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

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.

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.