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.


Day into emergency rule, Sudan's Bashir names vice president and PM

Updated 23 February 2019
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Day into emergency rule, Sudan's Bashir names vice president and PM

  • President Omar Al-Bashir declared a one-year nationwide state of emergency on Friday
  • Protesters frustrated with economic hardship have demonstrated for more than two months

KHARTOUM: Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir appointed a first vice president and a new prime minister on Saturday, a day after declaring a state of emergency to counter the most sustained protests since he came to power 30 years ago in a military coup.
Mohamed Tahir Ayala, the former governor of Gezira state whom Bashir had previously touted as a potential successor as president, was appointed prime minister. Defense Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf became first vice president while retaining his defense portfolio.
Bashir declared a one-year nationwide state of emergency on Friday and set up a caretaker administration. He replaced all state governors with military officials.
Urging his opponents to join a "path of national reconciliation" and dialogue, he called on parliament to postpone constitutional amendments that would have allowed him to seek another term in 2020.
There are no signs that has calmed matters, with the National Consensus Forces, one of the main opposition groups, saying the state of emergency was aimed at countering a "popular revolution" and vowing to push ahead until he is toppled.
Defense Minister Ibn Auf previously served as the head of military intelligence.
Earlier this month, he became the second of several top officials to strike a conciliatory tone towards the protests, saying that young people caught up in the recent turmoil had "reasonable ambition".