The Fall of East Aleppo: Strategic Gain or Pyrrhic Victory for Assad?

Over recent weeks we have seen a major advance by the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies into opposition East Aleppo, in the wake of a protracted and devastating bombardment of the city. The situation that has resulted from these moves and their longer-term implications remain unclear – partly because of the inevitable “fog war” but also because of the deluge of disinformation being disseminated by the Russian military and regime supporters, both East and West. Let’s start with the question of numbers.

How many people are there in East Aleppo?

Official figures provided both by the United Nations and the East Aleppo authorities (Civil Defence and Aleppo Council) placed the population of East Aleppo at 250 -275,000 . The UN persisted with this figure until recently, but is now suggesting that there are “up to 100,000” civilians remaining in opposition areas of the old city and just over 30,000 who have left. The leader of the opposition council in Aleppo, Brita Hagi Hasan, in a recent interview with a French newspaper, gave a figure of 150,000. The discrepancy between these current figures and the previous ones can probably be explained by the large flight of people from the bombing of the city earlier this year, which the UN  may have seriously underestimated.

How many people are leaving East Aleppo and where are they going?

Again, there are a lot of figures flying around – the highest one being 50,000, which seems to have originated with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and was picked up by many media sources. But the SOHR has put out conflicting numbers at various points in time. A more reliable statistic comes from the UN agencies, who agreed on a figure of 31, 500 a week ago. Of these 18, 000 had gone to regime controlled West Aleppo, 8500 to the YPG controlled area of Sheikh Maqsoud, and 5000 had moved to other areas within East Aleppo. The Russians are claiming that a further 50,000 have fled in the past week; there is certainly some further movement of people, but the reports on the ground do not suggest anything like this number – they show various groups of at most a few hundred people on the move – indeed, this is exactly what Russian monitoring cameras have captured.

What influences people’s decision on whether and where to go?

Again, a difficult question. For most it will be a matter of pragmatism: where are the nearest safe (or safer) areas? where do they have family connections?. The significant movement into the YPG’s Sheikh Maqsoud district seems to have been from adjacent areas, and most of these people have now returned to their homes as these areas have come under YPG control. For some it may be political – interviews have shown that there are pro-regime families who found themselves stranded in opposition areas and are happy to move into regime-controlled territory (these are the cases highlighted by the regime media); and probably most of those who have chosen to move into other opposition areas, have done so for political reasons. Those living in areas captured militarily by the regime have had no choice – they have been transported to regime holding areas, where men of military age have been detained for interrogation.

The UN Human Rights Council has reported that in some areas armed groups have killed people who have protested against their continuing presence, naming two groups guilty of this – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and the Abu Amara battalion (associated with Ahrar al-Sham). Aleppo council leader Brita Hagi Hasan, in an interview with a French newspaper rather side-stepped a question about this, saying only that “we have no problem with the Free Syrian Army”.

The regime’s gains

There is no doubt that the regime and its allies have gained the upper hand in military terms. Several commentators early on in the offensive talked about it “splitting” the opposition held districts of the city – but if you look at the maps of the conflict it looks to be more of a progressive peeling away of opposition held territory like an onion, starting at the outer layer and working inwards.

This is one of the reasons that the initial advance of regime forces was so rapid – they began at the outer edge of rebel territory – which were areas like Hanano that had suffered the most destruction from bombing, were most depopulated, and therefore provided relatively open terrain for the deployment of the better equipped, Iranian-led forces.

The problem with this “onion” is that the going gets tougher for the attackers as they move further towards the centre, where defending forces are more concentrated and better prepared. While there are a lot of sweeping claims being made by Russia and the regime, the fact is that the regime ground offensive has come to a halt with opposition forces still hanging on in a compact area in the south of the city – and there may be as many as 100,000 civilians with them. Reports coming out from these districts indicate that they are under continual, intense bombardment, and recently have been subjected to attacks with chlorine gas and phosphorous.

The position of the remaining armed groups, however, is untenable as they are surrounded and their supply routes cut off. Their only hope is that they will be able to trade the regime’s desire for a quick, symbolic victory against the rebel’s capacity for messy resistance on their home ground. The Russians are likely to recognise this and we may well see some sort of evacuation deal being struck quite soon (there is a report of such a deal being negotiated just coming in).

The outcome of such a settlement will be that the focus of the Syrian conflict is likely to shift to Idlib and parts of North Aleppo, where there are large opposition communities   already under heavy bombardment by the Russians and the regime.

Shrinking opposition territory in East Aleppo 1-8 December

A Pyrrhic Victory?

From the point of view of the Assad regime this may well prove to be a rather hollow “victory”. They will emerge from it with an enhanced security position and a stronger claim to be in command of the whole country than they have had for several years, but these gains have been bought at the cost of becoming an increasingly marginal player in determining the future of Syria.

On the military front the Aleppo operation has been led by Iranian-commanded foreign militia. On the political front Russia seems to have taken over the management of the conflict and its social effects  – it is the Russian Ministry of Defence’s “Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic” that oversees local surrenders and evacuations; it is Russia which carries out de-mining of occupied areas; and it is Russia that is very demonstrably providing food and medical aid to the internally displaced (Russia seem to be playing a double game here, attacking the UN and western governments for failing to provide aid while blocking the admission of much aid so that it can conduct its own “hearts and minds” programme ­ – but also accepting UN assistance when it suits them: for example, the city’s water pumping station has only been able to resume operations with fuel provided by UNICEF.)

While the regime may take control of former opposition districts, the YPG has taken the opportunity to extend their control from Sheikh Maqsoud to more than three other districts, complicating the ability of the regime to impose its full control over the city.

To top it off, there is a severe social crisis brewing in Aleppo. The Syrian regime has inherited a city half of which has been absolutely shattered; they have over 30,000 dispossessed people to support, most of whom have been moved to two derelict industrial sites in Jibreen on the outskirts of the city. These centres are completely overloaded, and conditions are so bad there that some families have been moved to Hanano , despite the widespread destruction of that area. The regime has described this as “returning the people of Hanano to their homes” but according to the UN:

people currently sheltering in Hanano cannot collectively be counted as returnees as … only 20 per cent of them are originally from the area, while 80 per cent are currently squatting in abandoned houses. Despite the recent influx, Hanano is not deemed a safe area for shelter due to unexploded remnants of war in the area, and many buildings being at risk of collapse due to infrastructural damage.

All of this is in addition to a large population of displaced persons already present in West Aleppo, which the UN suggests may number as many as 400, 000, 77,000 of whom are living in “unfinished buildings or collective shelters.”

If we add to this the fact that a study of Aleppo in 2013/14 found a significant level of hostility to the regime in West Aleppo (in many districts 20 to 40% of the residents believed that “the Assad regime is the greatest threat to Syria ”) then it seems likely that the “order” imposed on Aleppo will be a highly repressive one in both parts of the city (five restless Western districts have been under the direct governance of the notorious Air Force Security since 2012.)

One of the centres for displaced people in Aleppo

Russia’s strategy and future prospects

I have argued in the past that Russia had little real leverage over the Assad regime (they could not afford to abandon Assad even if he refused to go along with their plans). But Aleppo may have altered that significantly: the regime is now dependent on Russia to a greater degree and in more ways than ever before. Russia will not want to get bogged down in a conflict for which there is no apparent end point, and may now start to craft its own exit strategy and press the regime to fall in line. Scott Lucas of EAWorldView has suggested that the Russians may try to impose  a de facto partition of Syria that would leave the opposition in control of Idlib and Assad in power in the rest of the country (and Russia’s naval and airforce bases intact). There is, however, an alternative possibility, hinted at by the pro-Russian site South Front: Russia could use Idlib as a bargaining counter with both the regime and the opposition in order to produce its preferred solution to the conflict – a “national unity” government presided over by Assad but with some form of opposition participation. In this scenario the Syrian opposition would be told that unless it agrees, the military onslaught on Idlib will be stepped up; and the regime will be told that if it doesn’t acquiesce Russia will pull back and leave it to deal with a huge reconstruction bill and a rebellious province on its own.

I don’t claim any official standing for South Front, which is a blatant propaganda operation, but it does have clear Russian patronage and may have some connections to Russian policy networks. Whatever the case, such a strategy makes sense from the Russian point of view and would seem to be the only way they can move towards an outcome that would meet their longstanding objective.


Syria: Peace in our time?

In two meetings held in Vienna over the past two weeks representatives from a group of 20 states and international organisations (the “International Syria Support Group”), have drawn up a plan which purports to offer the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. This is being widely hailed, especially by western governments, as some sort of breakthrough that will lead to a rapid resolution of the Syrian situation in the interests of the Syrian people.

The Vienna Process

These meetings were “talks about talks” designed to reconcile the conflicting views of supporters of the opposing sides in Syria: The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the one hand; and Russia and Iran on the other. The expectation is that on the basis of this agreement, a “Syrian-led” process can follow, with negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition.

So far this seems rather deja-vu – it is exactly the same procedure that gave rise to the Geneva communique and the abortive Geneva II negotiations. The latter foundered when the Syrian government delegation refused to discuss anything that hinted of a shift in power away from Asad and the regime signalled its attitude towards “peace” by stepping up military operations during the talks – over the 24 days of Geneva negotiations the Syrian military killed almost 2200 civilians. End of Geneva.

So what will make it different this time? Ostensibly the fact that the Vienna plan has been underwritten by the contending external powers involved in Syria. The assumption is that they will each be able to rein in their protégés and ensure engagement in the process. But Geneva was underwritten by Russia, yet that did not prevent the Syrian delegation tearing up the provisions of the Geneva Communique. Policy makers assume that Assad’s patrons have effective control over the regime – an assumption contradicted by experience. If you doubt that try asking Qadri Jamil – leader of a “licensed opposition” group in the Syrian parliament (a faction of the former Syrian Communist Party), a deputy Prime Minister responsible for Syria’s economic policy, and Russia’s “man in Damascus”, you would think he had a job for life; but in October 2013 he was summarily dismissed from his position for stepping out of line a and has not dared set foot in the country since. Assad clearly believes that his relationship with Russia is one of co-dependency – and he has yet to be proved wrong.

Devil in the Details

Let’s turn to the specifics of the Vienna agreement. The broad principles were outlined in a statement published on 30 October and a more detailed plan and timetable issued on 14 November 2015. In summary this provides as follows:

  1. Immediate “confidence building measures that would contribute to the viability of the political process and pave the way for a national ceasefire”– specifically the provision of access to all parts of Syria for UN humanitarian aid (i.e. the end of regime sieges).
  2. By 1 January 2016, negotiations will begin between a Syrian government delegation and a delegation representing “the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition chosen by Syrians” (This gives the opposition some six weeks to establish an agreed, unified delegation; it represents a shift from Geneva when the Syrian National Coalition was recognised as the representative of the Syrian opposition, and is clearly a victory for Russia’s strategy)
  3. Coincident with the beginning of the negotiations there will be a “nationwide ceasefire” monitored by the UN (excluding “terrorist” organisations – ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to start with, but others may be added).
  4. Within 6 months (July 2016) the negotiating parties will agree on a framework for “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”.( i.e. a transitional governing structure)
  5. This structure will then launch a process for drafting a new constitution culminating in the holding of free, UN supervised elections based on this constitution within 18 months (January 2018 ) ­ and Syria’s democratic future will begin (if all goes according to plan).

There are two codicils to this document:

First, all those taking part in this process: must adhere to a set of “fundamental principles”:

  • Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character;
  • Ensuring that State institutions remain intact
  • Protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination

Second, The ISSG “reaffirmed the devastating effects of the use of indiscriminate weapons on the civilian population and humanitarian access, as stated in UNSCR 2139. The ISSG agreed to press the parties to end immediately any use of such indiscriminate weapons” (my emphasis).

The principle sponsors of this statement – the US and Russia – make no bones about the fact that the position of Asad in all this has not been resolved, with the West putting out reassuring statements to its constituencies that this means the end of Assad’s rule, while Russia is doing exactly the opposite.

Opposing Scenarios

Let’s look at the opposing scenarios that each believes (or hopes) will unfold.

The United States: The US (or at least Secretary of State Kerry who led the negotiations for the US) believes that the original Geneva provision that a “transitional governing body” must be based on “mutual consent” will exclude Asad from playing any role in Syria’s future, as the opposition delegation will not accept his continued presence. But of course “mutual agreement” cuts both ways, and it allows the regime to block any agreement until they get a formula that suits them.

Russia: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is counting on the provision for a “broad spectrum” opposition to include sufficient middle-of-the-road oppositionists to allow a deal to be eventually struck that will allow Asad to remain in place at least until the projected 2018 elections, at which point they hope that he will be able to exploit the fragmentation of the opposition to win a presidential contest. (Russia and the regime are assuming that the new Constitution will be Presidential in structure – something that is not a foregone conclusion.)

But whatever the scenario, Asad and the regime will remain in place at least for the next seven months – longer if their backers allow them to continue blocking an agreement.

Vienna’s Fault lines

Let’s look more closely at some of the absences and fault lines in the Vienna process.

  1. Confidence building”: There are three areas in which the Syrian opposition has sought some degree of relief though participation in negotiations: an end to the slaughter of civilians by the regime; an end to regime sieges; and the release of detainees held in regime prisons. The Vienna process promises to deliver on only one and a bit of them: it has a clear demand on humanitarian access; nothing at all on detainees, despite the fact that this should be a visible and easy to implement “confidence building” gesture; while Vienna references UN Security Council Resolution 2139, which Demanded “that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment…”, its text  contains only a feeble phrase “pressing” for an end to the use of “indiscriminate weapons” Why not a clear call for an end to all attacks on civilian populations, as Fred Hof argues?
  2. The “broad spectrum” opposition. Despite the insistence that this would be “chosen by Syrians”, the parties to the Vienna agreement are rushing to produce their own lists of preferred Syrian oppositionists. Russia tried back in January to construct its own version of a Syrian “opposition” that would sing from its hymn sheet, but with little success. Its effort for Vienna is more modest, relying on fragmenting the opposition by including all sorts of minor groups; its one entirely predictable sleight of hand is to include Qadri Jamil and his group among the “opposition”. (I’ve not been able to verify the authenticity of this reported Russian list – but it looks plausible.) It’s unclear how the final opposition delegation will be determined – oversight of it is in the hands of the UN’s Steffan de Mistura ­ but it’s hard to see how it can be done seriously without some meeting of the principal opposition currents, which may disrupt the timetable.

 While expanding the opposition has been a key strategic objective for Russia, it’s not clear that this will play out as they hope. The most recent gathering of “moderate” oppositionists in Cairo (also in January) declared:

At the beginning of the political process, immediate actions by all of its supporters will be necessary in order to allow it to succeed. This should include the release of all detained, imprisoned, and kidnapped men and women; the ceasing of all war crimes; stopping attacks on civilians and allowing them to live under normal conditions; allowing food and medical relief to reach all of the besieged areas;  … and creating conditions conducive to the return of refugees and the displaced.

The main opposition groups have been divided more by factional and personality conflicts than political differences: if the Vienna process pushes them to some form of reconciliation it could be a significant advance and their common position may not be one which is amenable to compromise with the regime. What is missing, however, is any provision for the representation of civil society voices in the negotiation process or for the presence of the armed opposition (although the Saudis are  said to be pursuing that).

  1. The formula for transitional governance. The Geneva Communique had a clear formula “The establishment of a transitional governing body which would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” This would have meant an immediate end to Assad’s formal powers as President (although not informal channels power), as these would be transferred to the transitional authority. Vienna has very different and strikingly vague formula “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”. This appears designed to admit as a possibility Russia’s preferred outcome , which would be the creation of some form of “power sharing” government with Assad still occupying the Presidency. While it remains unlikely that many opposition forces could accept this. , this retreat from Geneva must nevertheless be chalked up as another win for Russian diplomacy.
  2. Ensuring that State institutions remain intact” This is a carry-over from the Geneva Communique and in fact represents a slight improvement on that document which referred to the “continuity of governmental institutions … this includes the military forces and security services”. Here the question of which state institutions seems to be left open. This provision reflects the conclusions drawn by the US from their experience in Iraq where a sweeping dismissal of state personnel who had belonged to the Baath party encouraged resistance to the occupation in Sunni areas. Going to the other extreme, US policy makers now naively think that it’s possible to separate the Asad regime from the state it has built up over four decades and maintain one without the other. The Russians know better, and realise that this formula provides Asad with immense leverage, whatever may happen on the constitutional front. But the quote from the Cairo declaration above suggests that the opposition is also aware of this reality, and may well insist on security sector reform being high on any “transitional” agenda.
  3. Foreign presence in Syria: Despite all the talk in the Vienna statement about safeguarding Syria’s independence, there is no provision for the withdrawal of foreign ground forces from the country. That is the price that has had to be paid for securing Russian and Iranian support – and it makes a mockery of the whole process.
  4. The Casting out of “Terrorist” organisations: The provision for a ceasefire explicitly excludes groups identified as “terrorist” ­ namely Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra. It permits “offensive or defensive actions” against these groups, which it stipulates “must be defeated”. It also provides that this list can be expanded and assigns to Jordanian intelligence the task of drawing up a shortlist of groups that might be so targeted. It nowhere provides a definition of “terrorist” and reports say that at Russian insistence the Jordanians are not allowed to scrutinise Asad-allied groups in this exercise. Lavrov has made it clear that the Russians want to add further organisations to the list – and the threat of being added  provides Russia and the US with a stick to drive recalcitrant armed groups into submission.

It was always to be expected that Jabhat al-Nusra would be the sacrificial lamb in any deal between the USA and Russia – the US views everything from the perspective of its own domestic security, and cannot see beyond the “al-Qaeda” label; Russia of course is only too keen to eliminate a key anti-Asad force.

Without even broaching the issue of how valid it is to amalgamate Nusra with ISIS, one simple, pragmatic fact is glaringly obvious ­ Nusra has been a key opponent of ISIS; to “defeat” Nusra is therefore to strengthen ISIS (dangerously so if this should drive Nusra into a reconciliation with ISIS).

But more importantly, this gives Russia and the regime a license to do whatever they want militarily. If Russia could bomb anti-regime forces under the pretext of attacking ISIS, imagine what they can do when they are not only permitted, but actively encouraged to attack Jabhat al Nusra, which, unlike ISIS, is spread out across opposition areas. Russia can now launch operations wherever it pleases and claim the mandate of the Vienna agreement to do so. This will also apply to the regime. To top it off, they now has a UN mandate with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2449, readily endorsed by Russia. (This was a trap long awaiting those who thought that the demand for a UN resolution was some sort of prophylactic against external intervention ­ it was always obvious that once it had lined up the right set of conditions, Russia would be only too happy to add the UN Security Council to its collection of diplomatic trophies.)

This catalogue of cracks in the foundations of the Vienna agreement is nothing short of disastrous. They will almost certainly lead to the collapse of the Vienna process –the only question is how long will it take? Assad  is already back-pedalling on the plan and the regime can be expected to use the cover of Vienna and the UN to press their drive against the opposition. (This is already underway in Idlib). No credible opposition group is going to be able to sit in talks with the regime while this is going on outside the conference hall.

But too many people have investments in the success of the Vienna process – the US State Department, Steffan de Mistura, and the UN, and  the European Union, for this failure to be readily admitted – it is going to be up to solidarity activists and human rights organisations to monitor this process and report its outcomes accurately.

The story of Douma

 Russian bombing of Douma on 7 November photo:
Russian bombing of Douma on 7 November                                   Photo: Abd Doumany Agence France-Presse

Let’s start that task by looking at the recent experience of Douma, in the Damascus countryside, the site of a notorious bombing of the marketplace on 30 October in which 59 people were killed .It seems that the Russians decided to use Douma as a test case for Vienna-style peace making. First they bombarded the city for a week, killing 35 civilians, including 10 children; then on 8 November they suspended their bombing and offered a ceasefire to run for a period of 15 days during which time the siege of the city would be lifted, and humanitarian aid would be allowed to enter. However on the morning of 19 November, when the ceasefire was due to commence, the Syrian airforce launched an attack on the city, killing 15, And the regime “Minister of National Reconciliation”, Ali Haider, declared that there was no ceasefire in effect.

So much for Russia’s leverage over Assad.