The attempt of the Syrian military to recapture the city of Aleppo in its entirety is callous in its brutality. It is the culmination of a strategy that began in 2012, months after the citizens in neighbourhoods across almost all of the country - of different social backgrounds, religious denominations and political ideals - rose up against the authoritarian rule of the Assad family. It has brought the Syrian government not under the control of its people, but under the direct patronage of the Iranian and Russian authorities who have now largely commandeered the making of strategy for government forces. Over the course of 2016, Russian bombs, Iranian-commanded brigades and the Hizbullah militia from Lebanon have contributed to defeating rebel groups to Aleppo’s north, leaving the city itself divided and isolated.
The intensity of the siege cannot be seen as just a result of the vindictiveness of the Syrian rulers towards its citizens who have struggled for a better future. It is also because many of the rebel militia that have controlled parts of northern Syria for the last four years are now holed up in the city. Some of these groups have aspired to an inclusive and tolerant Syria; others are bigoted and fanatical, combining petty local domination with mass looting. The main alliance of rebel groups in the city, Fatah Halab, contains militia who have produced videos showing them torturing their prisoners, shelled Aleppo’s historic Christian monastery, used chemical weapons, and called for the expulsion of all Shi’a Muslims from the country.
Fatah Halab also contains rebel groups who have been supported financially and militarily by the US, and this perhaps explains a further dimension to the bloodshed. The US-led alliance has since 2012 adhered to the principle that the Syrian government cannot be allowed to win the civil war. Instead, its goal has been to foster ‘moderate’ groups who could act within a transitional body for a future Syrian government. Supporting them militarily has been portrayed as a humanitarian action, but the difficulty comes from conflating humanitarian goals with military strategy.
When in an earlier phase of the conflict, the Syrian army was advancing northwards against these groups, the US arranged with Saudi Arabia and Turkey for the delivery of US-manufactured advanced anti-tank weapons to be delivered to them. It proved a significant moment for halting and even partially reversing the offensive. Its result has not been to force the various sides to negotiate, as the US naively claimed it would, but instead to prolong the conflict.
Syria has increasingly become a proxy war between global rivals, each unwilling to allow the other victory. On the ground though, only one side has the potential to defeat the other, but admitting this amounts to conceding a long strategy has proved fruitless. The most realistic way to end the siege is to arrange for the evacuation and safe passage of rebel groups out of Eastern Aleppo. In the House of Commons, debating the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo on 11th October, this suggestion was dismissed by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson out of hand: the population of Aleppo, he claimed, “will do anything to fight and resist the Assad regime”. The population of Aleppo, however, are a lot more concerned with their lives than with the remnants of a failed US-UK military strategy for replacing the Syrian government.
The most direct effect of the US intervention over recent months was the bombing on 16th September of Syrian military positions ranged against the selfstyled Islamic State group in the east of the country, at Dayr al-Zawr, killing 62 Syrian soldiers. The British Ministry of Defence has subsequently admitted that there was UK participation in this strike. It may have been an accident, just as the Russian bombing of an aid convoy was days later. But it is also clear how hostile the US-led alliance is to anything that resembles a concession to the Assad government. And that, in practice, means the continuation of the conflict - along with the ongoing tragedy in Aleppo.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.