Syria after the conquest of Aleppo

January 25, 2017

Aleppo--once the largest city of Syria and a symbol of the uprising that began during the Arab Spring six years ago--has fallen to the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad and his regime, but only after years of committing relentless war crimes, backed by their allies Iran and Russia. What will happen in Syria now? And what lessons must the left draw in the aftermath of a conflict where significant sections sided with the regime against a popular uprising?

Yasser Munif is a Syrian leftist and a scholar who teaches at Emerson College. He talked to Ashley Smith about conditions in Syria today following the regime's scorched-earth offensive against a revolution that has shaken it to the core.

THE COMBINED forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran re-conquered Eastern Aleppo at the end of 2016. This city was strategically and symbolically very important for the Syrian Revolution. What happened and what are the consequences of Assad's victory?

THE SYRIAN revolutionaries liberated Eastern Aleppo in May 2012. Activists established revolutionary councils and began creating vital institutions to alleviate the suffering of the population and make their city livable.

They preserved existing institutions such as the educational system and city hall, and created new ones such as media outlets, makeshift hospitals and revolutionary courts. In certain cases, they abolished the most coercive institutions such as prisons and torture chambers. They opened them to the public to remind them of the atrocities of the Syrian regime.

Ever since, the regime has tried to take back Aleppo, not only because of its symbolic importance, but also because it is a major economic hub, and possibly the largest city in Syria before.

Residents of Eastern Aleppo flee during the final assault by the Assad regime
Residents of Eastern Aleppo flee during the final assault by the Assad regime

Assad and his allies have been bombing Aleppo for four years. The regime's main weapon has been the barrel bombs, which is an unguided weapon good only to destroy the infrastructure and kill civilians. The main objective of this bombing campaign was to punish the civilian population for rejecting the regime and allowing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to operate in the city.

The regime's bombing campaign killed many civilians, destroyed most hospitals and blew up markets. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, and the vast majority of the population left East Aleppo.

The internal displacement of East Aleppians was a tragedy for them, but also provoked a major crisis for the liberated regions that were receiving them. The Assad regime was purposely pushing large number of people into the liberated areas to handicap these regions and deplete their resources.

In addition, the massive use of barrel bombs emptied entire neighborhoods, making them more vulnerable and easily accessible by the Assad militias. More recently, Russia joined the assault on Aleppo, helping the regime impose a siege and bomb what was left of the city's most vital institutions. People suffered massive casualties, the remnants of the hospitals couldn't treat the wounded, and those not injured began to suffer starvation.

Assad, Russia and Iran managed finally to retake the city and re-impose the regime's brutal rule. We know that they killed a lot of civilians. Some committed suicide out of fear of the regime. The UN released a map that shows the devastating scale of the destruction in East Aleppo. It shows that West Aleppo, which is controlled by the regime, is mostly intact.

Some of the people who tried to escape from the city were arrested and jailed, while others were forced to join the Syrian Army. And thousands were forcibly relocated from the city to other parts of Syria.

MANY ON the pro-Assad left claimed that the rebels in Aleppo were just al-Qaeda and similar jihadists. What's the real story?

LET'S SET the record straight: Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, was not in the city before the siege. Even the maps used by pro-regime news outlets show that al-Qaeda was not in East Aleppo before the siege of the city.

The city was mostly controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and some other jihadists groups--for example, Ahrar al-Sham--not affiliated to al-Qaeda. The groups present in East Aleppo opposed any alliance with al-Qaeda. That's why there were two armies in Aleppo province: Jaysh al-Fatah, fighting outside Aleppo and led by al-Nusra, and Fatah Halab, present inside Aleppo, but excluding al-Nusra.

So al-Qaeda was absent from the city until February 2016, when Russia began a massive bombing campaign of Aleppo.

Al-Qaeda sent fighters to Aleppo briefly prior to the siege. The presence of al-Nusra is a direct result of the siege and cannot be used as a pretext to justify the regime's war against Aleppo. Al-Nusra controlled certain institutions in the city, but did not have a real presence on the frontline inside Aleppo.

In early August 2016, al-Nusra Front--now renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and supposedly independent of al-Qaeda--entered the city again after breaking the siege imposed by the regime's militias. The siege was broken for a month, during which Fatah Halab allowed between 300 and 900 al-Nusra fighters to stay in the city. The rest of the 8,000 to 10,000 fighters were mostly from the Free Syrian Army. So even after they entered the city, al-Qaeda was a small percentage of the resistance to the regime inside Aleppo.

The Syrian regime and their supporters, however, have painted the entire resistance, both civilian and military, as composed of global jihadists and terrorists. Bashar al-Assad and his propaganda outlets have been making these claims since the early days of the revolution. But this couldn't be further from the truth.

In 2012 and up until mid-2013, civilian activists were powerful on the ground in Aleppo. Despite the many challenges, they organized elections, created a revolutionary students' union, and formed a revolutionary council and other institutions to manage the city and support the revolutionary process.

But that situation changed over time for various reasons.

The main one is that the regime targeted civilian activists and revolutionary institutions, allowing the most radical Jihadist groups to operate freely. Up until the end of 2014, the Syrian regime avoided any kind of confrontation with ISIS, while the Jihadist group was taking liberated cities and villages in northern Syria from the opposition. In essence, the regime strategy made it easy for the jihadists to enter Aleppo in 2013.

In early 2014, civilian activists and their military forces drove out ISIS. Al-Qaeda had also left the city because it was not welcome.

Of course, there were other Islamic fundamentalist forces that did operate in the city and formed alliances with the popular opposition and the FSA. The Russian bombing campaign was effective in weakening certain military groups in Aleppo, while strengthening al-Nusra Front.

Those relationships were struck not out of political agreement, but desperation and self-defense against the regime's onslaught. That is a far cry from the pro-Assad propaganda that dismissed the entire opposition as jihadists. That said, we have to admit that these alliances were compromises on the principles of the early phases of the revolution.

WHAT WILL Assad's victory in Aleppo mean? And what is your assessment of the ceasefire that the regime, Russia, Turkey and Iran have struck with some of the rebel forces?

IT IS a devastating defeat for what remains of the revolution. It's also a defeat for the reactionary jihadists, who've tarnished the image of the revolution and turned large sections of the civilian population against them. It's a victory for Assad and his backers from Iran to Russia to Hezbollah to the Iraqi militias.

It's essential for the democratic and progressive segments of the Syrian opposition as well as the grassroots movement to clearly denounce the disastrous role of undemocratic and Jihadist opposition groups. In addition, it's vital for these democratic forces to counter the official Syrian opposition and military groups who surrendered the fate of the Syrian people to regional and international forces.

The ceasefire imposed by Russia and Turkey has little chance to hold for several reasons.

Russia's ultimate goal is to push the military opposition to join forces with the regime and fight al-Nusra and ISIS. Turkey would like the opposition to help in strengthening the buffer zone it's creating in Northern Syria by fighting the Kurds and ISIS. These goals are obviously incompatible with the aspirations of millions of Syrians who have been struggling for almost six years to overthrow the Syrian despot.

Several other factors will undermine the ceasefire. The regime has shown that it's unwilling to make compromises or share power with the opposition. After the fall of Aleppo, and with the unconditional support the Syrian regime is getting from Moscow and Iran, it is more emboldened and defiant.

In addition, the opposition is extremely fragmented and weakened after the loss of Aleppo. It has lost the support of Turkey and knows that, despite its deplorable plea for Trump to endorse the ceasefire, the role of the incoming U.S. administration will be more detrimental to the revolution than Obama's.

What will make the ceasefire even more difficult to maintain is the strong opposition of some of main opposition factions. In the case of Ahrar al-Sham, the largest Jihadist group, the ceasefire might split the group in two, because a radical segment is opposed to the terms of the agreement.

THIS SEEMS to be a moment to draw out some of the lessons from the revolutionary process so far. What are the key ones?

THIS SHOULD be an important moment for the opposition to think about what happened, come up with new strategies and learn from the mistakes. We can't just fight until the last man standing. We have to take the time to draw lessons and rethink our strategy.

One lesson is that the opposition forces failed to unite. Whole sections of it also lost their independence and became attached to different states in the region and various imperial powers, instead of remaining loyal first and foremost to the Syrian population and its interests.

But now we've seen that the states which ironically called themselves the "Friends of Syria" are only concerned about their own interests.

By allowing the fall of Aleppo, Turkey has demonstrated that its only goal in Syria is to repress the Kurds and prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity, rather than support the revolutionary process. For example, it cut a deal with Russia, under which it would cut off arms to besieged Aleppo in return for Moscow helping in countering Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria.

This is directly connected to the question of funding the revolution. We've seen that support from any of the regional powers or imperialist states is never free and comes with strings attached.

We have seen how the so-called Friends of Syria cut off funding and the flow of weapons to fund other groups more loyal to them, and often more corrupt. It's a reminder for the political and military opposition that they can't make decisions about the fate of their country without always getting the approval of their sponsors. Many revolutionary struggles--Palestinians, Kurds, Arab nationalists, etc.--faced a similar challenge in the past.

We need to develop our own resources to protect our political autonomy. We cannot rely on the reactionary governments in the region or the imperialist powers in the West.

We need to reassert the democratic nature of the original revolution. We need a political opposition that is elected by the people on the ground, not appointed by foreign governments. That foreign-sponsored opposition is not representative of the people on the ground, which frankly does not recognize it as their leadership.

Over the coming months and years, the grassroots movement can and must produce a new leadership that stands for the interests of the Syrian people and their revolution.

ONE OF the key questions revolutionaries will face will not only be rebuilding popular struggle in the remaining liberated areas, but also in areas occupied by Assad's regime and his allies. What is popular opinion like in those areas? Has the government been able to win people to its propaganda that the revolution is just a terrorist plot?

THEY HAVE recycled this line for decades, saying that any and all opposition to Assad is sectarian terrorism. And they have used it to divide and conquer the population, whipping up fear among the religious and ethnic minorities about Sunni jihadists.

But I don't think that it has won real support from anyone unless they are on the payrolls of the regime. Syrians who live in the areas controlled by the regime don't actively support the regime. Instead, they avoid any confrontation in order to survive.

The regime's sole reliance on violence meant that it didn't really need to produce a persuasive narrative to counter the revolution. This might be a viable strategy in times of war, but it cannot work when the war ends. The regime lost the little legitimacy it had before 2011, and it will be impossible to rebuild it.

That doesn't mean that most people living in the regime-controlled regions support the opposition. I think that they view the Syrian regime as a better option than the opposition.

There is also a real division between those in the city and those in the small towns and countryside. Outside the large urban areas, popular opinion is solidly against the regime because of how its neoliberal policies have impoverished them and only responded to their demands for change with repression.

In the large urban areas, the more wealthy section of the population tends to reject the revolution. They fear losing their businesses and houses to the regime's revenge. They don't want to experience the kind of violence that eastern Aleppo and other parts of Syria have witnessed. So they adopt a pragmatic position of accommodation to the regime, but that's different than support for it.

This is not a stable basis for the regime's long-term rule. In reality, Assad is weakened; his state's symbolic power is depleted; and its actual power is entirely dependent on foreign forces. It may be able to defeat the opposition in the main urban centers, but it will persist in the small towns and countryside especially among the Sunni population.

The Syrian army and its backers are overstretched and cannot control areas beyond the limit of those important urban centers. Just look at what they had to do to retake Aleppo. They first had to withdraw from Palmyra, essentially handing it over to ISIS, so that they could redeploy their forces to Aleppo.

This means that when they do take territories, either from the revolutionary forces or reactionaries like ISIS, they are unable to hold them. So the regime faces a long-term crisis of lack of popular support and very real weaknesses.

ONE OF the big challenges in the whole revolutionary process has been how to forge unity between the Arab population and Syria's Kurdish minority. The regime has tried to divide the Kurdish liberation struggle from the revolution, and surrounding states, especially Turkey, have exacerbated this division, promising aid to various rebels on the condition that they do not support Kurdish demands. What must be done to forge greater unity between the Kurdish liberation struggle and the Syrian Revolution?

I THINK it's extremely important to build an organic relationship with the Kurdish forces to overthrow Assad's regime. But it's going to be really difficult to build such a relationship.

As you said, one of the things that the Turkish state did IN mid-2013 was to tell to the Syrian opposition, "We will open the border for your fighters and give you weapons and so on, if you prevent the Kurdish forces from establishing an independent state in Syria." Some opposition forces accepted Turkey's proposition. That opened up a division between them and the Kurds.

At the same time, we have to remember that there were several Kurdish brigades in the Free Syrian Army. And there was a very important pro-revolution, grassroots movement in Kurdish areas, which was destroyed by the Syrian regime and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian sister party of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Tragically, the PYD worked against unity with the Syrian Revolution back in 2012. It, in fact, repressed some of the Kurdish revolutionaries who had joined the opposition.

As a result, there is a real division that will be difficult to overcome, but it will be necessary to do so for the success of the revolution.

This is in both group's interests. On the Arab side, revolutionaries will have to recognize the demands for self-determination among Kurds and reject Turkey's swindle. And there is a need for a vibrant Kurdish grassroots movement that is independent from the PYD and PKK.

The PYD is trying to build a semi-autonomous region in Rojava. But it is doing so in a top-down manner. There are also important grassroots forces that are operating on the ground. These democratic forces should take a stance against Assad's regime, embrace the revolution more openly and be critical of the PYD's dictatorial and chauvinistic practices.

There are people among both Arabs and Kurds who advocate this strategic solidarity, but they're marginal at the moment. Winning this idea among the majority of both will be a key political task in renewing the revolutionary forces.

GILBERT ACHCAR has argued that the Middle Eastern revolts have faced two forces of counterrevolution--the regimes of the region and their Islamic fundamentalist opponents. Both reject the democratic and emancipatory aspirations of the revolution. How has this played out in Syria?

THE PEOPLE who rose up against Assad were really fighting for an alternative to both faces of counterrevolution. Most of the Syrian people have no sympathy for ISIS or for al-Qaeda. Those who did join the various Islamic fundamentalist groups or al-Qaeda and ISIS did so mostly for two main reasons.

The first reason is simply economic. The global jihadists and national salafists had multiple state and devout bourgeois supporters. They provided their members with a source of stable income. Second, because of their international support, they were much better equipped with weapons to fight the regime.

But for the most part, people are opposed to the Islamic Fundamentalist groups. That's why we've seen countless protests and opposition against them, in liberated and ISIS-controlled areas. They raise the slogans of the revolution and brandish the flag of the Syrian revolution, which in many cases get people kidnapped and tortured by those forces.

Assad's regime has done everything in its power to crush that democratic and emancipatory movement. They want to weaken the struggle so that the fundamentalists become the only face of the opposition.

That's why regime airplanes bombed the vegetable market in Maarat al-Numan on April 19, 2016, killing several dozens civilians. The city had become the symbol of resistance against al-Qaeda and, as such, could have undermined the regime's official narrative, according to which the liberated areas are dominated by jihadists. The headquarters of al-Nusra is outside the city, but was not targeted that day. The regime wants to drive people into the hands of groups like al-Qaeda.

This is what the regime is doing in the aftermath of Aleppo. It is displacing FSA fighters and Islamist groups forcibly to Idlib province, where al-Qaeda is hegemonic. It will then paint its battle against Idlib as a war on jihadist terror.

In addition, through this geographic separation of Sunni and Shia communities, the regime is creating new facts on the ground. And out of desperation, people in Idlib might have no choice but join the battle with the fundamentalists against the regime.

That's why I think it's important for the opposition to develop a clear stance toward al-Qaeda, the way they did toward ISIS. It's not acceptable to be neutral or silent about them. They are forces of counterrevolution, and they have been detrimental to the revolution since day one.

Back in 2013, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, George Sabra, defended al-Nusra, saying, "The rifles of all revolutionaries are sacred."

But we have to be nuanced about this question. Not all Islamic groups are Islamic fundamentalist. Some can and have played a progressive role in the struggle.

LET ME ask about the changed geopolitical situation. Many believe that Trump's surprise victory will mean a change in American policy toward Syria. What's your view of its impact?

ACTUALLY, I think that Trump's position on Syria is a continuation of Obama's.

In many ways, it continues what Obama did in the past five years, which is basically attacking ISIS and al-Nusra, and undermining the revolution. He allowed the continuation of a war of attrition, which would ultimately benefit Israel. So the main objectives for Trump are the same: support allies in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.), the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and undermine the revolutionary process in Syria and the Arab world.

The Obama administration worked very closely with Putin. In April 2016, three months before the complete siege of Aleppo, the spokesperson of the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve, Col. Steve Warren, announced, "It's primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo." The U.S. produced a discourse that justified the onslaught of Aleppo by regime and its allies.

Trump's coordination with Russia will be bolder and therefore more worrisome, but it won't be different. The U.S. didn't have much interest in Syria per se. It was interested in defeating the revolutionary wave in the region because it worried that this could affect its allies like Saudi Arabia or Jordan.

At best, it wanted to use Syria to force Iran and Hezbollah into a war of attrition, weakening them in the long run. But it never supported the popular revolution and is more than willing to cut a deal with Assad, Russia and Iran. The main difference between the U.S. and Russia/Iran is that the former wants "Assadism without Assad," while the latter prefers "Assadism with Assad."

One of the main reasons why Obama was interested in Syria was Assad's use of his stockpile of chemical weapons. This was viewed as a challenge to Israel's monopoly on weapons of mass destruction. Once the Russians got Assad to relinquish those, Syria became a much less urgent priority for the Obama administration.

Some Syrian activists thought that the U.S. is confused about Syria and doesn't have a clear policy. As I explained above, that's not accurate.

Trump's policy is full of contradictions. On the one hand, he wants to join forces with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. That stands in obvious contradiction to his aim to undo America's nuclear deal with Iran and impose renewed sanctions.

My biggest worry is that he will intensify anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, especially against Syrian refugees. Why? Because he doesn't have any solutions for the problems that American society faces, from the economic inequality, unemployment and health care to police violence and the plight of immigrants.

He will only worsen all these problems. And his only way to hide his failure will be to rely on what he does best, which is to intensify his hateful rhetoric against people of color.

He will thus produce that kind of simplistic binary, whether inside the U.S. or outside, that there is a clash of civilizations. According to this Manichean narrative, fundamentalist Islamists hate Christian, white and Western societies because of who they are and what they represent. This simplistic discourse will polarize the population and prevent rational political debates. That's exactly what Trump aspires for.

So he will instrumentalize the so-called "war on terror" in the U.S. to scare mainstream America and brutalize Black and Brown communities. Outside the U.S., he will bring the war on terror to a new level of destruction and violence. So we can expect more politics of fear, racism and Islamophobia, which are on the rise in Europe with the emergence of fascist and right-wing parties.

SYRIA HAS become a real test of the left's responsibility to both oppose imperialism and build solidarity with the revolution from below. Sadly, many on the left and in the antiwar movement have failed that test by supporting the Assad regime with the flawed reasoning that it is opposing imperialism. What lessons do you think need to be drawn about a reconstitution of a Left out of this experience?

THE LEFT--not only in the West, but also in the Arab world, and even parts of it in Syria--betrayed the Syrian revolution. This is tragic, because of all the revolts in the Middle East, the Syrian revolution was the most radical.

The Syrian Revolution went the farthest in its attempt to liberate areas of the country and build democratic institutions, create new culture, a new media and other vital institutions. What happened in Syria in the past six years is monumental. And I think the coming generation will learn a lot from the practices and narratives and stories that are emerging from Syria.

The left unfortunately misunderstood what happened in Syria. It oftentimes was not prepared to understand the newness of the revolutionary processes in the region. It is using archaic theoretical framework combined with a mechanical thinking, to make sense of these uprisings.

This is why large sections of the left ended up formulating shameful discourses that opened the door for alliances with Arab dictators against their population. They claimed that the revolt in Syria is a plot of American or Israeli imperialism. They failed to understand that Arab dictatorship is reaching the end of a life cycle and will disappear in the entire region in one or two decades.

This pro-Assad left failed to see that imperialism is not only American, but also a characteristic of many states. They couldn't recognize the obvious fact that Russia intervened in Syria to save Assad from defeat and to secure its imperial interests in the Middle East.

They should have looked at what was actually happening--a genuine revolution--instead of fitting it into their old preconceptions. They betrayed the Syrian population and recycled Assadist propaganda.

They should have combined anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism with opposition to despotism in Syria and the Arab world. This will have to be a part of the new left that we build internationally and from the bottom up.

And there is certainly a basis to do so. Amid the crisis in Aleppo, we saw an outpouring of concern internationally for the Syrian people. That international solidarity among grassroots progressive forces around the world is the basis for the reconstitution of the left in the West and beyond.

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