[Midden-Oosten] Analysis and Perspectives as Aleppo comes under deadly siege

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Ma Feb 8 13:17:28 CET 2016

1) Syria: The Mother of all Battles for Aleppo is Joined
By Juan Cole  

2) Peace or Pacification
By Robin Yassin-Kassab


1) Syria: The Mother of all Battles for Aleppo is Joined
By Juan Cole | Feb. 5, 2016 

Aided by a massive Russian bombing campaign and Hizbullah and Iranian (or 
likely actually Afghan) reinforcements, the Syrian Arab Army has broken out 
of the siege imposed on West Aleppo by rebel forces toward the north, and 
now seems positioned to besiege East Aleppo, which is under rebel control. 
The Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reports on the situation based on a range of 
Arabic wire services.

In early October, the shoe had been on the other foot, and rebels had cut 
the Damascus-Aleppo road to the south, depriving regime-held West Aleppo of 
food and supplies, so that it could have fallen to the Free Syrian Army. 
Russian aerial bombardment and government troops along with auxiliaries like 
Hizbullah took back control of the road and allowed deliveries to West Aleppo.

But the western enclave was still besieged from the north, as were two 
Shiite villages, Nubl and Zahra.

In the past couple of days, the army and its paramilitary allies, especially 
Hizbullah, relieved Nubl and Zahra. They had been under siege by al-Qaeda 
(the Nusra Front) since 2012 and only survived via airdrops of food. Had 
they fallen, hyper-Sunni al-Qaeda would likely have committed bloodthirsty 
reprisals against the Shiites there, who are said to have organized 
pro-regime local militias.

Then on Thursday the Syrian Arab Army took Mayer and Kafr Naya, putting the 
army and its allies in a position to cut off the roads north of Aleppo to 
Turkey and so put east Aleppo under effective siege.

Al-Nahar alleges that US military supplies have flowed to the rebels 
consistently during this fighting, but the small and medium weapons 
(including T.O.W. anti-tank weaponry) were insufficient in the face of 200 
Russia air raids in a matter of hours.

It also quotes a source alleging that the Jerusalem (Quds) Brigade of the 
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was absolutely central to the new 
government advance and that its leader, Qasem Soleimani, is on the 
battlefield. Al-Nahar also reported that IRGC Brigadier General Mohsen 
Qajarian was killed north of Aleppo during the fighting.

Steffan de Mistoura suspended the Geneva peace talks in the face of the 
Russian bombing campaign and advances on the battlefield. It is alleged that 
the latter were in part made possible because the Russians tricked the US 
into pressuring Turkey and Saudi Arabia to halt temporarily resupply of the 
Aleppo rebels while the talks were going on.

I talked a couple years ago to a journalist who had been in Aleppo, embedded 
with the rebels, and he told me that the rebel forces ran low on supplies 
every day, but that there appeared miraculously every morning shipments of 
ammunition. The implication was that they were being resupplied from Turkey, 
and very efficiently so. That resupply is now in danger.

Rebel forces in east Aleppo, mostly locals and mostly Free Syrian Army 
rather than Saudi-backed Salafi Jihadis, are now in danger of falling to a 
regime reconquest of Syria’s largest city. This could be horrible in its 
reprisals and torture, and thousands of Syrians are already fleeing north to 
Turkey, but the border there is closed and they are willy nilly camped in 
the wilderness.

At the same time, the Kurdish YPG militia has seen an opportunity to unite 
its Kobane enclave with Afrin to the west, north of Aleppo, and it is also 
moving into the area above the city, which will reinforce a blockade of 
rebel-held east Aleppo.

The intrepid Liz Sly at WaPo, among our more experienced and insightful 
Middle East war correspondents, thinks that the battle of Aleppo could, if 
the regime wins it, be a turning point in the civil war. The regime could 
win it all.

Syria’s population was only 22 million before the war, of whom a good 4 
million are now outside the country, leaving 18 million. Greater Aleppo 
before the war had 4 million people. It may still be about that, since 
people have come in from the insecure countryside. That would be 22 percent 
of the remaining in-country population. The regime probably has 5 million 
under its control in Greater Damascus, another couple million in Homs and 
Hama, and nearly 2 million in Latakia province (which it has completely 
secured in the past month). That’s 13 of the 18 million, nearly three 
quarters of the in-country population. It is hard to see how, thereafter, 
Idlib (1.5 million) and Deraa (1 million) hold out (the regime has already 
struck into central Deraa in the past couple weeks).

The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries appear now to have a 
choice of acquiescing in a Russian fait accompli in restoring Syrian regime 
control to much of the country, or of attempting to greatly increase rebel 
capabilities. The latter want anti-aircraft manpads, which the US has so far 
declined to supply. Liz Sly seems to think that in any case that the supply 
routes are being cut, and the battle will be over before such materiel can 
reach the FSA units, even if the US changes its mind about supplying it.

These dramatic events may have impelled the Saudis to talk about sending 
troops to fight Daesh (ISIL, ISIS), which controls areas east and southeast 
of Aleppo. The presence of Saudi troops on Syrians soil might at least give 
Riyadh some say in the post-war settlement and prove an impediment to a mere 
restoration of the status quo ante. This scenario strikes me as far-fetched 
and desperate; the Saudi infantry is not known for boldness.

On the other hand, given the massacres committed by the regime and its mass 
murder of POWs, and recent indiscriminate Russian air strikes on civilian 
areas, I just find it difficult to believe that it can be restored to power 
in any straightforward way. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have a 
Chechnya strategy in mind, with Bashar al-Assad playing Ramzan Kadyrov, the 
secular Chechen strong man ruling Chechnya as a comprador for Moscow after 
Putin crushed the Muslim fundamentalist second Chechen uprising in the early 

But Syria is bigger and more complex than Chechnya, and aside from al-Qaeda 
and perhaps some Gulf donors, outsiders recognized it as Russian province.

The Resistance could go underground and go on fighting, using covert tactics 
and terrorism, as happened in Sunni areas of Iraq during the prime 
ministership of Nouri al-Maliki.

The Fat Lady hasn’t sung yet, by a long shot.


2) Peace or Pacification
by Robin Yassin-Kassab

This was published at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

As I write, state representatives are attending the theatre in Geneva. (The 
talks were stopped on February 3rd). In Syria, meanwhile, reality prevails: 
in one day a tented camp of the displaced in the Lattakia hills is bombed, 
barrel bombs rain on the south and the Damascus suburbs, Russia’s cluster 
bombs crumple over the north, and up to a hundred people are asphyxiated by 
chlorine gas in Moadamiyah. Let’s hope the seats in the theatre are nice and 

Russia, the prime mover of the process, is inviting its own ‘opposition’ 
delegates. It complains (with Assad and Iran) that the actual opposition 
delegation contains ‘terrorists’. The thousands of Iranian-backed 
transnational Shia jihadists in Syria are not considered terrorists and 
should not be discussed at this stage.

The United States accepts these terms, and instead of the ‘transitional 
government’ agreed upon as the ultimate goal in previous Geneva talks, it 
speaks now of a ‘national government’. In other words Assad – responsible 
for the overwhelming number of civilian casualities and displacements – can 
stay, so that all may confront the ‘greater evil’ of jihadism.

Yet 80% of Russian bombs are falling not on ISIS but on the opposition to 
both ISIS and Assad, that is, on the communities which previously drove ISIS 
from their areas. A quarter of a million more have been displaced as a 
result of the Russian assault, which hits courthouses, schools, hospitals 
and aid convoys.

The clear aim of this campaign is to annihilate the democratic-nationalist 
opposition so that only Assad and the jihadists remain. Then, Putin assumes, 
the world will have no choice but to assist him in winning the whole country 
back for Assad. But demographic realities will ensure that a large chunk of 
Syria remain forever out of Assad’s grasp. So long as the traumatisation of 
this scorched territory continues, so too will radicalisation. Because it 
declares an end-times war on everyone, ISIS will eventually be defeated. But 
Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida’s Syrian branch) or a successor organisation will 

There is no real peace process. Geneva 3 is better named a pacification 
process, or appeasement. We should at least speak honestly. Syria’s downward 
spiral cannot be halted until the aerial bombardment of civilian areas is 
stopped. This would involve robust (diplomatic, economic) argument with the 
Russians, something Obama has avoided over Ukraine as well as Syria. It 
would mean either establishing a No-Fly Zone, shooting down whatever planes 
bomb civilians, or allowing the currently defenceless opposition access to 
anti-aircraft weapons.

Once the bombing stops, and sieges are lifted, the displaced can return and 
economic and social life can be revived. Space will grow for democratic 
activism even as it shrinks for jihadism. And then a genuine settlement 
process could begin. What might that look like?

The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee came out of a meeting in Saudi 
Arabia which brought together the National Coordination Committee (a 
Damascus-based body semi-tolerated by the regime), the Istanbul-based 
Coalition, and the leaders of democratic-nationalist (Free Army) as well as 
nationalist-Islamist militias. The latter included, at the more extreme end, 
Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, Salafist Syrian pragmatists who must be 
involved in a final settlement (as must regime-loyalist Alawi communties), 
lest they act as spoilers.

Jaysh al-Islam, the dominant militia in the eastern Ghouta, is probably 
responsible for the abduction of the revolutionary activists known as the 
Douma Four, including Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and founder of 
the Local Coordination Committees. Our book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in 
Revolution and War’ is dedicated to Razan, a woman of fearless principle 
whose fate in some way is emblematic of Syria’s. Worse, Jaysh al-Islam’s 
leaders have sometimes made sectarian threats which wound the revolution by 
further alienating minority groups. Its position on democracy as a desired 
end is ambiguous at best. For these reasons civil revolutionaries often find 
themselves opposing Jaysh al-Islam’s authoritarianism while at the same time 
insisting that it be recognised as part of the revolution and part of the 
settlement. Despite its abuses, the militia is subject to popular pressure. 
Its assaults on activists are exceptions, therefore, whereas in Assad or 
ISIS areas they are the rule. Free elections have been held in Jaysh 
al-Islam territory. And Jaysh al-Islam has been the most effective opponent 
of ISIS in the Damascus region.

Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the Saudi meeting complaining that the 
conference didn’t recognise Syria’s “Muslim identity” and gave too much 
representation to the National Coordination Committee, which is not really a 
revolutionary body. Difficult though it is, it is important to try to bring 
such groups into the political process and to distance them from Jabhat 
al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida, with whom they sometimes collaborate on the 
battlefield. If Syria is to survive, the fighting men of the nationalist and 
Islamist opposition must merge with whatever remains of the post-regime 
Syrian army to take on ISIS, Nusra and other transnational jihadists 
(including the Shia ones). But for this to happen, the immediate threat of 
Assad’s scorched earth must be lifted.

Even as they execute their own opposition clerics and endlessly bomb Yemen, 
the Sauds should be congratulated for bringing together a broad spectrum of 
the Syrian Arab opposition. If current circumstances change so that a real 
peace process becomes viable, the High Negotiations Committe could perhaps 
form a credible negotiating team to sit down with the PYD (the dominant 
party/militia in Syria’s Kurdish areas) and representatives of pro-regime 

The Saudi recipe, however, misses a vital ingredient – the local councils, 
sometimes called revolutionary councils, which have been established 
throughout the country. These are practical, not ideological organisations. 
Their members are civil activists, family and tribal leaders, and people 
selected for technical or professional skills. They do their best in the 
very worst conditions to provide humanitarian aid and fulfil basic needs 
where the state has either collapsed or deliberately withheld them, 
including water, electricity, waste disposal and healthcare.

The idea started with activist Omar Aziz, who wrote an influential paper on 
self-organisation in the revolution’s eighth month. Aziz was an anarchist 
who believed that protesting the regime by itself was useless if 
revolutionaries did not build alternatives to repressive state structures. 
He advocated forming councils as grassroots community forums, and helped set 
up the councils in Barzeh and Zabadani before his arrest and then death in 
prison in February 2013.

Council members are appointed by some form of democratic process, though the 
form differs from place to place, and is most severely restricted in regime 
or ISIS-controlled areas where the councils must operate in secret.

Aziz Asaad, one activist we interviewed for our book, described the challenges:

“It was difficult for us – particularly in the middle of a revolution 
calling for pluralism and democracy – to select revolutionary 
representatives by democratic process … It was made worse by the fact that 
we were in a regime-controlled area and so constantly feared arrest. When we 
formed the local council in Selemmiyeh we adopted what you could call ‘the 
democracy of the revolutionary elite’. In secret we chose eleven people from 
about 55.”

In the rebel-held ‘liberated’ areas, however, the councils are selected by 
democratic ballot – the first free elections in Syria in over four decades. 
In recent elections in the Ghouta, militia leaders were not allowed to 
stand. Fighters were, but none were elected. In recent months provincial 
elections have been held in the Deraa region too, where the Free Army’s 
Southern Front holds sway.

It is a sad irony (and one reason why we wrote our book) that the previous 
decade’s invasion of Iraq was supposedly done for the sake of democracy, yet 
almost nobody in the West today is aware of the Syrian people’s 
self-organised experiments in democracy. The Western public, failed by 
journalism, are more likely to question Arabs’ capacity for democracy than 
to marvel at the Syrian achievement under full-scale military assault.

The councils are not always perfect. Sometimes they are rendered 
dysfunctional by factionalism or intimidated by warlords. But they are the 
closest thing we have to true representatives of the Syrian people, and they 
should therefore be strongly present at any meeting discussing Syria’s fate. 
If world powers are genuinely interested in moving the region away from war 
and jihadism towards peace and democracy they should support the councils 
more powerfully than they are already doing. Financial support is not 
enough; there’s no point gifting new rubbish-collection trucks if they will 
be bombed in their first week.

At the same time, Syrian oppositional elites and militias should be 
encouraged to recognise the central democratic achievement of the local 
councils, and thereby to develop a decentralised vision of the future. The 
myth that a strong central state ensures the strength and dignity of its 
people runs deep in oppositional consciousness – nationalist, leftist and 
Islamist – despite all the evidence to the contrary. But decentralisation is 
the best way to deal with Syria’s currently explosive ethnic and sectarian 
polarisations. It would mean a recognition of autonomy for the Kurds, who 
have set up their own council system. It would also mean that different 
areas could govern themselves according to their social and sectarian 
composition. So alcohol, for instance, may be banned by one council but 
permitted by another.

The alternative to decentralisation is partition, which in any case is the 
end Putin’s planes are bombing towards. Partition means greater ethnic 
cleansing than yet seen. It means the permanence of refugee camps. It means 
an Assadist rump on the Mediterranean coast to be squabbled over by Iran and 
Russia, and a vengeful, burnt Sunni territory cut off from the sea. A 
disaster for the Syrian people, and for global security too.

Also watch:
Recent video with Robin Yassin-Kassab
Book launch at Amnesty International UK

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