By Ben Sladden
In recent days, a milestone in the bloody Syrian conflict has passed, with the last convoy of rebels and civilians having been evacuated from eastern Aleppo following a ceasefire agreement brokered between Russia and Turkey.
The eastern portion once held by rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government has had its stake in the city slowly squeezed in recent months, following advances by forces loyal to the regime, underpinned by unrelenting Russian airstrikes. On 13th December, more than 90% of the city had fallen to the government.
As the humanitarian crisis has intensified, calls have come to relieve the besieged civilians in the rebel-controlled east, with accounts from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting widespread starvation and a lack of access to hospital care, with men, women and children stranded in the wreckage of the city.
An ICRC spokeswoman claims that 34,000 people have now left rebel areas of Aleppo under the evacuation deal.
Assad has claimed victory, this week stating that the evacuation was a “basic step on the road to ending terrorism in the whole of Syrian territory and creating the right circumstances for a solution to end the war”.
The evacuation has been tenuous and strained; on Sunday, it was reported that militants torched buses that were to transport civilians out of Idlib province, causing Assad to stop busses from leaving Aleppo.
In light of this, the United Nations security council unanimously supported a motion to support UN monitors to oversee the evacuations to prevent “mass atrocities” by Assad’s government.
Yet atrocities have been committed on all sides, and the information surrounding the evacuation, and the stalls to it, has remained increasingly hazy and ambiguous. Patrick Cockburn, an acclaimed commentator on the Middle East, said in the Independent that rebels in eastern Aleppo have successfully been controlling the area’s news output, crowding out western journalists and releasing so-called fake news through its “political activists”.
The conquest of Aleppo is finally finished for Assad’s government, and a step toward a peace settlement in Syria. Yet, rebel forces still control territory in Syria, as does Islamic State, the Kurds and their enemies the Turks in the north.
With the incoming Donald Trump presidency, it is likely that the situation in Syria could change dramatically. President Obama, and his European allies, have maintained their objection to Bashar al-Assad’s government, whose regime has overseen the systematic abuse of human rights during the five-year war.
On the other hand, President-elect Trump has expressed a greater willingness to work with Putin, which in turn means a greater willingness to compromise with Assad. Hints of a future shift in US policy were made apparent when Donald Trump’s son met with a Syrian politician, Randa Kassis, who many believe to be pro-regime, in Paris last month.
The British position toward the Syrian quagmire will likely remain unchanged. At the moment, the British and US governments support the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition who’ve been fighting for the overthrowal of Assad, whilst simultaneously fighting ISIS. This strategy’s effectiveness is questionable; it proves extremely difficult to differentiate between moderate rebels and extremists. Fighting within the rebel ranks are Islamic extremist groups such as the group formerly named the al-Nusra Front, and others who seek to profit politically from regime change. Many draw parallels with the American backing of the Afghan Mujahedeen – a group who would later be classified by the CIA as Islamic extremists – against the Soviets in the 1980s.
A full-scale western invasion remains unlikely. First of all, with Donald Trump as president, the commitment to a Syrian future without Bashar al-Assad could be reversed, which could mean the US could seek to add the goal of stabilising the regime whilst simultaneously continuing its airstrikes against Islamic State.
Secondly, political opposition to a full-scale invasion remains strong in both Britain and the USA. Memories of the costly, drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain in people’s minds.
The war has descended into a proxy conflict, reminiscent of the Cold War. Russia seeks to assert power in the Middle East, as does Iran, a major player in the region whose militias support Assad’s regime. Other Arab states such as Lebanon have also played a role in the conflict. This makes a peace settlement increasingly difficult.
Western Europe needs to assert that its main priority is peace; the war has so far cost over 300,000 lives, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
With Donald Trump likely to cooperate with Putin, greater pressures can be put on Russia to argue for the eventual resignation of Assad following a peace settlement. Assad’s regime has seen gross violations of human rights, and the international community must maintain that there can be no future for Assad in Syria.
But to think that peace in Syria can be guaranteed is naïve. The conflict has been deeply sectarian, and there are limited ways in which the west and the international community can resolve divides that go to the heart of both religion and politics.
Photograph: yeowatzup via Flickr.