Once it was the crossroads of the civilised world, today it is a smoking ruin that would put the worst depredations of Genghis Khan to shame. Aleppo is a city that resonated to every shift in the tides of history in the Middle East, from ancient Babylon to Egypt to Alexander, down to the Ottomans and the western powers. Nowadays it resonates to the sound of shells, mortar and missiles that have pounded it into rubble in four years of a vicious, seemingly unending, civil war.
Aleppo and the Syrian nation are the most visible symbol of the shiftless, morally bankrupt, policy that America and its allies imposed upon the Middle East with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq was premised upon an outright lie spun in the highest echelons of US intelligence and passed by an acquiescent Congress still looking for payback over 9/11 despite massive and unprecedented public protests across both the US and Europe. The invasion unleashed a train of events that threatens to unravel the Middle East altogether.
Syria was not part of the initial programme to reform the region. The problem began with the Arab Spring and its cry for democracy in 2011. As the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell, and Libya tottered, President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian deep state, which has long been paranoid about conspiracies to overthrow it, dug in their heels. As the public outcry for reform grew stronger so did state repression. But it was still a protest movement that the west supported until a rebellion by some disaffected soldiers and officers in July 2011 (they formed the Free Syrian Army) convinced Bashar and his cronies that Washington was trying to get rid of him. The response was violent, brutal and immediate.
At this point the US could have told the rebels they were on their own and left them to make their peace with the government, or taken Bashar head-on. It did neither; it condemned Syrian repression, voiced support for democracy and armed the rebels. Worse, it enlisted Saudi Arabia, effectively converting it into a Shia-Sunni fight as well as dividing the rebels along the same lines and sucking in every extremist Islamist group, armed, willing and deadly.
As a result, though everyone is nominally fighting Bashar’s forces they are also fighting each other and different rebel groups control different regions and cities, even different parts of the same city. In five years, the civil war has caused over 450,000 deaths, left more than a million injured and driven some 12 million—half the population—from their homes. For Syria it is a tragedy of unparalleled proportions that also unleashed a continent-wide wave of refugees. The problem today is even more intractable, with Russia lending its old ally a hand in suppressing the rebels and another long-time supporter, Iran, also weighing in. A movement for civil rights has morphed into sectarian war, much like Iraq, for the same reasons.
Syria’s descent into chaos is President Barack Obama’s biggest failure, domestic or overseas. It was his inability to be clear on his policy objectives, coupled with hesitations about the limits to which he would go, that emboldened Bashar to go much further than he probably intended initially. Then there was the fiasco over the “red line”, the regime’s use of chemical weapons, which he declined to enforce. There was a complete misreading of the intentions of the Salafist rebel groups whose programme was the opposite of the rights movements. But they were lumped with the resistance anyway. There was thus no clarity over ends, means or even allies.
He complicated matters further by letting Russia play a direct role while staying out of it. So Syria is now a stage where great powers are entangled, which means in practice that there is little or no chance of an early resolution. But Syria is only one part of a larger arc of danger. Iraq has still not recovered from the wounds inflicted by Iraqi Freedom, Yemen is in meltdown and Libya divided into warring factions. Each one is a cauldron of competing jihadisms. Each has a common enemy, the west, but especially the US. Each conflict reinforces regional suspicions that the west is at war with Islam. Each has the potential to spill over into the neighbourhood and start new fires. The new emir in Washington has also declared “radical Islamic terror” the primary enemy. What Donald Trump will do is unclear at present but if he decides to reverse Obama’s policies no one can say what will happen to the region.
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