It’s a terrible thing to say, let alone to think, but anyone who cares about the plight of the civilians in Aleppo, and particularly the children, has to wonder now whether the best thing to bring the suffering to an end would be a quick victory for Bashar al-Assad.
The prospect may be indigestible. By any standards of humanity it is. But the fact is, the game is nearly over in Syria’s second city, and the president looks like being the winner. Not since the Nazis retook Warsaw in 1944 has the world seen an assault of such total ferocity as we are witnessing in Syria’s second largest city. And just as in that case, however stubborn and well-planned the resistance, military might seems bound to prevail in the end.
An outrage, a humanitarian catastrophe, an outright war crime, declares the US, along with the UK and France, singling out Russia as a particular culprit. Of course they are right. But they are also powerless to do anything about it.
No one who remembers how Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, put down the revolt in Hama in 1982 can doubt the ruthlessness with which the Alawite regime acts against its opponents – up to 40,000 civilians were killed by ceaseless bombardment on that occasion.
Nor can anyone who has followed Moscow’s actions in Chechnya or Ukraine believe that humanitarian considerations will trump pragmatic advantage when Russia sees a weakness in its enemies. Assad, with Russian air support, is going in for the kill – and nothing that is said in the west, short of a sudden turnaround in military fortunes, will make any difference.
So what can the outside world do other than make impassioned speeches at the United Nations? The answer is that it has to look beyond Aleppo to the next phase of this horrendous conflict.
Diplomacy has failed. That is clear. The west also has to swallow the fact that Russia has intervened to save Assad and now holds most of the cards. If, or when, he retakes the whole of Syria’s second city, he will have won a major victory. But he has not won the war. He has made clear his intention of retaking the whole country, but to do so would involve not only retaking territory held by Islamic State but also taking on the Kurds, risking a direct confrontation with the US, which has backed them.
Rebel groups still hold more than half the country, including sizable chunks held by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). Part of the agreement between the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was that the two would cooperate against this and other extremist groups. Now the Moscow-Washington cooperation has collapsed, this no longer applies.
No one should doubt that the west has painted itself into a corner by taking sides in Syria but refusing to intervene on the ground. An Assad victory would be humiliating. But then where do the winning parties go? Assad will be beholden to Russia and Iran, neither of which wants a complete break with the west for the sake of an Arab leader that neither particularly likes. Syria would be a ruin, incapable of pulling itself out of the mire without outside help.
It is in this constricted space that the outside world needs to work. Its first priority must be humanitarian. If Assad wins in Aleppo, he will still want to portray himself as a leader of his countrymen, however obscene the gesture. But that can be used to get in aid convoys, as has happened in sites beyond Aleppo in the past few days. The world, especially Europe, also has a moral duty towards the refugees, whose plight will only worsen.
There is a growing assumption in Europe, including the UK, that refugees have become a toxic issue. But the sheer brutality of the onslaught on Aleppo has served also to sharpen humanitarian concerns. Not even Theresa May can argue that these are economic migrants who should be turned away.
But ultimately, there is the problem of Assad. After all this he cannot remain in power. Virtually none of the opposition groups would deal with him, and certainly no western government. Short of an assassin’s bullet, only Russia or Iran can displace him. The US and Europe need to drop the vituperation against Moscow, however justified, and start discreetly suggesting that, though the regime can remain in power,but if they are not to stay stuck in Syria’s morass and in continuous conflict with the west, Assad has to be quietly dropped.
Adrian Hamilton has been a foreign editor and deputy editor of the Observer as well as comment editor and columnist at The Independent. He retains a lifelong interest and concern with the Middle East.