“Endgame in Aleppo, the most decisive battle yet in Syria’s war,” that was the headline for the Washington Post’s lead story of December 13. To the Post, the re-taking of almost all of Aleppo by ground troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad proclaimed “the end of an era for the rebellion.
If by “era” the Post means the last 4 years, during which a variety of anti-government forces fought their ways into control of more or less half of what was once the most prosperous, most beautiful, most alive city in Syria, it is true that the rebellion in Aleppo has been crushed, along with much of the city itself.
But what the Post suggests, by using words like “most decisive” and “end of an era” is, I think, a dramatic overstatement. Neither the long-term, more than 30 year, rebellion against the Assad family tyranny in Damascus, or its shorter-term, 5 year old uprising, have been decisively defeated, not are the Syrian rebellion and civil war close to an end.
What the catastrophe of Aleppo,– which could not have happened without Russian air support,– has done, is to put things back to Square One, back to the battle lines of the first years of the 1980s, or at least back to the summer of 2011, when a wide spectrum of anti-government groups, some of them already quite well armed, seized control of parts of a few provincial cities and towns, and most of the vast, poor areas of rural Syria in between.
Today, of course, the rebels have sustained harrowing losses, as have the civilians who literally and figuratively support them. The conventional estimate is that the fighting in Syria since 2011 has claimed more than 400,000 lives, as well as displacing 11 million people, more than half of Syria’s total population. And the rebel forces have been expelled from most of their urban bases. So they are back again to controlling open spaces, and sometimes the roads that pass through them, especially at night. But notwithstanding all that — and the horror of Aleppo, — for the continuing civil war, nothing decisive has happened, and no end is in sight.
For the Assad government this ongoing guerilla war means endless trouble, for its Russian, Iranian and Hizbullah allies, this means endless casualties, expense and aggravation, and for the Syrian people it means an extension of what feel like a life sentence under the cruel thumb of war, a war they have no power to end.
The Russians and the Americans may be the biggest, but they aren’t the only outsiders keeping the horrifying Syrian war going. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are also arming and paying militias and pressing them to kill more.
Christopher Phillips is Senior Lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London and Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa program. He is author of Everyday Arab Identity and The Battle for Syria.
The Battle for Syria, Yale University Press, 2016