From the rubble of Aleppo, ISIL rises

The United Nations Security Council on December 19 overcame intense divisions and voted for UN observers to monitor evacuations from the besieged city of Aleppo.

Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, referred to the French-drafted resolution as “just another part of the continued propaganda against Syria and its fight against terrorists”. He added: “The last terrorists in some districts of the eastern part of Aleppo are evacuating their strongholds and Aleppo this evening will be clean.”

Indeed, Syrian officials and their allies have consistently described the fierce government offensive as aimed at “cleansing” the city of “terrorists”.

In an interview with Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad explained that “you have to keep cleaning this area and to push the terrorists to Turkey … Aleppo is going to be a very important springboard to do this move”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also spoken repeatedly of “clearing the city of terrorists”. He reiterated on December 8 that Russia aimed “to fight terrorists in Syria till the end”.

These sweeping depictions of the Aleppo offensive as a successful counterterrorism operation, however, gloss over a number of troubling realities.

Rescuing civilians from terrorists?

Firstly, it is both logically and morally problematic – absurd, even – to deliberately target a civilian population in the name of rescuing it from terrorists.

Yet, over the course of the past few months, eastern Aleppo has been indiscriminately pounded by

thermobaric weapons (vacuum bombs), flying improvised explosive devices (barrel bombs), explosive bomblets (cluster bombs), and bunker busters (earthquake bombs).

In the summer, when the government tightened its siege of the city – raising the spectre of mass starvation – and intensified its bombardment, Save the Children estimated that 35 percent of all casualties in Aleppo were children.

Last month, the last children’s hospital in Aleppo was reportedly vacuum bombed while in the process of treating the child victims of a chlorine gas attack.

Last week, the UN reported that civilians, including women and children, were being shot on the spot in their homes and on the street by pro-government forces entering eastern Aleppo.

In both intention and effect, therefore, it is doubtful whether the government’s campaign in Aleppo can be meaningfully understood as a counterterrorism operation.

Government-allied foreign militia:

Moreover, the Syrian government relies upon militia comprising foreign nationals who are committing politically motivated violence against non-combatant targets.

Many of their actions are designed to intimidate or coerce – essentially, to terrorise – the civilian population.

Deployed alongside these foreign militiamen – a mix of conscripts, mercenaries and ideological volunteers from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan – are deeply alarming sectarian narratives which dehumanise Sunni Muslims.

“Beyond the urgent moral issues in play, the Aleppo campaign has yielded the very dangerous combination of an empowered ISIL and a majority Sunni population further alienated from, and terrified of, the Assad regime”.

To be sure, in recent years, the rebel movement in Aleppo became heavily influenced by jihadist factions.

Some of the fighters involved are Sunni foreigners who played an outsized role in snuffing out a great deal of the organic Syrian opposition, and who have committed grave crimes against the civilians of rebel-held and government-held Aleppo, and Syrian government troops.

These excesses, when they occur, are deplorable. However, ultimately there can be little equivalence between the actions of a self-defined rebel movement – largely hijacked by thugs and jihadis, who are widely condemned as illegitimate – and the responsibilities of a government which has a seat at the UN and claims the mantle of sovereign authority.

But perhaps most importantly, the government’s current campaign grips Aleppo’s civilians in a pincer of foreign terrorism: on the one hand, the grisly and unaccountable foreign-dominated rebel groups and, on the other, marauding, government-allied foreign militia.

Driving extremism:

Additionally, the brutalisation of civilians, particularly children, only drives extremism.

It is likely that the effects of the Syrian government’s military campaign, and the intense onslaught against Aleppo specifically, will be felt for a generation – in Syria and beyond.

Some terrorists may be killed and their weapons seized. But social and political trauma of this order only drives radicalisation more broadly.

After all, modern jihadism evolved from the crushed bones of political opposition movements across the region in the 20th century – ever more radical with each bloodletting.

No defeat for ISIL:

Aleppo is no defeat for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL is the most formidable and global of all the terrorist players, which has attracted tens of thousands of fighters from more than 50 countries, manufactured chemical weapons, minted its own currency, and run a substantial proto-state.

ISIL’s fighters have barely held a presence in eastern Aleppo since they were pushed out in 2014 by a disparate coalition of rebels.

Developments in Aleppo can be easily interpreted by ISIL as something of a victory: because of the distraction factor (in recent days ISIL was able to re-take Palmyra, in an offensive led by Abu Talha al-Tunisi); because of the annihilation of ISIL’s rivals and opponents (including important remnants of the non-jihadist opposition); and because of the clear statement that Sunni civilians have much to fear from the government in Damascus.

Beyond the urgent moral issues in play, the Aleppo campaign has yielded the very dangerous combination of an empowered ISIL and a majority Sunni population further alienated from, and terrified of, the Assad regime.

From a strategic point of view, then, the Assad regime may yet win Aleppo, but lose Syria.