Editorial: How we got to Aleppo

The outpouring of emotion, the shock, the horror, the repeat of those eternal empty words of ‘never again’, has dominated my personal social media feed. In fact, I could be forgiven for assuming everyone in the world is heartbroken by what has taken place, but for the few comments here and there that suggest that, somewhere, the news of Aleppo is being celebrated.

Out of curiosity rather than surprise, I began to click on those social media feeds who expressed support for Assad, condemning the ‘imperialist’ ambitions of the US, and calling on ‘Islamic’ Iran to purge Syria of ‘Wahhabi’ and ‘Jihadist’ rebels who are hell-bent on exterminating ‘Shia’.

In these feeds, I delved into a different world, where the same events we analyse are leading to different conclusions. And as much as I tried to establish whether this was a minority opinion, celebrations were taking place in areas in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and amongst opposition figures in Sudan; celebrations declaring ‘victory over terrorism’.


The Contradiction: Iran supporting Ba’ath


However, these celebrations are fraught with contradictions. First and foremost, most pro-Assad, and indeed pro-Iran supporters are anti-Ba’ath. Saddam himself, the most despised figure amongst most Iraqi Shia, is the symbol of modern Ba’athism, and Assad follows the same political ideology as Saddam did. How have Iraq and Iran gone from despising the Ba’ath and calling on the international community to invade Iraq and rid the country of them, to hell-bent on saving them?

Some will point to Assad’s Alawite heritage. However, the Alawite heritage bears little resemblance to Shi’ism and is considered a more extreme offshoot. Furthermore, Assad is not known to have been religious and his father’s embracing of Ba’athism, a brand of Arab nationalism, is seen as the sworn enemy of Islamism.


Blind sectarian support


Secondly, support for Assad is nearly always blind, as is support for Iran, ignoring or underplaying the sectarianism propagated by the latter in both countries. In Iraq, a sectarian government has dominated power, backed and maintained by Iran. In 2006, when the political-Shia factions of Moqtada-Sadr and then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki went to war with one another (I distinguish between civilian Shia and political Shia), Sadr was summoned to Tehran and ‘ordered’ to reconcile with Maliki ‘for the greater good’. This was repeated in 2010 after Sadr expressed exasperation with Maliki and his conduct.

Under Maliki’s watch, Iraq became an arena dominated by multiple militias, embroiled in a battle for power and perpetrators of terrible crimes including assassinations, arbitrary killings, and forced migration. Yet somehow, these militias became lauded in Iraq, with Badr Brigade leader Hadi al-Amiri in particular being described as a hero in the fight against ISIS, antagonising the marginalised Sunni population where ISIS were initially welcomed as a ‘revolution’ against sectarian Baghdad.


Rule of the militias


Iran’s foreign policy is based on the establishment of ultra-vires fighting forces. In Lebanon, it has Hezbollah, in Yemen it has Houthi, in Iraq it has a whole host of militia with the most powerful being the Badr Brigade. It is surely not far-fetched to therefore assume that the Syria Iran is looking for is similar in style to Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq; a weak and impotent government ruled by armed groups who are above the law. And without Iran and Russia, Assad is very weak right now.

Whichever way you look at it, supporters of the Assad regime are far removed from the principles of democracy, freedom, respect for human rights and all the other lofty and noble aspirations that many Syrians are looking for.


How rebels became their own enemy


However, Syria is not a case of good versus evil and whilst Assad supporters are lulled into the delusion of anti-imperialist grandeur and Che-Guevara-esque rebellion against the global order, anti-Assad supporters are guilty of turning a blind eye to critical truths.

Emotional arguments and conspiracy theories aside, the main reasons behind the tragedy of Aleppo are not primarily to do with Iran, Russia or Assad, but first and foremost with the make-up of the rebel forces and their backers.

The Syrian Opposition has been mired in political wrangling as a result of the Qatar-Saudi feud over the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar, keen to realise its soft power project in backing the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, sought to establish the Syrian Brotherhood as the out-and-out alternative. Saudi Arabia’s long-enmity with the Brotherhood dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, as well as rumblings of an Arab Spring domestically aroused panic and paranoia as it sought to limit the influence of the Brotherhood and scatter opposition groups.

Practically, this meant that Saudi sought to empower multiple groups lacking in popular support in order to limit the voice of the Brotherhood, resulting in delays in the appointment of representatives as well as an inability to come up with an agenda behind which all groups could rally around.

However to limit the paralysis of the Opposition Council to Qatar-Saudi differences is naïve.


Saudi marred by succession struggle and false intentions


Put simply, Saudi Arabia’s issues with Syria were twofold, with both issues having a resounding impact on the conduct of the war. The first was that the Syria crisis emerged in the last days of King Abdullah and when the succession struggle was at its most fierce. Princes jostling for power used the Syria issue as a poison chalice to ruin one another’s chances at a shot at the throne. In real terms, this meant that Saudi provided unlimited backing one day, and then withdrew most backing the next as each prince was cautious not to become ‘burnt. This problem was only resolved when King Salman put an end to the struggle upon assuming power.

The second issue, and one that continues to plague the Syrian cause, is that Saudi Arabia’s primary aim is not, and never was, Assad. Saudi Arabia’s fundamental aim is to cut Iran’s access to Hezbollah and stem its growing influence that has come to encompass Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. To make this clearer, if Assad were tomorrow to state that he has abandoned Iran and returned to the ‘Arab’ fold, it is more likely than not that Saudi Arabia would accept a settlement.

For Assad, the problem is that the Saudis cannot be trusted after ‘abandoning’ Saddam to the US. The Iranians are simply far better ‘friends’ and their commitment to his protection goes some way to proving him right.

Saudi’s skewed aims have meant that it has never been able to maintain a coherent and solid alliance of anti-Assad nations. On one day it would welcome Erdogan in Riyadh, and then ignore Istanbul in search of warmer ties with Russia, before returning to Istanbul after Putin’s cold shoulder. This flip-flapping of foreign policy irked even their allies in the Syrian opposition leading to a scathing attack last week by Mishail Kilou, a man considered to have been forced on the Opposition Council by Saudi Arabia itself.

But Saudi Arabian foreign policy is only one part of a long list of factors.


The curse of Al-Nusra and ISIS


On the ground in Syria, the decisive impact of Al-Nusra and ISIS on the moral legitimacy of the Syrian revolution has been resounding. After the FSA’s defeat in Qusayr by Hezbollah, the group has since failed to assert its authority as the main fighting force. Al-Nusra, which rose to prominence as the main fighting force in FSA’s wake, made arguably the most extraordinary blunder of this dark chapter by pre-emptively announcing its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, putting its key backer Erdogan in a most awkward position in front of his NATO allies.

And this only fuelled Obama’s indecisiveness over Syria following the failure of NATO intervention in Libya which subsequently saw the establishment of two governments, a state of lawlessness, and the rise of ISIS in North Africa. Haunted by Libya, Obama was loathe to provide support for the revolution if it meant supporting the strongest fighting group on the ground; Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra.

For supporters of the revolution, Al-Nusra was declared an excuse for selling out the Syrian people.


The ‘Sultan’ fallicy


Much of the criticism following Aleppo has been levelled at Erdogan, accused of ‘crocodile’ tears and pandering to the ‘Muslim’ world with quotes from the Qur’anic verses as well as adopting an anti-Assad stance early on. However such recent criticism has often stemmed from emotional furore as opposed to anything rooted in the realities on the ground,

Part of former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s great foreign policy in light of rejection from the EU, and indifference from the Arab world, was to find friendship with Syria and Iran, thereby securing the borders and also facilitating a smooth management of the restive Kurdish areas. This friendship proved fruitful as the countries became key trading partners and Turkey was left to embark on an economic revolution under the AKP.

It is harsh to criticise Erdogan for not jumping on the revolution bandwagon in Syria. He had established years of warm ties and according to sources approached by the International Interest, Turkey’s initial move was to send a delegation to Assad advising him to make concessions in light of the growing protests. Assad’s flagrant disregard of such advice and swift developments on the ground forced Turkey into a re-alignment whereby it had to choose a new ‘camp’. With historical ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, it made sense to adopt Qatar’s approach and back the revolution. Such a move should not be seen as political expedience. Turkey has/had much to gain from a Brotherhood-led Arab world.

However differences over Sisi in Egypt prevented a healthy working relationship with Saudi which inevitably hindered communication of intelligence on the ground, logistics and military tactics against the Assad regime.

It was only when, for a brief period, Saudi Arabia decided to throw all its cards in behind the rebels alongside Qatar and Turkey, did the rebel movement gather momentum. And such was the momentum that talk began to spread of Damascus being with rebel sights. This sudden surge in rebel momentum suddenly caught Putin off-guard who, fearing a US-leaning regime and more establishing of military bases as had become habit in Europe, threw his full weight behind the Assad regime militarily and diplomatically.

To have expected Turkey to take on Russia and Iran militarily is fanciful at best. But supposing Turkey had drawn up plans for military action, US backing of the Kurds and YPG movements in Syria which had encouraged the PKK to stall on domestic peace talks rattled Erdogan.

Here it is fair to blame the US. Had they given Erdogan a guarantee of a no-fly zone corridor that would have limited Kurdish movement, Erdogan may then have had the peace of mind to be more pro-active on Syria. However, the US were unwilling to become embroiled with Assad as a no-fly zone required destroying the Syrian regime defences. Furthermore, the US were already backing the Kurdish forces as an example of ‘moderate’ rebels.  Only a shrewd manoeuvre from the Turks to invite Barzani and the Peshmerga to a golden PR opportunity to save Kobane from ISIS salvaged Erdogan’s reputation and put off the media witch-hunt for his head.

At this point, it is most likely that Obama had been advised that Syria was headed for a split and that the safest gamble was on the Kurds who remain the most organised fighting group, though not necessarily against Assad. Had it been otherwise, the US would have been more responsive of Erdogan’s requests, and more vocal in its condemnation of the attempted coup in Turkey, a stance which forced Erdogan to seek a truce with Moscow. Having one superpower keen to oust you is one thing. Having two is a desperate situation.

In other words, Erdogan has found himself having to navigate the pitfalls of Syria and it is telling that the sudden support for the Kurds from Russia, reflecting in air strikes on rebel positions which would then be occupied by the YPG, resulted in Erdogan visiting Moscow himself.

Supposing Erdogan is now sitting contemplating a military operation, the harsh reality is that he would be alone. Saudi Arabia would not commit and is still courting Moscow. Qatar lacks the military capabilities and does not have a viable ‘proxy’. The US cannot be relied upon to commit to protecting Turkey diplomatically in the event Russia lobbies for international sanctions/condemnation on Ankara. Domestically, the PKK would likely use the conflict to create turmoil domestically, creating a war of attrition and gambling on the Turkish people tiring of conflict. Whichever way you look at it, a Turkish military campaign is simply not viable.


Unity always beats disunity


Ultimately, the tragedy of Aleppo has brought to the fore one startling fact; that Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are all united between one objective; protect the regime. The rebels however, are divided with Turkey targeting the Kurds, Saudi Arabia targeting Iran, Qatar seeking to salvage its failed Muslim Brotherhood proxy project, Al-Nusra seeking more extreme aims, secular opposition seeking moderate fighting forces, and the US gradually accepting that Assad may well be the best of a bunch of bad solutions.

As tragic as Aleppo is, it is a chapter in a wider more tragic reality; that what began as a desire for change and an uprising against a brutal dictator, has now become an arena for global political intrigue and a tug of war shaping the new regional and global order. No longer is Saudi Arabia the clear power in the Middle East. Iran has demonstrated it is capable of becoming the new power. No longer is the US the global superpower. Russia has demonstrated that it can be a formidable ally.

And the people caught in between are but a passing statistic. Forgotten today, forgotten tomorrow, betrayed by poor political acumen, visionless foreign policy, and ambition rooted in greed, corruption and arrogance.