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NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 16 DECEMBER, 2016

Aleppo is Liberated


NEW DELHI: Aleppo has been liberated. The Syrian Army, backed by Russian air power and Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, began the process of taking control of the last remaining Jihadi outposts in the eastern part of the ancient city on Thursday, 15th December. All military operations have ended, and almost 5000 Jihadi fighters and their families have started leaving the city, mainly for the province of Idlib, which is still under Jihadi control.

The evacuation of the Jihadis began on Thursday afternoon after an agreement was reached between Russia, Syria, and Turkey. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross were also involved in the process of evacuation.

President Assad said that the world would be different after the “liberation of Aleppo,” describing it as a historic moment.

The liberation of Aleppo marks a major turning point, both militarily and psychologically, in the Syrian war, that has been raging for more than five years. But it does not mean the end of Syria’s agony because Assad’s opponents have not given up, yet. The war is far from over.

In the last few weeks, the Syrian Army had made significant gains against the Al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and its allies, which controlled parts of eastern Aleppo. These Jihadi groups, supported by the West and its Gulf and Turkish allies, had controlled eastern Aleppo since July 2012.

Aleppo was the largest city in Syria and its commercial capital before the war began in 2011. Its capture was a major strategic objective of the foreign powers supporting the Jihadi groups, which had hoped to set up a government-in-exile once the city fell. That “government” would have been quickly recognized by them and their allies, to begin a process of delegitimization, and eventual overthrow, of the Assad regime. Aleppo was, therefore, central to “regime change” in Syria.

By the summer of 2015, the anti-Assad coalition had come close to achieving its objectives. Assad’s forces had lost large areas and important cities to the “rebels,” which consisted mainly of Jihadi groups such as the ISIS and Nusra Front. They also included “moderate” groups such as the “Free Syrian Army,” which were directly supported by the foreign powers with funding, training, and weapons.

In reality, however, these “moderate” rebels fought alongside the Jihadi groups, often under their overall command and supervision. In many cases, the weapons supplied to them by the West and the Gulf were passed on to the Nusra Front, ISIS, and other such groups, which used them against the Syrian army. Some of them were quite sophisticated, such as TOW anti-tank missiles, and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS).

On the ground, therefore, there was hardly any difference between the “moderate rebels” and the Jihadi groups. For this reason, many observers believe that there is no such thing as “moderate” rebels in Syria. But the West and its allies persisted in maintaining this myth and pumping fighters and weapons into the country.

It was Russia’s entry into Syria in September 2015 which changed the course of the war. The Russian air force extensively bombed the positions of the anti-Assad groups, including their supply lines from Turkey. ISIS had set up a lucrative smuggling network of stolen Syrian oil which was also destroyed, cutting off an important source of its revenue.

Gradually, Assad’s forces retook important areas and cities from the opposition, including Homs in May 2014 and Palmyra in March 2016, and cut off vital supply lines, especially to Aleppo, tightening the noose around the rebels. Their foreign backers tried hard to impede and delay the advance of the Syrian army but achieved only limited success.

The outcome of the US presidential elections in Nov. 2016 also helped Syria and Russia. Trump’s approach to the war in Syria was quite different from that of Hillary Clinton. Trump had taken the position that the US and Russia should jointly fight ISIS and other Jihadi groups in Syria. He had also said that regime change in Syria would only cause more instability in the region, and supporting the Assad government was the most efficient way to prevent the spread of terrorism in the area.

After speaking to Trump on the phone on Nov. 14, President Putin ordered intensive airstrikes on Aleppo on Nov. 15, after a lull of about three weeks. Since then, the Syrians and Russians, helped by the Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, made rapid progress against the remaining pockets of resistance in rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo.

In the last few days, as increasing territory in eastern Aleppo came under Syrian control, more than 100,000 civilians were rescued from the liberated districts, and taken to refugee camps. Thousands of opposition fighters also surrendered to the Syrian Army. This happened despite concerted efforts by the US, UK, and France in the UN Security Council to stop or delay the advance of the Syrians and the Russians.

These countries launched a disinformation campaign against Russia and Syria alleging atrocities and human rights violations by them, and calling for an immediate cease-fire to facilitate “humanitarian” relief for civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo. Both Russia and China, however, vetoed a Western-sponsored resolution in the UN Security Council calling for a cease-fire, which was seen as a ploy to buy time for the Jihadi groups and enable them to regroup and resume fighting. This has happened more than once before.

The Obama Administration has, however, not given up its efforts to stymie the operations of Russia and Syria against the opposition. On Dec. 8, President Obama ordered a waiver to remove restrictions on the supply of military aid to foreign fighters and others in Syria supporting US special operations to “combat terrorism,” deeming it “essential to US national security interests.” As explained above, some of these weapons are likely to end up in the hands of the Jihadi groups.

There are other disquieting developments. On Dec. 11, more than 5000 ISIS fighters launched a fierce attack against Syrian army positions in Palmyra, overrunning them and taking control of the ancient city. There are reports that these fighters came from Raqqa, Deir ez-Zore, and Mosul in Iraq. The Russians and Syrians see the capture of Palmyra as retaliation for their “victory” in Aleppo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Dec. 12 that he suspected that the ISIS attack on Palmyra was “orchestrated” to divert the attention of the Syrian army from eastern Aleppo and to give a respite to the terrorists entrenched there. He pointed out that the ISIS fighters marched to Palmyra through territory patrolled by the aircraft of the US-led coalition, which could not have missed their movements from the cities mentioned above.

The capture of Palmyra is a setback but the Russians and Syrians have made clear their determination to take it back from ISIS, and are likely to do so very soon.

But other important areas and cities in Syria continue to remain under rebel control. These include Idlib, Raqqa, and Deir-ez-Zore, in addition to strategic areas in northern Syria held by Turkish and US forces. The actions of the US and its allies suggest that if they fail to overthrow Assad, they may try to create a US and Saudi-controlled “Salafist Principality” in eastern Syria. That would disrupt the “Shia Crescent” extending from Iran to Lebanon, and also clear the way for a natural gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey, and onwards to Europe.

They are also likely to promote insurgency in the country, not only in the countryside where government presence is thin but also in urban centers, wherever possible. It could be a long, drawn-out war of attrition, sapping the energy of the Syrian state, already considerably weakened by more than five years of continuous warfare.

It is also not a coincidence that the corporate-owned Western mainstream media has suddenly become deeply concerned about the fate of civilians in the areas formerly controlled by the Jihadi groups. Wild and exaggerated allegations, not independently verified, are being made that the Syrian army has killed large numbers of civilians.

But what about the hundreds of innocent civilians who have been murdered by the Jihadi groups in the last few months? And what about the spontaneous outbreak of jubilation in the liberated areas of eastern Aleppo? Not much is being reported about these events by the same media. The West and its allies have not taken kindly to the loss of Aleppo. They are trying to use fake news to compensate for their defeat on the ground.

Unfortunately for Syria, both the US and Turkey have deployed their forces in the country. The US announced on Dec. 10 that it would be sending 200 additional troops to Syria, ostensibly to fight the ISIS. So far, the Russians have been able to avoid a direct clash with the US, but it is not clear how long they would be able to “deconflict” with US aircraft. It is also not clear if, when, or how, the US and Turkish troops will leave Syria.

Much will depend on the degree to which Trump can steer US policy towards Russia and Syria, and resist caving in to pressures from neocons. It will not be an easy task; the neocons have been controlling US foreign policy since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, and are deeply entrenched in the American system. It will not be easy for Trump to break free of them.

For the above reasons the liberation of Aleppo, though a crucial turning point, does not mean the end of the war in Syria. It means that Assad will remain in power in Damascus, and will likely control all the major population centers in western Syria and its Mediterranean coastline. But, as mentioned above, the fate of eastern Syria and its major towns remains unclear. The West, Gulf, and Turkey will try to partition Syria if they cannot overthrow Assad. Will Putin and Assad be able to prevent that? Only time will tell.

( Ambassador Niraj Srivastava has retired from the Indian Foreign Service. He has served in several missions across the world, including Syria).

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