As the Syrian refugee crisis escalates during a time when international political discourse is tainted by xenophobia, one looking for long-term solutions can only turn to the root cause of the exodus: the Syrian Civil War, which has raged for years with no signs of a ceasefire. Perhaps in an attempt to end the conflict that began in 2011 and sway its outcome in his favor, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Armed Forces have sustained a renewed offensive against rebel forces occupying the country’s largest city, Aleppo. It is a city known for its historical and economic significance; the prevailing media narrative also suggests that Aleppo is the final frontier of the conflict. However, an examination of the present geographical and political circumstances of the struggle undermines the popular prediction that Aleppo will be the endgame of the Syrian Civil War.
The Heart of Syria
Many who consider Aleppo the decisive battlefield in the conflict point to its location. The city’s geographical positioning lends the resident power substantial connectivity with other neighboring regions within Syria and areas in bordering countries such as Turkey. It constitutes a key geographical nexus that links the rebel strongholds spanning from Syria’s east to its west. But while such linkages are advantageous, they are also fragile. As various non-state groups with myriad objectives and conflicting ideologies occupy different Aleppo neighborhoods, rebel forces remain fragmented. The capture of Aleppo by Syrian government forces would likely exacerbate such fragmentation and disrupt communications between various rebel outposts.
The corresponding increase in isolated pockets of rebel activity throughout Syria would perhaps lessen the probability of successfully coordinated offenses. Indeed, many onlookers believe Assad would fare best in cut-off regional conflicts in which rebels are less capable of coordinating strategies or transferring supplies. Rather than focused strategies to capture large territories, disjointed rebel forces would likely resort to less effective guerrilla tactics. Retaking Aleppo would also allow the Assad government to eliminate a critical point of contact with rebel allies such as Turkey, which assist in providing arms and fighters to anti-regime forces. In the past, cutting off such routes proved to be a brutal blow to rebel troops.
However, as convincing as such an end-all-be-all narrative is, Aleppo’s geographical location doesn’t necessarily make it uniquely strategic. For example, the recapturing of the city of Daraa similarly cut off connections between dispersed rebel strongholds. This offensive, which was carried out by government forces in 2014 and 2015, also reduced the rebels’ hold over territory bordering Jordan but was clearly not a watershed moment. Still, many speculate that control over Aleppo would translate into dominant positions within Hama, Homs, and Damascus as well. But the expectation of any such domino effect is unrealistic, according to Haian Dukhan of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. “The grip of the opposition over Idlib is very strong. The opposition in the South and the countryside of Damascus are strongly entrenched and receive large aids from Saudi Arabia and logistic support from Jordan,” he contended in an interview with the HPR. Therefore, taking Aleppo would hardly translate into a semi-automatic sweep of other key rebel strongholds.
Another strain of thought predicts that a successful offensive by the regime in Aleppo would create a sentiment of futility among rebel forces. By conquering a key stronghold, the state would perhaps cause the opposition to question the viability of their own efforts. Dejected rebel forces would thus put forth less powerful demands at the negotiating table in an effort to appease the regime. Despite this convincing zero-sum narrative, the rebel groups would most likely continue their efforts even considering such a severe loss, said Dukhan, “I don’t think that the fall of the city would be mean the end of the armed rebellion against the regime.”
A Misleading Microcosm
Many also contend that a victory for the regime in Aleppo may improve the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of civilians. After all, in many ways, Aleppo seems to be a microcosm of Syria. It exhibits many of the sectarian and socioeconomic divisions of the rest of the country. For example, the armed force in power tends to vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, and differing allegiances among citizens can be traced back to the socioeconomic fragmentation of the city. A study of Aleppo’s population and its allegiances showed that anti-regime neighborhoods in Aleppo were disproportionately low-income. On the other hand, elites wishing to preserve their status tended to favor the regime. Surface-level examinations seem to suggest that reconciling the divisions within Aleppo would hint at the feasibility of a unified Syria.
However, an expert source, who has worked on the ground with affected Syrian health care and has asked to remain anonymous, told the HPR that it would be reductive to claim that Aleppo is a comprehensively reflective microcosm, as many minority groups are not thoroughly represented or even represented at all within the city’s population.
Dukhan also believes that the idea that the Assad regime could legitimize itself by retaking a single city is fundamentally flawed. “The Syrian regime lost its legitimacy among large section[s] of the Syrian population a long time ago. In fact, people who live under opposition groups have fears that if the regime takes control of their areas again, there will be looting and burning acts done by the regime’s militias. This has … manifested [during] the regime’s takeover of Homs, Qusair, and recently Palmyra, where its soldiers looted the houses of civilians.” Contrary to what some may think, it is likely that Assad and his regime will never be able to earn back the trust and legitimacy that they have lost.
Furthermore, rebel forces are better positioned to mitigate existing socioeconomic and ethnic differences within Aleppo (and throughout Syria) than the government. During the course of his regime, Assad has intimidated Christians, Alawites, and other minorities while also seeking the patronage of wealthy elites, capitalizing on division to gain varied allegiances. Such sectarian rhetoric and socioeconomic polarization has consequently further fragmented the Aleppan and Syrian population. Thus, Assad is uniquely unable to undo the damage he has caused, but the rebel cause, familiar with such disquiet and division, has no such limitation.
The narrative that a decisive result in Aleppo would lead to the conclusion of the war is flawed on numerous fronts, but the overturning of its assumptions is not to reject that Aleppo and its people will play an important role in determining the future of Syria. If the rebel cause can display an ability to lead within the framework of the largely divided Syrian population—unite where the Assad regime chose to divide—it can lend a little legitimacy to the Syrian people’s dream of stability.
Image Source: Flickr/Freedom House