Aleppo evacuations and the ‘heart wrenching’ decision ahead for Syrians

Aleppo in 2006
Aleppo in 2006. (Photo: Khaled Al Hariri/Reuters)

Originally posted in news@Northeastern

For nearly six years—since the so-called Arab Spring of 2011—Syria has descended into a bitter civil war between Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad’s gov­ern­ment forces and rebel fighters. The con­flict has caused one of the most severe refugee crises in recent his­tory, with mil­lions of Syrian civil­ians dis­placed and seeking haven in the neigh­boring coun­tries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as var­ious coun­tries across Europe.

Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city, has become the epi­center of this con­flict. It’s been nearly split in half, with Assad’s forces con­trol­ling the western half and rebel forces con­trol­ling the eastern half. Late this week, oppo­si­tion fighters and civil­ians began evac­u­ating the neigh­bor­hoods that rep­re­sented the final rebel foothold, fol­lowing a cease­fire deal struck by Russia, which backs the Syrian gov­ern­ment, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

news@Northeastern asked Valen­tine Moghadam, pro­fessor of soci­ology and inter­na­tional affairs and director of Northeastern’s Inter­na­tional Affairs and Middle East Studies pro­grams, to dis­cuss the broad sig­nif­i­cance of the evac­u­a­tion, its global reper­cus­sions, and what’s next for Syria and those who called it home.

Retaking eastern Aleppo from rebel con­trol has been a major focus, per­haps the major focus, for Syrian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad since the civil war began six years ago. Thursday, Assad described the “lib­er­a­tion of Aleppo” as a moment that will change his­tory. What is the broad sig­nif­i­cance of the fall of Aleppo?

The lib­er­a­tion of Aleppo is cer­tainly a his­toric moment, given that the ancient city, also the com­mer­cial center of Syria, had been the major strong­hold of the armed rebels. By ending the rebel takeover of eastern Aleppo, the Syrian mil­i­tary and its coali­tion allies have forced the with­drawal of ISIS, the al-Nusra Front, and al-Qaida elements.

Yes, the rebels have retaken parts of Palmyra, but their days are num­bered and they will surely be defeated again. No wonder Syrian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad com­pared the lib­er­a­tion of Aleppo to the birth of Christ and the rev­e­la­tion of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.

The battle in Aleppo, and more broadly, in Syria, is one that’s ensnared mul­tiple world powers—including Russia, Iran, Turkey, the EU, and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.—which have backed either Assad’s forces or rebel forces. What global reper­cus­sions can we expect from the evac­u­a­tion of rebel fighters?

There have been com­peting nar­ra­tives about the Syrian civil con­flict and the role of domestic and out­side forces. In my judg­ment, the “Assad must go” mantra of the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others back in 2011 encour­aged the armed rebel­lion, which in turn gave way to par­tic­i­pa­tion by for­eign fighters in a brutal “jihad” that had the logis­tical and mil­i­tary sup­port of Western and regional powers (a vio­la­tion of inter­na­tional law).

Desta­bi­lizing states (or economies) is almost never a sound policy objec­tive, and espe­cially when the alter­na­tives are unclear or pre­dictably awful. Think of what hap­pened to Iraq after the inva­sion and occu­pa­tion of 2003, and to Libya after the NATO bomb­ings of 2011 and the over­throw of Gad­hafi. The attempted desta­bi­liza­tion of Syria cre­ated nothing but misery for the Syrian people, the expan­sion of ISIS and other jihadist groups, the destruc­tion of cul­tural her­itage, and infra­struc­tural damage that will take years to repair.

Per­haps by now some lessons have been learned. The Western powers and their regional allies could not over­throw a regime that still had con­sid­er­able domestic sup­port; Iran, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah would not stand by and let Syria go the way of Libya; and rule by ISIS and jihadists is infi­nitely worse than an author­i­tarian regime that at least guar­an­teed secu­rity and pro­tected reli­gious minori­ties. The world-system is in tran­si­tion, the Western powers can no longer call the shots, and cit­i­zens in Europe and the United States would prefer that their gov­ern­ments focus atten­tion and resources on domestic mat­ters rather than on for­eign wars.  Nev­er­the­less, the U.S., U.K., France, and their regional allies are ulti­mately respon­sible for the Syrian refugee crisis and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of armed jihadists, and they must be held to account.

Mil­lions of Syrian cit­i­zens have been dis­placed from their homes or worse as the country becomes increas­ingly belea­guered by war—leading to one of the most intense refugee crises in years. As the human­i­tarian effort to evac­uate civil­ians con­tinues, what’s next for Syria and for the people who had called it home? Can you put into his­tor­ical con­text the human­i­tarian crisis we face as a result of the violence?

Syria faces years of recon­struc­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, as well as the dis­ar­ma­ment of the rebels.  As I have indi­cated, the Western coun­tries and the regional allies that sought to desta­bi­lize Syria and arm the rebels have a moral and legal respon­si­bility to help rebuild Syria, and I would hope that a trust fund would be cre­ated for that purpose.

The mil­lions of Syr­ians who are inter­nally dis­placed or have become refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan may wish to return to their homes, but given the destruc­tion of their com­mu­ni­ties, this will be a heart-wrenching deci­sion for them.

The scale of the human­i­tarian and refugee crisis is sim­ilar to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when a mod­ern­izing, left-wing gov­ern­ment backed by the Soviet Union and its mil­i­tary fought a tribal-Islamist armed rebel­lion backed by the United States, Pak­istan, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, and other coun­tries. Afghan refugees poured into Pak­istan and Iran, and they stayed there even after the with­drawal of the Soviet troops in early 1989, because the erst­while Islamist allies, the Mujahidin, turned on each other, ush­ering in the Tal­iban. Many refugees returned after the 2001 over­throw of the Tal­iban by the U.S., but the Taliban’s resur­gence since 2006 has resulted in more con­flict and insta­bility. Some 37 years after the Carter admin­is­tra­tion decided—most unwisely—to covertly arm the tribal-Islamist rebel­lion, fol­lowed by the Reagan administration’s overt sup­port via Pak­istan, Afghanistan remains impov­er­ished, unstable, and depen­dent on U.S. aid.

I expect that Syria will do better, as it can count on its more con­sid­er­able internal resources as well as the sup­port of Iran, Russia, pos­sibly China, other independent-minded coun­tries (that is, out­side the orbit of the Western powers), and of course those inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions that are tasked with human­i­tarian assis­tance, recon­struc­tion, and development.