Syria: will fall of Aleppo internationalize the war?
Some 70,000 civilians from Aleppo are fleeing to the Turkish border, as Syrian regime troops backed by Russian warplanes advance on the city. They will join some 30,000 already amassed at the border and hoping Turkish authorities will allow them to cross. (Al Jazeera) Independent journalists have posted grim video footage and photos of the exodus to Facebook. French journalist Natalie Nougayrède writes in a commentary for The Guardian that "What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe's future."
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.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in December that nearly 400 civilians had been killed in Russian air-strikes. Amnesty International that month charged Russia with possible war crimes in Syria, citing air-strikes destroying hospitals. The number is surely significantly higher now, and the carnage is augmented by that of the regime's own crude but ultra-deadly "barrel bombs." The aerial terror continues unabated despite UN Security Council Resolution 2139 of February 2014, which explicitly called for an end to use of "barrel bombs," and Resolution 2254 of December 2015, which condemned the impacts of air-strikes. (The Independent, Jan. 15; SNHR, Feb. 8)
Schools have also been hit, again and again. At the unofficial schools run by Syrian civil resistance group Kesh Malek in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, children don't go out to play during breaks for fear of death from the sky. (Reuters, Feb. 7)
The Bashar Assad regime is meanwhile running a death machine in the areas under its control. The regime is now systematically killing detainees, amounting to the crime against humanity of "extermination," a new study by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights finds. Crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime far outnumber those of ISIS and other jihadist groups, the report finds. (The Independent, Feb. 8)
The Washington Post reported last month that an agreement signed with Damascus in August, just before the Russian bombardment of Syria began, was released online by Moscow. Under the document's terms, Russian military personnel and shipments can pass in and out of Syria at will, not subject to controls by Syrian authorities. Syrians cannot enter Russian bases without permission. And Russia is absolved of any responsibility for damage caused by its forces within Syria.
With the fall of Aleppo imminent, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both preparing to send in ground troops to assist the rebels, according to press accounts in the Middle East. On Feb. 6, Damascus issued a grim warning to both Riyadh and Ankara against any military intervention on the ground. "Let no one think they can attack Syria or violate its sovereignty because I assure you any aggressor will return to their country in a wooden coffin, whether they be Saudis or Turks," Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said. (AFP, Feb. 6) Although Turkey denied the current claims of an imminent intervention, it has openly broached intervening in northern Syria to establish a military "buffer zone" along the border.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter applauded the pending Saudi intervention. "That kind of news is very welcome," he told reporters at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base. (Reuters, Feb. 5) The news will also hearten presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who has repeatedly called for a greater Saudi role in Syria to alleviate the burden on the US. (Daily Beast, Jan. 17)
Never mind that Saudi Arabia would be more interested in fighting on behalf of its own groomed Islamist rebel forces in Syria than in fighting ISIS. And that Saudi Arabia is already waging a gruesome war in Yemen—where it has been accused of war crimes and enflaming sectarian conflict.
Turkey, for its part, will be first and foremost concerned with beating back the revolutionary Kurdish forces in Syria—the very forces most effective in the fight against ISIS. A flashpoint for Turkish intervention may be Afrin canton, westernmost of the three self-governing cantons in the Kurdish autonomous zone and the last one separated from the other two by a thin strip of ISIS-controlled territory. Kurdish forces are now preparing to drive ISIS from this strip, which borders Turkish territory. Anakara has warned Kuridsh forces against crossing west of the Euphrates River, the eastern border of this ISIS-controlled strip. Three forces are now converging on Jarablus, the border town on the banks of the Euphrates: Kurds from the east, Turks from the north and ISIS form the west. (Reuters, Jan. 28; Today's Zaman, Jan. 27)
The European response to this has been to establish Turkey as a buffer police state to keep the refugee hordes at bay. European Commissioner Johannes Hahn openly stated Feb. 6 that Turkey must ensure that fewer refugees enter Greece by the time EU leaders meet later this month. He emphasized that a reduction was expected when Turkey agreed to an action plan two months ago. Instead, Turkish officials have admitted that the number seeking to cross the border into their country has doubled. (Jurist, Feb. 6)
So, the right-wing wants to build walls to keep the refugees out of Europe—while saying nothing about Russia's bombardment. And to many "leftists" pretend to support the refugees—while saying nothing about Russia's bombardment. Not much principle on either side.
And if Saudi and Turkish forces join Russia in direct military intervention—further fueling the sectarian maelstrom and placing greater pressure on independent secular forces like the Kurds—these contradictions will only be heightened.