14 February 2017
The fall of Aleppo: a turning point in the Syrian conflict?
Interview with Jean-Hervé Bradol, MSF-Crash research director, and Matthieu Rey, CNRS researcher attached to IREMAM (Muslim and Arab World Research Institute) and member of the WAFAW research programme.
The capture of Aleppo by the Syrian government and Russia has exposed the convergence of the political agendas and the modus operandi of the various parties involved in the Syrian conflict while historical references to the Hama massacre in 1982 and Grozny in 1999 have resulted in the projecting of imaginary constructs. We asked Jean-Hervé Bradol and Matthieu Rey to describe the events that led to the fall of Aleppo. Our interview also provided the opportunity to take stock of the humanitarian and political situation, almost six years after war broke out in Syria.
How did Russia become involved in the Syrian conflict and what have been the principal milestones?
Matthieu Rey (MR): Between 2011 and 2013, Russia's involvement was limited to pointing out the contradictions in western discourse that claimed to support the revolution but did not provide it with the means to act, while at the same time fulfilling the arms contract it had concluded with Syria. Let's not forget, Syria is above anything a highly lucrative business.
2013 marked a turning point as other groups and countries, primarily Hezbollah and Iran, arrived in the country to back the regime - a development triggered by Bashar al-Assad's militarisation of the conflict because his army was making no headway and was beginning to disintegrate. Unlike the Syrian army, Hezbollah had acquired experience in urban combat from fighting Israel in south Lebanon.
To consolidate its hold, Hezbollah and local opposition representatives organised population exchanges and displacements. One example was Hezbollah's blockade of mainly Sunni town Madaya(1) during the summer of 2015 as Ahrar al-Sham was preventing access to Shia villages like Foua and Kafraya in the north. It's important to understand that the regime, fighting for survival, was laying waste to and emptying vast swathes of land of their inhabitants. Labelled ‘hard to reach' by the United Nations, these areas were home to around five million people.
Meanwhile, so-called Islamic State (IS) was gaining ground and, in May 2015, took Palmyra. Hezbollah's advances in the field, notably Homs, led to an erosion in Syrian sovereignty that drove some factions of the regime to look to Russia. September 2015 marked a turning point as Russian forces entered Syrian territory.
The Russian forces' first military intervention was around the towns of Rastan and Tel Bisseh, an area between Homs and Hama where rebel factions and Hezbollah had mooted population exchanges. Airstrikes blocked truce negotiations between the two parties, paving the way for Russia to step up its influence. In addition, with the majority of deserting officers living in Rastan, it represented a powerful symbol for the opposition. Crushing the rebels and then securing its position allowed Russia to demonstrate that it was capable of inflicting enormous damage on the military arm of the rebel opposition.
One of the symbols of the revolution, the city of Homs, was recaptured by the regime with the support of Hezbollah. If Russia was to bolster its position of power within the Assad camp, it too had to retake an emblematic city. In 2015, Aleppo's population numbered around 1.5 million, with 500,000 people living in the east of the city connected by a corridor to a rebel-held zone some way off providing a supply route from Turkey. In February 2014, east Aleppo had become the first place where the civilian and military opposition succeeded in repelling IS - although this doesn't indicate any cohesion among the various rebel groups who embraced different ideologies. In late 2015, Russian forces began to surround the city.
Adopting a tactic very similar to the one used in Homs, the Russians cut off the east of the city by closing down the supply corridor while militia forces advanced slowly but surely on the ground with support, this time not from the Syrian but the Russian air force. A combination of the Syrian regime's now infamous TNT-loaded barrel bombs and more accurate and more powerful Russian airstrikes made it possible to progressively retake the area while reducing it to rubble. On 12 and 13 December, Aleppo saw mass arrests of males, abductions and summary executions bearing all the trademarks of the Mukhabarat(2), inevitably conjuring up scenes of the 1982 Hama massacre. The methods used for these arrests and forced entry into houses have been well documented and researched(3).
Meanwhile, Hezbollah was securing other zones where its militias instituted different forms of repression. In this instance, the model was imported from Iraq, with the same ethnic cleansing and territorial homogenising as that meted out in Bagdad and Falluja. This was a convergence of the modus operandi of the various groups along with imaginary constructs projected onto a situation of absolute horror.
Russia did not limit itself to military intervention in Syria and undertook several diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives. On 27 July 2016, it announced it was planning a "humanitarian operation" for Aleppo and the creation of "humanitarian corridors". In an interview with Russia's Sputnik radio station, MSF said it was "interested in Russian defence minister Sergey Shoygu's appeal and was ready to talk with the Russian ministry of defence to obtain accurate and detailed information on the conditions." The Russian and Syrian authorities and MSF entered into discussions. What was Russian proposing?
Jean-Hervé Bradol (JHB): Russia's proposal involved first working with them in east Aleppo as they said they would facilitate the sending in of a medical aid convoy that was to include surgical supplies, as these were systematically confiscated from UN convoys in areas besieged by the regime. There was also a discussion about needs in government-held areas where there were large numbers of internally displaced people. However, most of what was asked for concerned primary and mental health care. Providing assistance in Latakia and Tartus was also brought up. MSF suggested carrying out an assessment so that it could deliver the right kind of services.
So there were several attempts at facilitating relations between the various authorities and MSF's representatives, but nothing concrete was put on the table. This has led us to question Russia's ability and willingness to negotiate these kinds of initiatives with the Syrian regime.
In my view, this proposal was part of Russia's diplomatic manoeuvring that could be interpreted as a sign of its intention to bolster its political credibility by demonstrating its ability to cooperate with an international humanitarian organisation. From Russia's standpoint, the benefits in terms of political communication are evident.
There's a real danger of political manipulation with this type of proposal. Nevertheless, MSF still tried to find out if an intervention was actually feasible - despite the risks and the context(4). We've been trying to work in Syria since 2003 and the war in Iraq. Back then, Syria was taking in huge numbers of Iraqi refugees and, even then, we never managed to work satisfactorily in the country because of the hostility we faced from the regime.
The media have presented the fall of Aleppo as a major turning point in the Syrian conflict. What is your assessment of the humanitarian response in Syria?
JHB: I think it's too early to judge whether the capture of Aleppo represents a turning point in the Syrian conflict because the regime has repeatedly struggled to hold its positions over time. But what is particularly striking is its capacity to repeatedly commit large-scale war crimes against civilians and public infrastructure - hospitals, markets, schools and public spaces. This is an indicator of the true state of the world. A world where major powers like Iran and Russia can commit crimes on such a scale without having to pay a particularly heavy political price.
As for humanitarian aid, the systematic destruction of hospitals and repeated attacks on medical personnel since the start of the conflict have had a direct impact on the capacity of MSF and other relief organisations to provide aid in Syria. This impact is all the more important as these attacks are carried out by world powers like Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Kidnappings by armed opposition groups, especially of foreigners, also hamper the deployment of relief efforts in the country.
A second observation concerns the uneven distribution of humanitarian aid in Syria. This aid hugely benefits the regime, as the Guardian newspaper analysed in a series of investigations into contracts concluded by the UN with organisations very close to the regime. Although the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, similar to other Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is presented as independent, it is still an auxiliary to the state - and all the more so in Syria because of the nature of the regime. We brought this up in 2012. This imbalance has been very occasionally but far too infrequently offset by supplies brought in across frontlines.
Appropriation of international aid is seen to varying degrees in other conflicts but in Syria it has been taken to a whole new level. We are confronted with a regime that prohibits treatment of civilians living in opposition-held areas. Loyalist soldiers search aid convoys travelling from Damascus to opposition-held areas and systematically confiscate medical supplies, such as syringes and dressings, that might be used to treat the wounded.
But humanitarian aid in Syria involves much more than international organisations. Most of the relief effort is the work of the Syrians themselves - families and local NGOs driven by a sense of solidarity and mutual support. We saw for ourselves local networks of solidarity in the places we worked. When we were in Qabasin in northern Syria, the opposition-controlled town council distributed food to displaced people, sent their children to school and provided them with accommodation.
The second large-scale humanitarian effort is by countries - mainly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and more recently Europe - hosting Syrian refugees. In 2016 it was recognised that any Syrian on European territory is assumed a refugee, which I see as a step in the right direction. But we're still facing situations where the reception given to refugees is unacceptable. The journey from Syria is still fraught with danger and conditions are extremely harsh.
In this respect, I believe that the very negative discourse we've heard from MSF and other organisations regarding refugees in Europe is misguided. For example, in June 2016 MSF, denouncing Europe's immigration policies, refused funding from the EU, even though this was the first time since the wars in former Yugoslavia that so many refugees had been allowed into EU countries.
I think this decision reflects the extent of our frustration. Ultimately, it's an acknowledgement of our own powerlessness to alter the course of history, in spite of all the rhetoric about the necessity to bring the war to an end, the horror of the situation and the ineffectiveness of the international community. Faced with this stark reality, we adopted a bombastic stance - a stance that is a historical nonsense - against the EU. We've worked with refugees often enough since MSF was founded to know that taking them in host countries is always a sensitive affair that creates tensions. Any arrival of refugees has to be negotiated with the inhabitants. MSF often supports local health systems in areas near refugee camps to avoid creating inequalities between refugees and those hosting them.
MR: I see the fall of Aleppo as a real turning point in the Syrian conflict. Once again we're seeing demonstrations around the world in support of Syria. It's a situation that creates hostility and violence, as witnessed by the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, on 19 December 2016. But it's also a turning point in Russian intervention. Russian power is a delicate balance, so the question is, how can it either remain in the country without getting bogged down, or pull out? Basically, it's much the same problem the Americans have faced in the Middle East since the 1950s. Should they get involved in Idlib and cleanse this last rebel stronghold? Or, should they start looking for an exit strategy?
Interview by Agnes Varraine-Leca
(1) A Syrian town near the Lebanese border, Madaya was surrouned by loyalist forces in July 2015.
(2) Syrian intelligence services
(3) For further reading, refer to the chapter on the Syrian regime's security services by Wladimir Glasman in Pas de printemps pour la Syrie; François Burgat, Bruno Paoli; Editions La Découverte, 2013
(4) In September 2016, over 70 organisations suspended cooperation with the UN in Syria because they feared that the relief effort was being manipulated by the regime
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