What Comes After Aleppo Falls?

The battle for eastern Aleppo will be over soon, but tens of thousands of Syrians there will find little peace. The victory for the government of President Bashar al-Assad will open another violent, disorienting chapter in their lives, and a dangerous one for the opposition. Soon, civilians and rebel fighters alike will either be punished or have to flee the city and join the many thousands of others displaced by Mr. Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies — part of a plan to break the insurgency, and change Syria forever.

In a recent interview, Mr. Assad said that taking Aleppo, which has been the site of fighting for years, “won’t mean the end of the war in Syria, but it will be a huge step toward this end.” He’s right on both counts. It would certainly be the most notable in a string of recent victories by his forces, along with those of Russia, Iran and other allied militia groups. The aftermaths of these victories show what’s in store for the civilians and rebel fighters in Aleppo: Surrender might save them from bombs, siege and starvation, but other calamities await.

The history of what Mr. Assad’s government once called “truces” — but now more honestly promotes as military victories — is dark. In 2014, Mr. Assad’s forces detained hundreds of young men in the opposition who had agreed to surrender in the Old City of Homs, a center of the uprising that was eventually bombed and starved into submission. Many were promised amnesty, only to be conscripted into the very military that had killed their families. Residents were eventually allowed to leave to other opposition areas carrying a single bag each. (Fighters could take one weapon.) Displacing or detaining populations has become business as usual in areas retaken by the regime.

A poster showing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria inside a government military police office in Aleppo this month. Credit Omar Sanadiki/Reuters
A poster showing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria inside a government military police office in Aleppo this month. Credit Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Two years later, Mr. Assad is even less compromising. Today he claims the chance of a truce in Aleppo is “practically nonexistent.” His confidence is buoyed by a series of rebel defeats in 2016, after which populations were forced from besieged areas to Idlib Province in northwestern Syria. Today, as one Aleppo district after another falls, the rebels know resistance is futile; Mr. Assad knows that they know. His forces will make opposition areas unlivable, isolate fighters from civilians, and force both to surrender or leave.

These cleansings reflect a pattern, but the strategy behind them is still unclear. Maybe Mr. Assad believes that if these people remain they will pose a permanent threat to nearby areas under his control. Maybe he doesn’t want to spend government money on them. Or maybe his minority-led regime just wants to push disloyal Sunnis out of its heartland in western Syria. Whatever the logic, this ominous pattern — sometimes called the “green bus” strategy after the vehicles used to transport the displaced — paints a grim picture of what the people of Aleppo can expect.

The opposition, Russia, Turkey and the United States will continue to negotiate over Aleppo’s fate while Mr. Assad shapes it. One insurgent group told me that rebels were demanding humanitarian aid, an end to bombing, and a guarantee that civilians would be allowed to remain in eastern Aleppo under rebel protection. They will get none of these. Fighters will surrender or be forced to leave. Civilians can follow them into exile or place themselves at the government’s mercy. They might join their fellow displaced in Idlib, or head to the countryside east of Aleppo that is now controlled by rebel groups allied with Turkey. People close to the rebels tell me Mr. Assad’s government and Iran prefer to send the fighters to Idlib where they can fight them unrestrained, while the rebels prefer the Turkish-protected safe haven, in part because Turkey’s presence might deter violence by the regime.

Military-age men from rebel-held Aleppo face the direst future. They might be conscripted or executed, or join the tens of thousands starving in Syria’s prisons. Already, hundreds of fighters who surrendered have disappeared, according to a United Nations spokesman. The civilians who stick around are hardly safe; the Syrian government does not distinguish between fighters and those who give them aid, medical care, shelter or news coverage. Mr. Assad, his government and its soldiers and supporters see these people as traitors and terrorists. People close to the government say Mr. Assad’s troops and supporters object to the green buses: They would rather the “traitors” in Aleppo be brought to justice than be sent to Idlib.

Why Idlib, a relatively poor, rural province dominated by the Levant Conquest Front, a Qaeda offshoot that the United States designates a terrorist group? The answer is worrying. In the short term, Mr. Assad, Iran and Russia are too busy fighting to defend Damascus and take control of Aleppo to focus on Idlib Province, whose people have long hated the regime. Yet it is unlikely that in the long run Mr. Assad would permanently give up a significant piece of the country. More ambitious plans are afoot for this province.

When the time comes to retake Idlib — and it will come — Mr. Assad and his allies will have corralled much of Syria’s insurgency and its supporters into a small mountainous patch where they will be easy prey for the bombing and isolation tactics that have won victories elsewhere in the country. What’s more, unlike in Aleppo where these tactics at least brought international censure and embarrassment, in Idlib the regime would be attacking a province dominated by a terrorist group. What self-respecting Western government would make an uproar over — much less oppose — another campaign in the war on terrorism? At that point Syria’s displaced and dispossessed — civilians and rebels alike — will once again be in the cross hairs, having traded one siege for another.

The war on Aleppo has been a showcase for boundless human suffering and Western impotence for so long one almost longs for it to end. In Syria, however, all safety is fleeting for those branded enemies of the state. Aleppo’s destruction will bring them little relief. If the international community won’t act to impose a cease-fire in Syria or take in more refugees, perhaps it is time to finally create safe havens in Syria for the displaced from Aleppo and elsewhere, including the more than one million who are still living under siege. It would be small compensation for the destruction of their cities, homes and families, but it is preferable to their open-ended nightmare.

Faysal Itani is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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