Aleppo: The last battle for Syria

The current fighting in the city marks a turning point in deciding fate of the Assad regime and the uprising in Syria.

Large volumes of weapons funneled to the Free Syrian Army could be a post-conflict security concern [Reuters]

The battle of Aleppo marks a turning point in terms of deciding the fate of the Arab Spring in Syria and the future of the Alawite dynasty in power.

The stakes could not get higher. There are several dynamics and questions at play in this battle, making the latest escalation decisive.

The Assads and their entourage sought from the outset to militarise peaceful protests. They hedged their bets on using overkill power to nip the Syrian version of the Arab Spring in the bud.

As the Aleppo battle rages on unabated, the saying “hoist with one’s own petard” applies to Bashar al-Assad. His military machine is haemorrhaging with daily defections, including by historically loyal Sunnis from the upper echelons of the army. 

The outcome of the battle for Aleppo is crucial not only for the Syrian parties vying directly for control of Syria. Also, and equally important, there are outsiders whose own interests, policies or investments in this battle – as well as in the phases leading to it – await vindication or validation.

These non-warring parties, heralding from Paris to Riyadh, from Moscow to Washington, and from Ankara to Doha, have been employing a combination of soft and hard power, with hard power increasingly gaining the upper hand, in their bid to sway the battle for Aleppo.

Whatever the overall outcome, the outcome for the Assads will not be palatable – even China and Russia will be reluctant to sign them a blank cheque should they one day be held accountable for the use of disproportionate force against civilians in the cities used as the battle grounds between themselves and combatants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Time and space

Aleppo is becoming the entrance to the Arab Spring portcullis should the FSA prevail. If not, given its importance to the regime as the country’s largest city and its hub of industrial activity, it will be the gate to hell by a determined dynastic bureaucratic-despotic rule that refuses to die quietly.

The plumes of smoke from the regime’s bombardment have blackened Halab, a city associated with the whiteness of its rocks and soil. The outgunned revolutionaries and their will of steal is being tested by a regime making perhaps its last stand in Aleppo.

Like Baghdad before, war is taking its toll not only on civilians, but also on rich antiquity and rare ruins. One month is the time fixed by the parties siding with the revolutionaries to decide the fate of the regime in the battle of Aleppo. That is a tough assignment given the fact that the weapons at the disposal of the FSA are no match to the sophisticated Russian-made arms used by Assad’s camp. Whether this tough objective assigned to the revolutionaries in the Holy month of Ramadan is realistic remains to be seen.

“Turkey’s own national security, especially with regards to developments along the Kurdish front, will be directly affected by who inherits the Assads’ mantle of power and what becomes of the Syrian state.”

Internationalisation of the conflict is also now fait accompli. It is delusional to think Syria is no longer the scene of an internationalised conflict, even if direct foreign military intervention is not forthcoming. Of course, there are Arab combatants, either volunteers or salaried by Gulf States, and this is one dimension of internationalisation. Syria’s long and porous borders make this possible, and al-Qaeda members from Iraq are joining the fight against the regime, as are Kurds seeking to help their kin in the country’s north.

However, direct military intervention by a coalition of the willing led by the US, such as in Iraq or Bosnia, has not so far been an option. Syria has every potential to become a wider conflict in which third-parties participating with their massive firepower, arrayed against either the regime or the revolutionaries, would make for a deadly mix.

Jordan and Turkey

Aleppo is not the only territory in which this conflict is being decided, as neighbouring countries are being “annexed” to the territory of the war and strife. Jordan and Turkey are pivotal in this regard. Both are perhaps now in a position where they are providing more than soft power and humanitarian relief in this conflict. The exiled Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Council (SNC), has of late increased its presence and activity in Jordan and Turkey, and the preference of proximity to Syria is logical given the turn of events and heightened anticipation of victory over the regime.

Their territories are situated in wider geostrategic maps of power relations, according them a share in the battle for Aleppo. Turkey’s longest border is with Syria at 822km. Jordan’s is not as long at 375km, but remains an important cultural, political and commercial transit route. Prince Faisal, brother of the founder of Transjordan, Abdullah I, ruled over Syria until he was expelled from the French in 1920. The outcome of the conflict in Syria will have reverberations that will be felt resoundingly in both Ankara and Amman.

Turkey’s own national security, especially with regards to developments along the Kurdish front, will be directly affected by who inherits the Assads’ mantle of power and what becomes of the Syrian state. The latter is in the same boat but with a different issue occupying the monarchists’ strategic and intelligence analysts: what route will the Arab Spring take if the revolution triumphs in Syria.

The state of the emboldened Kurdish community in northern Syria and the sight of Kurdish flags in Qamishli where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its local affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), may be in control of territory lost by the Assad regime must be giving Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sleepless nights, as must be the thousands of refugees crossing into Turkey on a daily basis. So far, Turkey’s provision of human relief and engagement with the conflict through soft power have been impeccable.

Jordan’s status is consolidated as a rent-seeking state, playing a pivotal role in US-led alliance-building in the Middle East region. It provides logistical support, the quality of which was proven in the invasion of Iraq and the defeat of Saddan Hussein, and to an extent in counterterrorism initiatives against al-Qaeda, notably in the targeted killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006.

The affinity between Jordan and Saudi Arabia – especially since the Saudis have little or no influence in Iraq or Turkey – implicates the Hashemite Kingdom to a great extent in the unfolding tragedy in Syria. In particular, Saudi money and perhaps arms could flow through Jordanian territory.

Bandar bin Sultan, the newly appointed spy chief, may be the right person for a more proactive mission in the Syrian conflict. It is a conflict, like in Iraq, which the new spy chief would most likely interpret and manage in the broader context of Iranian-Saudi or Sunni-Shia rivalry that spans from Bahrain to Lebanon. 

Others weigh in

The current debate among the states endorsing the Syrian revolution revolves around the calibre and volume of weapons to be given to FSA fighters. In so doing, much of the reasoning is informed by post-conflict security concerns. With the Libyan example in mind, no doubt, there is fear that storage of unused weapons could be used after the revolution in a way that causes instability, such as the rise of militias.

The fighting is ferocious on the ground and the revolutionaries cannot afford to be delimited by such reasoning. The task at hand requires continuous flow of weapons. Anti-tank rockets are, for instance, being trickled in insufficient amounts.

Moreover, the discussions involving Arab and Western states and representatives of the Syrian oppositions and fighters are now focused on providing anti-aircraft capacity. Whether Arab muscle and money can succeed in securing these kinds of weapons could be decisive in the battle for Aleppo.

Another aspect of the conflict’s internationalisation is the input of several Arab and Western countries into post-conflict political road-mapping. In this context, the defected Brigadier-General Munaf Tlass is being subjected to all kind of spin.

Firstly, his military status has been exaggerated in ways that might thrust him into leadership roles in post-conflict political reconstruction of Syria. General Tlass’s real motivation for the defection will never be established beyond doubt, and no one can undo the fact that he is the son of the former flamboyant defence minister and long-time ally of the Assads, Mustafa Tlass. Tlass Senior served the Assads from 1972 to 2002 and became a stakeholder in the regime, including the business side of it.

“All indications point to the fact that the Assad regime is now moving towards firming up contingency plans.”

Munaf’s position in the Assad coterie is not is as high as his father’s was. By the same token, he did not defect at the beginning of the killings, and his defection could be an attempt to save his skin at a time when he was convinced he would not replicate his father’s success in securing a place in the most inner circle of power.

Yet France and Saudi Arabia are leading a quasi “presidential campaign” on his behalf. The Syrian opposition is resisting, with the SNC rejecting demands to grant him a leadership role without its own vetting and terms. Turkey and Qatar may have reservations about the French and Saudi push in this respect. Davutoglu saw General Tlass in the last week of July, but no information transpired from their meeting.

Judging by Syrian blogs, Munaf will not go far in his quest for leadership. However, there are voices within the opposition who want to give him a fair go. They reason that “clean” individuals, military and diplomatic, will have to be reintegrated in the new system for the purpose of orderly and democratic reconstruction.

Alawite enclave, Alawite state?

All indications point to the fact that the Assad regime is now moving towards firming up contingency plans. These plans mostly point to Tartous and Latakia becoming possible Alawite enclave should the revolutionaries prevail.

This would be reverting to the French colonial plan of divide and rule along micro-ethnic lines that granted the Alawites autonomy before independence. The area is fertile and has the means of self-support as well as an infrastructure to support an autonomous enclave-state run by the Alawites should they retreat to this region in the case of defeat. Latakia’s international airport may already be being used to relocate military and intelligence personnel.

Right now, while fighting for prevalence in Aleppo, both the revolutionaries and regime are already strategizing and operating on the basis of a new reality expected to emerge from the current fighting. 

In the spectre of possible defeat, each party is regrouping internally to fend off threats to their existence, and working externally to seek alliances that will provide material resources and endorsement.

In such circumstances, the Syrian revolution may be taking a route in which the Syrians themselves have only limited control over its pace, strategies and outcomes. A revolution that started out peacefully has become own of tragedy and loss. It will be worth it when and if authoritarian rule is defeated.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).