Aleppo has fallen. The city’s eastern part, held by the rebels since 2012, for all intents and purposes has come under the regime’s control again, thus marking a new victory for the most brutal of Middle Eastern dictatorships.
The reported fall of Aleppo foremost results from the growing isolation of an insurgency under relentless attack by a regime supported by foreign forces. The fighters in Aleppo East have steadily retreated under the combined pressure of Russian forces, of Hezbollah, of Afghan militants and the Syrian army. Add to this that the local branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK, which is battling the Turkish regime) actively supports the regime and helped blockade the city.
Since the start of the war, this coalition’s strategy has been to systematically bomb hospitals and schools, to level entire quarters – with barrel bombs or missile strikes – in order to starve out the population. Aleppo is today a pile of rubble, an urban hell off limits to the media and observers.
But it was an American decision above all that sealed Aleppo’s fate. The insurgency lost Western support in the fall of 2013, when Barack Obama decided not to intervene after the regime waged chemical warfare against the civilian population, thus inviting the Russians to intervene in the conflict. From 2014 on, the American policy in effect has been to let the Russians and Iran liquidate the Syrian insurgency.
The dream of a democratic Syria
In recent months, the diplomatic posturing in Washington about a cease-fire in Aleppo barely obscured its acquiescence in Bashar al-Assad’s winning the war before the end of the Obama administration.
In addition, Turkey – the insurgency’s last prop – entered Syria nearly four months ago while fighting the Islamic State, but the operation’s first target was the PYD/PKK. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who publicly declared that Turkey had no problem with the fall of Aleppo, has formulated the basis for a possible accord with Damascus: simultaneous liquidation of the PKK and of what remains of the insurgency in the North.
But, fundamentally, what to make of an insurgeant Aleppo ? To hear supporters of Bashar Al-Assad and the admirers of Vladimir Putin tell it, the Syrian insurrection from the beginning had been nothing more than a local variant of the Islamic State or of Al Quaeda.
The insurgency’s progressive radicalization
The reality is anything but that. The story of insurgent Aleppo is foremost that of a population appalled by the violence of the state, of an insurrectionist movement hastily cobbled together whose participants dreamed of a democratic Syria. It brings back memories of an evening we spent in Aleppo with young men and women of the revolutionary movement, of their hopes, of their chants, as they were able finally to speak out freely in a society that had known nothing but police surveillance.
Mention of the martyred city cannot be made without speaking of Aleppo’s rebel Municipality. It will remain one of the most extraordinary examples of rebuilding institutions in the midst of a war. Between our two visits (in December 2012 and August 2013), it had carried off the feat – with minuscule budgets and only token international support – of cleaning up a city drowning in garbage, reopening schools – clandestinely, because of the government’s targeted bombardments – and establishing a system to aid the most destitute.
But the lack of support for the armed groups most representative of the population, those linked to civilian institutions, and the action of transnational groups led to the insurgency’s progressive radicalization.
Abandoning our values
In an increasingly desperate situation, some radicalized their discourse or joined better-armed Jihadist groups so they could continue the fight. Still, practically to the end, the civil institutions continued to function. The fall of Aleppo makes us examine who we are. Despite generally honest media coverage, an international mobilization for the besieged city never materialized.
At no point has public opinion been focused on the war in Syria, although it is one of the most atrocious in recent decades. The poison gas attacks, populations starved by blockades, indiscriminate bombings, torture at an unheard-of scale – nothing has been able to generate the moral outrage that might have saved Aleppo. It is as if we responded to the strategic disengagement of the Western countries by abandoning our values.
Adam Baczko is a PhD candidate in political science at the EHESS, Paris. In 2015 he was a Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM. Baczko conducted extensive research in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of Congo for his comparative research project on the exercise of justice by armed insurgent groups.
Gilles Dorronsoro is a professor of Political Science at Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris and a Senior Member at the Institut Universitaire de France. He is the principal investigator of an ERC-Grant « Social Dynamics of Civil Wars » (2016-2020) and is a specialist of contemporary Afghanistan and Turkey. He is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Arthur Quesnay is a PhD candidate in Political Science and Junior Research Fellow at the ERC-funded CivilWars program at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University (Paris 1). His doctoral thesis focuses on sectarian conflicts in Northern Iraq, where he conducted extensive fieldwork since 2009. He has also conducted parallel fieldwork in Libya (2011-2012) and Syria (2012-2013) with insurgent groups.
First published in French by Le Monde.