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, continue to be blockaded by the Daesh. A deal, similar to the one worked out in Aleppo, could be replicated in these places. President Assad has offered amnesty to all Syrian citizens fighting with the rebels. All those willing to surrender and return to civilian life or join the government’s fight against terrorism will be reintegrated into civil society.

The Syrian government will be happy if neighbouring countries such as Turkey cooperate in the repatriation of foreign fighters who have flooded Syria in the last five years. Most of them had entered Syria with the tacit encouragement and cooperation of the Turkish government. Even today, support for the jehadi groups continues, both in direct and indirect ways. The Saudis and Qataris continue to pour in funds for groups such as the al-Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham. When the Daesh attacked Palmyra again in early December, the U.S. Air Force was not seen in action. Most of the sorties against the approaching Daesh column were made by the Russian Air Force.

As the temporary military reverse in Palmyra indicated, the victory in Aleppo does not mean that the war will end soon, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. President Assad said that the liberation of Aleppo “won’t mean the end of the war in Syria, but it will be a huge step towards this end”. The Russian military intervention in 2015 at the request of the Syrian government has been crucial, along with the consistent support of Iran and the battle-hardened Hizbollah fighters. The rebels, most of them either affiliated to Al Qaeda or aligned with the Daesh, have not yet been abandoned by all their patrons. But support for them definitely seems to be waning. Turkey is more concerned now with its domestic politics and the threat posed to its territorial integrity by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate. The U.S. is backing the Kurds in Syria and helping them in their efforts to carve out an autonomous enclave bordering Turkey. This design is being opposed tooth and nail by Turkey.

The meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran in the third week of December to chart out a course to establish a lasting peace in Syria is an encouraging development. The U.S. was pointedly excluded from the meeting. Indications are that the Turkish government may reverse its policy on Syria. It may use its influence with the fighters now concentrated in Idlib to make them give up fighting and enter into talks with the government. The safe passage for opposition fighters in eastern Aleppo was negotiated by Russian and Turkish diplomats. Turkey, with its air force not fully functional after the failed military coup and facing an existential challenge from the Kurds, is no longer in a position to play a key military role in Syria. But it can, if it chooses, help speed up the prospects for a lasting peace in Syria.

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