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Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War
Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria
After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria
Report 155 / Middle East & North Africa

Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War

Syria is sliding toward unending war between an autocratic, sectarian regime and the even more autocratic, more sectarian jihadi group that has made dramatic gains in both Syria and Iraq. Without either a ceasefire in Aleppo or greater support from its state backers, the mainstream opposition is likely to suffer a defeat that will dash chances of a political resolution for the foreseeable future.

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Executive Summary

As Aleppo goes, so goes Syria’s rebellion. The city is crucial to the mainstream opposition’s military viability as well as its morale, thus to halting the advance of the Islamic State (IS). After an alliance of armed rebel factions seized its eastern half in July 2012, Aleppo for a time symbolised the opposition’s optimism and momentum; in the following months, it exposed the rebels’ limits, as their progress slowed, and they struggled to win over the local population. Today, locked in a two-front war against the regime and IS, their position is more precarious than at any time since the fighting began. Urgent action is required to prevent the mainstream opposition’s defeat: either for Iran and Russia to press the regime for de-escalation, to showcase their willingness to confront IS instead of exploiting its presence to further strengthen Damascus; or, more realistically, for the U.S., Europe and regional allies to qualitatively and quantitatively improve support to local, non-jihadi rebel factions in Aleppo. Any eventual possibility of a negotiated resolution of the war depends on one course or the other being followed.

Rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo remain the most valuable of the mainstream opposition’s dwindling assets. Sensing weakness, the regime and its allies have invested significant resources in trying to retake the city; they now appear to be on the verge of severing the last rebel supply line linking it to Turkey. Still, the rebels maintain certain advantages. The armed factions in and around the city include some of the rebellion’s most powerful and popular. The location near the Turkish border facilitates the flow of supplies and communication. The regime’s task is thus more difficult than at Homs and Damascus, where brutal siege tactics compelled acceptance of truces on its terms. Yet, even a partial siege of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo could deal an enormous blow.

To its east, the mainstream opposition faces a second deadly foe: IS, formerly ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, riding high after victories in western Iraq and eastern Syria. In January 2014, Aleppo was ground-zero for IS’s most humiliating setback, when rebels drove it from the city and its western and northern hinterlands, forcing it further east. But today, with much of the rebel force tied down on one front against the regime, IS is making headway north of the city, toward the heartland of northern Syria’s most prominent mainstream rebel factions.

A combination of regime and IS victories in and around Aleppo would be devastating not only to local rebels, but to the Syrian opposition as a whole. The loss of territory and morale would reverberate throughout the country, pushing many to give up the fight or join a more powerful militant force: IS.

The regime and IS are not bedfellows, though mutual restraint in the first five months of 2014 gave some that impression. Rather, and despite recent clashes, they share some short- and medium-term interests: chiefly the defeat of mainstream rebel groups backed by the opposition’s state sponsors, in particular those credible with local populations. For the regime, their defeat would eliminate what remains of the only existential threat it has feared: the prospect of robust Western military support to armed opponents. For IS, it would remove most of its meaningful competition, so it could eventually establish a monopoly on armed resistance to an unpopular Iranian-backed dictator, much as in Iraq.

At stake in Aleppo is not regime victory but opposition defeat. The war would continue should that occur, pitting regime and allied forces that lack the capacity to reconquer chunks of northern and eastern Syria or to subdue them through compromise against an emboldened IS that would gain strength by attracting rebel remnants. Between such antagonists, there would be no prospect of a political resolution and little hope of restoring the integrity of Syrian and Iraqi borders.

The situation is grim, but all is not yet lost. The bulk of the armed opposition is dominated by groups that, unlike IS, have demonstrated responsiveness to local populations and state sponsors. Their shortcomings are manifold and performance uneven, but the most successful of them have begun to show political pragmatism needed not only for continued viability but also to resolve the war.

It is past time for state supporters on both sides to acknowledge that the status quo leads to disaster. For Iran and Russia, this means recognising that – lip service to a negotiated solution and counter-terrorism notwithstanding – the regime strategy they facilitate renders resolution impossible and strengthens the jihadis it claims to combat. For the mainstream opposition’s principal backers – the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – it means acknowledging that their tough words, meagre support and strategic incoherence have helped produce the current desperation. Recent modest increases in support for armed groups will not prevent their defeat, though they may shift the political and ideological balance among them. Syria is sliding toward unending war between an autocratic, sectarian regime and an even more autocratic, more sectarian jihadi group that, on present trends, will potentially destabilise the Middle East well beyond Syria and Iraq.

The fall of greater Aleppo to regime and IS forces would do much to bring this about. There are two means of avoiding it:

  • Best would be through immediate negotiation and implementation of a local ceasefire between the regime and anti-IS rebel forces in Aleppo. This would allow the latter to dedicate their resources to halting and eventually reversing IS gains. It would require a dramatic shift in regime strategy: from prioritising defeat of the mainstream opposition to prioritising the fight against IS, and recognising that IS cannot be defeated without conceding a role to the mainstream opposition. If the regime and its allies are serious about weakening jihadis, they should immediately show willingness to halt their offensives in Aleppo and withdraw to positions from which their forces no longer threaten the main rebel supply line to the city. If such a ceasefire is offered, mainstream rebels in Aleppo should accept it and ensure that their anti-IS jihadi allies do the same. The mainstream opposition’s state backers should pressure them to do so.
     
  • Such a regime shift appears unlikely. In its absence, the only realistic alternative is for the opposition’s state backers to improve support, qualitatively and quantitatively, to credible non-jihadi rebel groups with roots in Aleppo. That could become more costly to the regime and its allies than a local deal, as some of the support would inevitably be deployed against regime forces. The option would also carry costs for the opposition’s backers. To be effective, it would entail, at minimum, an increase in cash, ammunition and anti-tank weapons delivered to mainstream rebel factions – some of which could end up in jihadi hands; it would also require a higher level of investment by the U.S. and of cooperation among Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Even if successful, this effort would not tilt the military balance in favour of the mainstream opposition – but it could prevent its defeat, halt IS gains on a key front and thus preserve the chance for an eventual political resolution.

Other prominent options at the centre of the Western policy debate would likely be counterproductive. Calls for partnership with the Assad regime against jihadis are ill-conceived. Until regime forces fundamentally revise their posture and abandon the habit of exploiting jihadi gains for their own benefit, they have little to offer in the fight against IS. Their current dependence on indiscriminate tactics and Iran-backed militias is fuel for jihadi flames. Proposals to expand U.S. airstrikes against IS into Syria are incomplete tactical prescriptions in search of a strategy. IS gains can only be halted and eventually reversed through the empowerment of credible Sunni alternatives, both locally and within the context of national governance. In the absence of a broader strategy to accomplish that, airstrikes against IS would accomplish little; indeed, the propaganda benefits that would accrue to the group could be more important than the tactical setbacks it would suffer.

There are, of course, risks in the two more promising policies outlined above. But the failure of any and all parties to take some risk will lead only to disaster.

Beirut/Brussels 9 September 2014

In this file photo released by Syria's opposition-run Aleppo Media Centre (AMC) on 19 February 2013, Syrians inspect destruction following an apparent surface-to-surface missile strike on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. ALEPPO MEDIA CENTRE / AFP

After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria

15 March marks the Syrian uprising’s tenth anniversary. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Syria expert Dareen Khalifa says that with a political solution out of reach, consolidating the existing ceasefires and alleviating human suffering is the best possible way forward for now.

What does the conflict in Syria look like on the ground?

The sides to the conflict are locked in an uneasy standoff that has brought the country a measure of calm, but fighting could rapidly reignite and trigger international instability. The turning point in the past year came when a Russian-Turkish ceasefire announced on 5 March 2020 halted a year-long Syrian regime onslaught on Idlib in the north west. This paused most fighting on the war’s last active front. Turkey expanded its military presence in Idlib, securing the truce. Thus, the area became the latest example of de facto ceasefires around the country.

But the possibility of renewed hostilities is real. The status quo is fragile and the parties to the ceasefires breach them on a daily basis. The Idlib ceasefire left unresolved core disagreements on the area’s future and that of the rebels, including Idlib’s dominant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that is UN-sanctioned and considered a terrorist organisation by Russia and others. The March 2020 agreement between Russia and Turkey calls on both sides to “eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by [the UN Security Council]”. Moscow, which wants regime control over Idlib restored, has cited HTS’s UN designation when supporting regime attacks on the area, and has indicated that the ceasefire is a temporary arrangement. In the north east, a small U.S. military presence provides the only buffer between the local population and renewed active conflict: Turkey is adamantly opposed to local rule by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish paramilitary group that leads the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  While the U.S. has not acted on statements during the Trump administration that it will withdraw its troops from Syria, this may not be enough to prevent Ankara from launching a new offensive against the YPG.

Has Bashar al-Assad effectively won the war?

Assad is still in power and Syrian rebels are now confined to pockets of northern Syria.

Over half the population has been displaced with no prospects for return in the foreseeable future.

In reality, though, the conflict has no winners. Syria has been torn apart. Over half the population has been displaced with no prospects for return in the foreseeable future, while the UN stopped counting casualties five years ago, when already more than 400,000 people had reportedly been killed. The humanitarian situation is dire, with an estimated eleven million people inside the country in need of assistance; the World Food Program has warned of a growing threat of famine.

The Assad government controls some 70 per cent of the country, including its major cities, and has the support of Russia and Iran. But it has lost control over large swathes of territory in the north that contain most of the country’s natural resources. The government is a pariah in the West, has few friends in the Middle East, and is still battling a dangerous Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency in the centre of the country.

Assad’s goal of retaking all of Syria appears far-fetched. The country is currently divided into four distinct zones of influence, each backed or protected by a foreign power. Russia and Iran stand behind Assad, while U.S. and Turkish troops hold positions in various parts of the north.  Assad is effectively running up against strong foreign opponents who, at least thus far, have suggested they are invested in stopping any further military advance.

Ten years of war and Western sanctions have also severely depleted the Syrian government’s revenues and devastated the economy. Some of the biggest blows came between 2012 and 2014, when the regime lost access to most of the country’s natural and agricultural resources, in particular oil, gas and wheat, which are produced in the north east, now controlled by the SDF. As a result of the war, more than a third of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged. Both the regime and its Russian allies obliterated entire urban centres as part of a war strategy to violently subdue opposition-held areas. The U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS likewise decimated towns and villages, including the city of Raqqa. At the end of 2017, reconstruction costs reached an estimated $250 billion. Few countries appear willing or able to invest significantly in reconstruction; European governments that could are withholding support until and unless there is a genuine political transition.

Ten years on, what is driving the regime, the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel today?

The Assad government aims to restore its control over all of Syria, but without sufficient military support it is forced to pursue the more limited goal of tightening its grip on rapidly shrinking resources still within its reach. It typically does so by extorting money from businessmen, monopolising dollar transactions, appropriating land and providing a legal avenue for purchasing an exemption from military service, among other methods.

The Assad government aims to restore its control over all of Syria, but without sufficient military support it is forced to pursue the more limited goal of tightening its grip on rapidly shrinking resources still within its reach.

For Russia, Syria remains one of the few global theatres where Western states actively seek its cooperation, making the conflict central to its pursuit of a multipolar geopolitical order in which it can be a key player. Russia has achieved its main near-term political and military objectives in Syria, including preventing the collapse of an important regional partner. For Iran, Syria is a centrepiece of its regional strategy as a territorial link to its most important non-state ally, Hizbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, and a potential launching pad against Israel, which it portrays as deterrence.

For the U.S., remaining in Syria denies these three adversaries significant strategic gains, allows Washington to protect its local allies while fighting ISIS remnants in north east Syria, and would be a key component of any strategy to negotiate a better situation for the population in SDF-controlled areas.

For its part, Turkey sees the situations in north west and north east Syria as distinct security threats. With nearly four million Syrian refugees already in Turkey and popular resentment rising, Ankara wants to prevent further regime advances in Idlib that could send many thousands of new refugees into Turkey and for now appears determined to do so. In north east Syria, Turkey sees the YPG, the SDF’s backbone, as an integral part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged insurgency in south east Turkey since 1984, a conflict in which over 40,000 people have been killed.

And finally, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against suspected Iran-linked targets in Syria with the goal of curtailing Tehran’s ability to use Syria as a transit and production zone for advanced weapons, such as guided missiles, for use by Hizbollah. It will continue to do so as long as it sees this threat.

Is the U.S. still a key player in Syria?

The U.S. is far from the most important player in Syria. That said, it maintains some influence through its military presence in north east Syria, its ability to impose additional sanctions on the regime or remove existing ones, and its de facto control, along with European allies, over any potential significant flow of reconstruction funds.

While this influence is insufficient to elicit a change in leadership in Damascus, or alter the balance of power significantly, the U.S. role in north east Syria has been crucial to preventing a violent free-for-all that could involve the regime, the Russian military, pro-Iran militias, the SDF and Turkey, and by keeping a lid on ISIS’s ability to return.

Are sanctions an effective tool to achieve Western objectives in Syria?

Western governments imposed sanctions on Syria to force the regime to change its behaviour, especially to halt attacks on civilians. To date, these sanctions have not achieved this goal. Additional sanctions in and of themselves are unlikely to fare better.

Some close observers point to an uptick of anti-government demonstrations in loyalist areas as a sign that the economic crisis may destabilise Assad’s rule. This seems unlikely. While sanctions may cause an increase in popular discontent by hastening an economic meltdown, today’s power dynamics do not allow for a popular uprising or insurgency that would threaten the regime in any major way. While Western states insist on a meaningful change in the regime’s behaviour toward its own population as a condition for lifting sanctions, they dropped their insistence that Assad must go many years ago. (They still refer to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015, which stipulates the goal of establishing “an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers” when mentioning conditions for lifting sanctions, though few people believe regime change is in any way realistic and Russian officials also often cite that resolution.)

Sanctions and other measures that are meant to penalise repressive rulers usually wind up hurting ordinary people the most.

Sanctions and other measures that are meant to penalise repressive rulers usually wind up hurting ordinary people the most. Western states should be more specific regarding what types of behavioural change they expect from Damascus and how to measure this, and indicate how they will reciprocate if the regime complies. Apart from this, it is vital to avert a further collapse of living conditions inside Syria or in neighbouring countries. Western governments should therefore consider increasing aid provided to the suffering population where possible, and continue to clearly communicate and implement humanitarian exemptions to economic and financial sanctions. 

What could a political resolution to the overall war look like?

Steps toward a nationwide negotiated solution to the conflict, such as the UN-sponsored constitutional committee discussions in Geneva, have yielded few results and are unlikely to achieve more in the near future. Russia and Western countries have divergent approaches to the process. Moscow sees the committee’s establishment in and of itself as a substantive concession from Damascus, for which the latter should be rewarded, for example in the form of increased Western assistance to areas under government control, enhanced Western reconstruction support or a lifting of sanctions. From their side, the UN, U.S. and other Western actors have welcomed the committee’s work only as a gate-opener to the implementation of the other elements that Resolution 2254 lays out toward a political transition, including a nationwide ceasefire.

For as long as the political deadlock continues and a comprehensive settlement remains out of reach, the best way forward may be to consolidate the ceasefires and, more generally, the status quo, and use the opportunity to help alleviate the human tragedy that is continuing to unfold. Over time this may help pave the way for more substantive political talks over Syria’s future.