Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Aleppo pays the price

Regime violence against Aleppo means the city is paying a heavy price for the opposition’s suspension of the Geneva talks, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

No sooner had the second round of the Geneva negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition ended in failure than the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and its allies stepped up their military action against the northern city of Aleppo, a stronghold of the opposition and of special strategic importance.

One of the oldest cities in the world and formerly the economic capital of Syria, Aleppo was home to five million people before the conflict started. It is now facing collapse after the Syrian regime and its Russian allies launched a series of air strikes against it that have killed an estimated 250 of civilians.

Most of the air strikes targeted non-military targets such as hospitals and residential blocks. Doctors, nurses, aid workers and residents of nearby neighbourhoods who were unable to make it to the Turkish border made up most of the victims. Having no means to prevent the air strikes, the opposition put up little resistance, responding only by shelling some regime-controlled areas.

Despite protests from international aid organisations at the regime’s bombing of two hospitals and a medical centre and the killing of doctors and nurses, no one in the international community or sponsoring the political negotiations did anything but issue statements calling for calm.

Russia supported the Syrian regime’s actions, and the US, while it protested against the violence of the strikes, did not object to the strikes themselves.

The air campaign, supported by Russian aircraft, began on 21 April, with forces carrying out nearly 300 sorties, including 65 in which barrel bombs were dropped on the city. The NGO Doctors Without Borders reported that the city’s Al-Quds Hospital, a facility it oversees, was targeted, killing 30 people, including the last paediatrician left in Aleppo.

Following intense communication between Russia and the US, a short-term conditional truce was declared in some areas of Syria, but not including Aleppo, suggesting that the city has yet to face further escalation. Iran has sent army forces with its 65th Brigade to Syria, while hundreds of Afghan, Iraqi and Lebanese fighters have mobilised around the city in preparation for battle.

The offensive did not target Aleppo alone, but extended to areas of Latakia, Hama and the suburbs of Damascus, all of which are included in the temporary truce brokered by Russia and the US.

Coinciding with the escalation, fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group withdrew from the Damascus area, heading for northern Syria with the express agreement of the Syrian regime, while Kurdish forces backed by Russia, the US and the regime prepared to grab part of Aleppo to annex it to the federal canton they hope to create in northern Syria.

The UN’s envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura said that what had happened in Syria was not a surprise and accused the regime of explicitly targeting civilians. “I can’t believe that the hospital in the city was hit by accident. This is a war crime,” he said. The Syrian opposition also said that the events underway in Aleppo are “crimes against humanity”.

“The weapons are Al-Assad’s militias, Russia and Iran, but the one responsible is the international community,” Ahmed Rahhal, a defector from the Syrian army, told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that the military escalation in Aleppo is “political pressure by military means.”

The events in Aleppo cannot be seen from a purely military perspective. They are a continuation of the Geneva talks by other means, and an expected reaction from the regime and Russia to the opposition’s decision to postpone the negotiations and stick to its demand for a transitional governing body with full powers that would end the rule of Al-Assad.

The escalation is an attempt to pressure the opposition into returning to the bargaining table without conditions and with demands more in line with Russian and regime aspirations.

The regime’s decision to set Aleppo ablaze was not a rash decision and was considered even before the opposition suspended its participation in the second round of the Geneva talks. Syrian Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi said as much on 10 April when he announced that the regime was “preparing an operation to liberate Aleppo with our Russian partners and besiege all the armed groups that do not engage in reconciliation.”

Moscow denied its agreement, apparently preferring to postpone the offensive in order to threaten it later, to pressure the opposition and its allies to adopt its approach to a political settlement at Geneva. The opposition’s decision to postpone the talks was thus the signal to begin the military operation.

The Syrian opposition had announced it was temporarily withdrawing from the Geneva negotiations due to the abysmal humanitarian situation in the country, the regime’s repeated violations of the ceasefire (reportedly some 2,000 violations), the barring of assistance to besieged areas, and the failure to release detainees.

The Syrian regime has not fulfilled any of the preconditions of the Geneva talks, and many opposition forces have refused to blame the Higher Negotiations Committee for its decision to suspend the talks.

However, this has not stopped some from criticising the opposition’s decision to withdraw, and critics say that the regime has been working to obstruct the negotiations from day one, fearing their outcome.

By responding to regime provocations and withdrawing from the talks, the opposition has fallen into the regime’s trap, such critics say. The opposition should have withdrawn from the political negotiations only if it had possessed the real ability to protect civilians or some sort of leverage over the other party.

De Mistura, overseeing the negotiations, was aware that a military escalation would likely follow the opposition’s withdrawal from the talks but did not alert the opposition to the danger.

Having participated in the preparations for the Geneva talks, which began on 1 February, Russia attempted to feign neutrality while closely following military developments on the ground. It has greatly aided the regime in reaching its current position after it seemed to be on the verge of collapse before the direct Russian military intervention.

Now Russia is in no hurry to press the regime to accept a political solution, and it is no longer treating its ally as if it were tottering on a precipice.

The Syrian regime lost control of most of the areas around Aleppo and part of the city itself more than two years ago. Since then it has been targeting the city almost daily with a variety of weapons, destroying the city’s ancient markets and many opposition-controlled neighbourhoods.

It has massacred civilians with indiscriminate barrel bombs and barred the entry of aid supplies as a means of pressuring the opposition. Recently, the regime and Kurdish militias helped to block roads out of the city to prevent the inhabitants from fleeing north to the Turkish border. The opposition has also targeted regime-controlled areas, exacerbating the humanitarian situation.

Aleppo has a special strategic importance in the Syrian conflict, as it is a link between opposition-controlled areas in northern and central Syria and a central depot on the supply route for the armed opposition.

If the opposition had not taken Aleppo, it would not have been able to protect the refugees escaping from regime predations to the Turkish border. The area is also home to groups of Free Syrian Army units, which many see as vital to the balance of power in the region.

Aleppo is certainly paying a heavy toll as a result of recent developments, with the city sustaining near daily massacres and bloody reprisals. It is being reduced to rubble in full view of the outside world, which nevertheless continues to speak of a “truce” that is not being honoured by the regime.

The latter has stepped up the violence in the northern part of the city in a bid to compel the opposition to return to the talks, which now seem fated to drag on fruitlessly. Now is not the moment for the hoped-for political resolution to the crisis, with its difficult terms, complex details and many parties to the conflict.

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