For the past two months, the battle for the control of Aleppo, the most important Syrian city in the north of the country and one of the strongholds of the rebels opposing Assad’s regime, has grown in intensity.
As known, the fact that Assad regime’s ground forces stormed the city after they encircled most of it was one of the reasons for which the agreement that Russia and the U.S. had reached at the end of September 2016 – to sponsor a new ceasefire agreement in Syria and to start the process of negotiating a power transition – was suspended. After the Russian-American agreement was suspended on October 3, the battle of Aleppo grew in intensity and numerous civilians became innocent victims. Aleppo, dubbed ‘Syria’s Stalingrad,’ has become the most visible hotspot of confrontation in the internal struggle. On 15 December 2016, the international press was already estimating that the battle for Aleppo came to an end, the dozens of buses leaving the city, buses filled with thousands of refugees, being proof of the outcome.
The winner was the Assad regime, backed by Iran, Russian and the Lebanon-based Shiite organisation Hezbollah. The battle of Aleppo started four and a half years ago, when, in July 2012, Free Syrian Army fighters attacked Assad regime security forces and, in the months that followed, a number of rebel organisations entered the city and organised its new administration. After completing the encirclement in early September 2016, and despite the ceaseless protests of the international community, including the UN’s, which asked the attackers to cease their bombing and to open safe routes for the delivery of food and medicine to the civilians in the city, the military operations continued and grew in scope.
Russia rejected any UN effort to adopt decisions that would have made it easier to lower the number of victims and to support those trapped in the pocket. Although there are contradictory narratives on what happened in Aleppo, particularly in recent weeks when the city was encircled by the forces of Assad and his allies, what is undeniable is the fact that the civilians in the encircled perimeter are the ones who suffered a high number of casualties, that their suffering exceeded any imagination, that hospitals and clinics became military targets, that streets were swarming with mobile execution platoons that instituted terror. A Canadian newspaper recently wrote: “Massacres of innocents. Bombardments by Russian jet fighters. The deliberate targeting of hospitals and clinics. The firing of mortar rounds into crowded neighbourhoods.
The terror of barrel bombs dropped from Syrian army helicopters. The starvation siege that followed the city’s encirclement by Shia death squads and Assadist militias on Sept. 8.” And on December 13, ‘The New York Times’ pointed out that “the Battle of Aleppo /…/ now appears to be over. A deal to allow the safe passage of the last opposition fighters, their families, and any civilians who want to leave—an end to the agony—was brokered Tuesday by Russia and Turkey. ‘All militants, together with members of their family and the injured, currently are going through agreed corridors in directions that they have chosen themselves voluntarily,’ Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the U.N. Security Council.” As some observers of the events that took place in Aleppo – particularly in the last two months – are saying, the conflict in Syria should no longer be called “civil war,” this being a term that hides a series of realities from the international public opinion. “These simplifications are inaccurate and dangerous,” ‘The Washington Post’ wrote on December 14. “They absolve the international community of responsibility, and give Bashar al-Assad a veneer of legitimacy. They liberate Russia and Iran — actively involved with troops in the conflict — from culpability. And they allow internal terrorist groups to justify their involvement and violence.”
Basically, mainly the external forces involved in this dangerous conflict that tends to complete Syria’s collapse are facing off in Aleppo. In the shifting sands of Middle Eastern power struggles, Aleppo has become synonymous with the military conflict between these foreign actors, those who back Assad’s regime and those who rebelled against the dictatorial regime in Damascus, with the bloody competition between the coalition of Sunni states and the one made up of Shia states, while the great systemic powers – the U.S. and Russia among them – are engaging in a diplomatic game, seeking to attain their own objectives.
The same ‘The Washington Post’ article points out that to call this clash in Syria a “civil war” means “protecting Assad,” creating the impression that “an internal conflict” is taking place, which gives a pretext to “Western powers and international organisations not to take sides.” And this simplification sparked “the exodus of Syrian refugees” and “the castration of U.S. efforts by Russia and Iran and terrorist attacks in European cities.”
In the same political-military shifting sands of the Middle East, home to power “games” in which it is often impossible to find the logical clue, the international community’s inaction kneads the prolonging of the Syrian people’s suffering, the continuation – for an undetermined period – of the competition between the already mentioned coalitions, the survival of the terrorist organisations that some foreign actors claim they want to destroy in order to legitimise their presence in Syria.
Basically, in this way the fertile ground is created for the terrorist phenomenon in Syria to spill over into neighbouring countries and farther away into Europe, as demonstrated by the multiplication of “lone wolf” attacks carried out by jihadists trained for the purpose and ready to act at the appropriate signal. That is what happened almost simultaneously yesterday, December 19, in Ankara – where a Turkish policeman assassinated Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, severely testing the relations between the two states, in Berlin – where a truck drove into a group of people who were celebrating the annual holiday, causing numerous victims, and in Zurich, Switzerland.
After what happened on Monday in these capitals, we may wonder, frightened and lucid at the same time, whether the spark in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, which marks Assad’s victory, will lit up a huge unstoppable fire.