Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
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
Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union
Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union
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.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

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

Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union

Despite suffering significant blows in Syria and Iraq, jihadist movements across the Middle East, North Africa and Lake Chad regions continue to pose significant challenges. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to prioritise conflict prevention at the heart of their counter-terrorism policy and continue investment in vulnerable states.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Over the past few months, military operations have eaten deep into the Iraqi and Syrian heartlands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Much of Mosul, the group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, has been recaptured; Raqqa, its capital in Syria, is encircled. Its Libyan branch, with closest ties to the Iraqi leadership, has been ousted from the Mediterranean coastal strip it once held. Boko Haram, whose leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS, menaces the African states around Lake Chad but has split and lost much of the territory it held a year ago. Though smaller branches exist from the Sinai to Yemen and Somalia, the movement has struggled to make major inroads or hold territory elsewhere.

ISIS’s decisive defeat remains a remote prospect while the Syrian war rages and Sunnis’ place in Iraqi politics is uncertain. It will adapt and the threat it poses will evolve. But it is on the backfoot, its brand diminished. For many adherents, its allure was its self-proclaimed caliphate and territorial expansion. With those in decline, its leaders are struggling to redefine success. Fewer local groups are signing up. Fewer foreigners are travelling to join; the main danger they represent now is their return to countries of origin or escape elsewhere.

Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is increasingly potent. It, too, has evolved. Its affiliates, particularly its Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Yemen branches, are more influential than the leadership in South Asia. Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, inspires loyalty and offers guidance but has little say in daily operations. Al-Qaeda’s strategy – embedding within popular uprisings, allying with other armed groups and displaying pragmatism and sensitivity to local norms – may make it a more durable threat than ISIS. Its strategy also means that affiliates’ identities are more local than transnational, a shift that has sparked debate among jihadists. Although Western intelligence officials assert that cells within affiliates plot against the West, for the most part they fight locally and have recruited large numbers of fighters motivated by diverse local concerns.

U.S. national security policy looks set to change too. Much about new President Donald Trump’s approach remains uncertain, but aggressive counter-terrorism operations for now dominate his administration’s policy across the Muslim world. Protecting U.S. citizens from groups that want to kill them must, of course, be an imperative for American leaders. But since the 9/11 attacks a decade and a half ago, too narrow a focus on counter-terrorism has often distorted U.S. policy and at times made the problem worse.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country ... though war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements.

Some early signs are troubling. Past months have seen a spike in civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone and other airstrikes. The degree to which the administration will factor in the potential geopolitical fallout of operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda is unclear. U.S. allies could misuse counter-terrorism support against rivals and deepen chaos in the region. Nor it is clear that the U.S. will invest in diplomacy to either end the wars from which jihadists profit or nudge regional leaders toward reforms that can avert further crises. The new administration may also escalate against Iran while fighting jihadists, creating an unnecessary and dangerous distraction.

Though the influence of European leaders and the European Union (EU) on Arab politics and U.S. counter-terrorism policy has limits, they are likely to be asked to bankroll reconstruction efforts across affected regions. They could use this leverage to:

  1. Promote a judicious and legal use of force: Campaigns against jihadists hinge on winning over the population in which they operate. “Targeted” strikes that kill civilians and alienate communities are counterproductive, regardless of immediate yield. Indiscriminate military action can play into extremists’ hands or leave communities caught between their harsh rule and brutal operations against them. European leaders should press for tactical restraint and respect for international humanitarian law, which conflict parties of all stripes increasingly have abandoned.
     
  2. Promote plans for the day after military operations: Offensives against Mosul, Raqqa or elsewhere need plans to preserve military gains, prevent reprisals and stabilise liberated cities. As yet, no such plan for Raqqa seems to exist – it would need to involve local Sunni forces providing security, at least inside the city. As operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda linked groups escalate, the EU could seek clarity on what comes next and how operations fit into a wider political strategy.
     
  3. Identify counter-terrorism’s geopolitical side effects: The fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda intersects a tinderbox of wars and regional rivalries. Frank discussion of the potential consequences of military operations could reduce risks that they provoke a wider escalation. The Raqqa campaign, for example, should seek to avoid stimulating fighting elsewhere among Turkish and Kurdish forces and their respective allies. Success in Mosul hinges on preventing the forces involved battling for territory after they have ousted ISIS. European powers’ own counter-terrorism support should not result in allies being more resistant to compromise.
     
  4. Reinforce diplomatic efforts to end crises: From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, no country where ISIS or al-Qaeda branches hold territory has a single force strong enough to secure the whole country. Unless the main non-jihadist armed factions in each country can arrive at some form of political accommodation among each other, there is a risk they either ally with jihadists against rivals or misuse counter-terrorism support for other ends. European powers should step up support for UN-led diplomacy if the U.S. neglects such efforts.
     
  5. Protect space for political engagement: Over recent years, as jihadists have gathered force on today’s battlefields, Western powers have tended to draw a line between groups they see as beyond the pale and those whom they envisage as part of settlements. The EU should keep the door open to engagement with all conflict parties – whether to secure humanitarian access or reduce violence. It should be made clear to groups on the wrong side of the line how they eventually can cross it. Al-Qaeda affiliates’ increasingly local focus makes this all the more vital.

  6. Warn against confronting Iran: Such a confrontation would be perilous. Militarily battling Tehran in Iraq, Yemen or Syria, questioning the nuclear deal’s validity or imposing sanctions that flout its spirit could provoke asymmetric responses via non-state allies. Iran’s behaviour across the region is often destabilising and reinforces the sectarian currents that buoy jihadists. But the answer lies in dampening the rivalry between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, not stimulating it, with the attendant risk of escalating proxy wars. This will mean resuming a tough but professional senior-level U.S.-Iranian channel of communication, something the U.S. administration seems reluctant to do but that Europe could encourage. And, for the EU and its members states (notably France, Germany and the UK), it means clearly signalling to the U.S. administration that any step to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in the absence of an Iranian violation of the deal – will leave Washington isolated and unable to recreate an international consensus to sanction Iran.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country, village to village and individual to individual. Clearly, though, war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements. Both groups have grown less because their ideology inspires wide appeal than by offering protection or firepower against enemies, or rough law and order where no one else can; or by occupying a power vacuum and forcing communities to acquiesce. Rarely can either group recruit large numbers or seize territory outside a war zone. The EU’s investment in peacebuilding and shoring up vulnerable states is, therefore, among its most valuable contributions against jihadists. European leaders must do everything within their power to disrupt attacks, but they should also put conflict prevention at the centre of their counter-terrorism policy.