Monday, February 8, 2016

The Aleppo Effect

Suriya al Kubra!!

If Aleppo falls, Syria’s vicious war will take a whole new turn, one with far-reaching consequences not just for the region but for Europe too. The latest government assault on the besieged northern Syrian city, which has caused tens of thousands more people to flee in recent days, is also a defining moment for relations between the west and Russia, whose airforce is playing a key role. The defeat of anti-Assad rebels who have partially controlled the city since 2012 would leave nothing on the ground in Syria but Assad’s regime and Islamic State. And all hope of a negotiated settlement involving the Syrian opposition will vanish. This has been a longstanding Russian objective – it was at the heart of Moscow’s decision to intervene militarily four months ago.

It is hardly a coincidence that the bombardment of Aleppo, a symbol of the 2011 anti-Assad revolution, started just as peace talks were being attempted in Geneva. Predictably, the talks soon faltered. Russian military escalation in support of the Syrian army was meant to sabotage any possibility that a genuine Syrian opposition might have its say on the future of the country. It was meant to thwart any plans the west and the UN had officially laid out. And it entirely contradicted Moscow’s stated commitment to a political process to end the war.

The aftershocks will be felt far and wide. If there is one thing Europeans have learned in 2015, it is that they cannot be shielded from the effects of conflict in the Middle East. And if there is one thing they learned from the Ukraine conflict in 2014, it is that Russia can hardly be considered Europe’s friend. It is a revisionist power capable of military aggression.

In fact, as the fate of Aleppo hangs in the balance, these events have – as no other perhaps since the beginning of the war – highlighted the connections between the Syrian tragedy and the strategic weakening of Europe and the west in general. This spillover effect is something Moscow has not only paid close attention to, but also in effect fuelled. The spread of instability fits perfectly with Russia’s goal of seeking dominance by exploiting the hesitations and contradictions of those it identifies as adversaries.

Aleppo will define much of what happens next. A defeat for Syrian opposition forces would further empower Isis in the myth that it is the sole defender of Sunni Muslims – as it terrorises the population under its control. There are many tragic ironies here, not least that western strategy against Isis has officially depended on building up local Syrian opposition ground forces so that they might one day push the jihadi insurgency out of its stronghold in Raqqa. If the very people that were meant to be counted on to do that job as foot soldiers now end up surrounded and crushed in Aleppo, who will the west turn to? Russia has all along claimed it was fighting Isis – but in Aleppo it is helping to destroy those Syrian groups that have in the past proved to be efficient against Isis.
The Aleppo Effect is gon be way more worse for Europe, Turkey and the Arab League than the Grozny Effect: full military onslaught on populated areas so rebels are destroyed or forced out.

Likewise, Russian military involvement in Syria has put Nato in a bind, with one of its key members right on the frontline. Turkey’s relations with Russia have been on the brink for months. Now the Commonwealth has openly warned Turkey against sending forces into Syria to defend Aleppo. How the Turkish leader will choose to react is another western headache.

Aleppo is an unfolding human tragedy. But it is necessary to connect the dots between the plight of this city, Europe’s future, and how Russia hovers over both.