The fall of Aleppo is viewed in Israel as a great victory for Bashar Assad, and as the first step towards the resumption of his control over Syria. Idlib, still in rebel hands, is next in line. After Idlib is pounded to smithereens, Russian and Syrian aircraft and the Shiite militias will head south to restore order to the part of the Golan Heights that Bashar used to hold. Then the Redeemer will come to Zion. But if you take a closer look at how Aleppo fell, it is not clear that Assad is indeed on his way to regain control over Syria. On the contrary, at center stage in the unfolding picture are Putin, Khamenei, Nasrallah, Erdogan and Netanyahu, while Assad has been shunted to the background. The powers determining the future of Aleppo in particular, and of Syria in general, are the Russians and the Iranians. Assad legitimized their intervention along with that of various militias operating on their behalf.
It was not by accident that the cease-fire agreement, and the agreement on evacuating the tens of thousands trapped in Aleppo, was reached in the Turkish city of Ankara. The Turks brokered the deal between the Russian military representative and the besieged Syrian rebels. The fact that this agreement did not occur without Iran’s consent shows who the real players are in this horror film. Assad is out of the picture: Having lost his army and status, he is totally dependent on the Russians and the Iranians. They will emerge as the powerbrokers in Syria for years to come.
In the summer of 2015, the Assad regime was on the ropes. Without massive Russian intervention, Syria would have fallen to the opposition. When he understood that Obama was refusing to get seriously engaged in the fighting and did not want the rebels to win, Putin entered the vacuum with a murderous display of power. He wasn’t alone. Russia and Iran divided the work – Russian planes targeted the rebel-controlled city causing indiscriminate civilian deaths. Iranian and Hezbollah forces then moved in, purging, murdering, raping and looting.
One cannot make sense of the collapse of Aleppo without understanding Turkey’s role. As said, the surrender agreement was signed in Ankara, and not between Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva. Aleppo might not have fallen if not for Erdogan’s political flip-flop after the failed coup against him in July. Erdogan understood that Obama was acting behind his back when the US armed and supported the Kurdish militias under the pretext of fighting ISIS. He watched with alarm the creation of the Kurdish canton of Rojava along the Syrian border. Seeing this as a serious threat to Turkish national security, Erdogan—who till then had supported the Syrian rebels—made a U-turn. He humbled himself before Putin, mended their strained relations and renewed diplomatic ties with Netanyahu. His deal with Putin is clear: Russia agrees to a Turkish security zone inside Syrian territory at the expense of the Kurds, and Turkey refrains from opposing Russian intervention in Syria, especially in Aleppo.
Last August, Erdogan began his “Operation Protective Shield,” intending to capture the northern border area in Syria from ISIS and the Kurds, where he would then create the desired security zone. In parallel, the Russians and Iranians began preparations to conquer Aleppo. Turkey established a Syrian militia called the “Syrian Free Army,” made up of units once supported by the Americans, and changed its priorities. By withdrawing support for the rebels in Aleppo, Turkey was free at last to set up the much desired security zone against the Kurds.
With this turnabout, some of the Turkish-supported rebels left Aleppo and joined the new Turkish force. Their departure formed the first crack in the opposition front in Aleppo, a crack that allowed militias supporting Assad to take over neighborhoods previously in rebel hands. Renewal of relations between Erdogan and Putin was undoubtedly a serious blow to the Syrian rebels. They lost a main ally (Turkey) just as Iran and Russia stepped up their murderous offensive.
The fall of Aleppo leaves Syria in the hands of four major players, each with a direct interest: Turkey dominates the countryside north of Aleppo, a stone’s throw from the city; Russia sees itself as the acting ruler of Syria because of its air superiority (without which the Iranians alone could not have defeated the insurgents); Iran is still a player because Putin is not willing to dirty his hands on the ground. Putin needs the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias as a policing force, and therefore he must take Iran’s interests into account. Facing all this is Israel, which maintains good relations with Putin and has recently revamped relations with Turkey. On the other hand, Israel sees Iran and Hezbollah as existential threats. Standing among these four players, each of which has huge military power, is Bashar al-Assad. He has no army, no economy, and a beaten-down population. After destroying his state, bombing his cities, murdering and exiling his own people, Assad celebrates victory!
To get the proper perspective as to what might take place in Syria, one can learn from the Iraqi example. At the end of 2011, in accordance with President Obama’s election commitment, the last American soldier left Iraq. Still ruled by the pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq, like Syria today, fell easily into Iranian hands. Nonetheless, there was a fly in the ointment: two years later Mosul fell to ISIS, and Iraq has been crumbling ever since.
Assad’s regime is much weaker than the Iraqi regime. Syria is completely in ruins as a result of his Russian friend’s bombing, which has destroyed the very cities he is slated to control. About half of Syria’s residents have lost their homes and been forced to leave. Up to a half a million have been killed by the regime. Assad has lost all legitimacy not only in the eyes of his own people, but in the eyes of the world. Of course, he would like to restore his control, and Israel would like that to happen, but having destroyed his own country he has nowhere to go.
The impotence of the international community says it all. About Obama’s lack of leadership much will be written, and the beautiful friendship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin raises concerns not only regarding peace in Syria, but for the entire world. What is happening in Aleppo, near the Euphrates River, and in Mosul on the banks of the Tigris, attests more than anything else to the region’s accelerating disintegration. The unwillingness of the international community to support revolutions demanding democracy, and their insistence on working with benighted regimes like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have led the entire region into a state of civil war of an ethnic/tribal nature. This is causing indescribable suffering for millions of people, and massive waves of migration will continue to alter the demographic and political map of Europe.
Within this painful process, dictatorial regimes crumble because they are unable to adapt themselves to the spirit of the times. The problem lies in the fact that democratic forces have lost ground in favor of Islamist extremists of all varieties. These extremists are supported by monarchist regimes and dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Setting the tone are Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias on one side, ISIS and Sunni militias on the other. Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, rely on radical Shiite militias to impose their rule. Facing them are Sunni extremists, propped up by sectarian hatred and supported by the Gulf States.
In the middle are millions of people, Shia and Sunni alike, who rose up to seek democracy and social justice. They see how their countries have been repeatedly raped by authoritarian regimes. The silence of the international community cannot be understood only as indifference, but as mistrust and hostility towards millions of young Arabs. These are people who seek an escape from backwardness and tyranny to democracy and freedom, people who want to integrate into the modern world. Trump and Putin, Netanyahu and Erdogan, the Saudi king and the rulers of Iran are united against these educated young people and against the marginalized poor. They leave us with the horrors of Aleppo, which will haunt us for many years to come.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman