Analysis: The lessons of Aleppo’s long, pointless siege

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Updated 14 December 2016
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Analysis: The lessons of Aleppo’s long, pointless siege

In its 7,000 years of existence, Aleppo has been fought over by Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. The modern battle for the ancient Syrian city, however, may yet be as significant for the future of the Middle East as those fought by the kingdoms and empires of the past.
The four-year battle for Aleppo now seems to be reaching its final stages. More than any other place, the city — one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world — has been the epicenter of the Syria conflict.
In time, Syria may be seen to define the early 21st century the way the Spanish Civil War did the 1930s, a perfect storm of all the worst trends in global politics and conflict. If it is, then Aleppo will be its Guernica, the Spanish town carpet bombed by Nazi aircraft in 1937 in a savage precursor to the horrors of the coming WW II.
As long as it held out, Aleppo made a mockery of President Bashar Assad’s ambition to once again be seen as ruler of everywhere important in Syria. Even now with Russian support, the Syrian government’s attempts to seize it back have been largely unsuccessful. And in diverting its forces to the most recent Aleppo assault, Damascus left Palmyra too lightly defended and vulnerable to Daesh, which recaptured the ancient city on Sunday.
Aleppo might always have been doomed. The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, however, appears to have settled the matter. Had Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton prevailed, those fighting to protect the last handful of opposition enclaves in the city might finally have seen Washington drawn into the fight, if only through enforcing a no-fly zone against Syrian and Russian aircraft.
That might have been dangerous for the rest of the world. But it would have offered at least a limited salvation for those still fighting in Aleppo.
Trump has signaled that he intends to take a very different approach, pledging to work with Moscow and prioritize the fight against Daesh. European nations still want some kind of political transition deal to remove the Syrian leader, something Washington now seems much less likely to support.
The battle is not quite over. The failure of Assad’s forces to take the sprawling city suggests they lack the combat power to do so. Russian and Syrian bombing may kill hundreds if not thousands of civilians, but the attacks will not in themselves bring victory to Damascus.
The end of the siege will be in some ways a humanitarian blessing, whoever might win.The darker side of the fighting’s end, however, is already also becoming clear, with reports of perhaps hundreds of fighting age men “disappeared” or killed after surrender.
If the Assad regime regains control over the rebel city, it will likely use brutal measures to reduce any prospect of further insurrection, especially if it feels neither the United States nor other major powers will take any action.
Any harsh response by Assad shouldn’t be surprising. What has and will happen in Aleppo is little different to that in thousands of other sieges throughout history. But as it appears to be ending, it’s worth examining why it took so long to reach this point.
The West’s half-hearted approach to Syria’s civil war — giving support to opposition forces, but never enough to beat the government or its Russian allies — has been an unmitigated failure. Perhaps the United States, the United Kingdom and others should share the guilt for the horror that has come with it. The Syria conflict has always had many moving pieces. Even now, formulating policy is complicated by the myriad rival interests — Kurds, Arabs, Alawites, the competing concerns of half a dozen nations.
In the process, the wider political landscape of the Middle East has been redrawn. In the early days of the uprising, the Assad government was heavily reliant on Iran as its main ally, the opposition on rival Arab states. In the last two years, however, Russia has been calling the shots.
If Aleppo is to fall shortly, then much of the credit — if that is the right word — must go to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has established a potential new role for itself, a source of military power for autocratic regimes the West might rather see gone. What we don’t know is whether that will be a sign of things to come.
In some ways, that was inevitable. After the disasters of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the feeling in Washington and Europe was that there was little to gain and much to lose. With the migrant crisis, Europe in particular found itself paying a much higher price for the bloodshed in Syria than it ever anticipated, but that in itself did not appear to justify any intervention.
If the battle of Aleppo is seen as some kind of regional historic turning point, historians may well be arguing over it for generations. As it draws to a close, however, only one thing is truly apparent — that a city that started the century as a relatively cosmopolitan metropolis and destination for Western tourists has been reduced to rubble.
And that all the fighting and international handwringing may ultimately have made little difference to who actually runs Syria.

•Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist. The opinions expressed here are his own.


US sanctions over Iran oil will ‘intensify Mideast turmoil’: China

Updated 33 min 44 sec ago
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US sanctions over Iran oil will ‘intensify Mideast turmoil’: China

  • Foreign ministry spokesman: US operating outside its jurisdiction in unilaterally imposing the sanctions
  • China is one of Iran’s biggest oil markets

BEIJING: Beijing on Tuesday again lashed out at a US decision to impose sanctions on countries that buy Iranian oil, calling it a violation of China’s interests that will intensify turmoil in the Middle East and international energy markets.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the US is operating outside its jurisdiction in unilaterally imposing the sanctions. He said normal interactions between Iran and other countries are “reasonable and lawful” and deserving of respect and protection.

“The relevant actions of the US will also intensify the turmoil in the Middle East and international energy market,” Geng said.

“We urge the US to play a constructive role in a responsible manner, instead of the other way around. In addition, we have already made complaints with the US on this matter,” he said.

Geng said China will work to safeguard its companies’ interests, reflecting its desire to secure foreign markets as it pursues its massive “Belt-and-Road” infrastructure initiative.

China is one of Iran’s biggest oil markets and was a strong backer of the agreement to lift sanctions in return for Iran curbing its nuclear weapons program that was scrapped by President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration said Monday that it will no longer exempt any countries from US sanctions if they continue to buy Iranian oil, stepping up pressure on Iran in a move that primarily affects the five remaining major importers.

Along with India and US treaty allies Japan, South Korea and Turkey, China was one of the countries primarily affected by the announcement.

Oil prices soared to their highest level since October on Tuesday.

The sanctions could potentially remove up to 1.2 million barrels of oil per day from international markets, according to industry experts. However, that number will likely be lower, depending on how countries respond and just how much oil Iran continues to export.