The battle for Aleppo


THE CURRENT battle for Aleppo could seal the fate of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but in truth his regime has already lost its legitimacy. The gruesome viciousness and savagery of its fight against rebel forces over the last 18 months, without regard for elementary human rights and disregarding serious efforts to mediate or negotiate a transition, ensures that. Multilateral negotiations rather than a direct international military intervention represent the best hope of securing a successor state satisfactory to most Syrians. Neighbouring states and great powers are already politically involved with Syrian parties to the conflict and are necessarily part of the solution.

Aleppo is Syria’s second city and its most important commercial centre. Many of the rebel fighters come from surrounding rural areas where the economic conditions which helped provoke the revolt are most marked. They fight alongside others motivated by religious opposition to the regime and a minority of international volunteers, including some from Ireland. Their determination is increasingly driven by a common political conviction that Assad has to go based on his grisly record, bolstered now by the use of helicopter gunships against his own population in this battle.

That growing political unity in the opposition is the best hope that Syria can survive this awful period as a single entity capable of creating a new state. A sectarian civil war has been made more likely precisely by shameful deeds like the massacre of at least 108 people, including many children, in the town of Houla by Syrian army forces and local Allawite civilian militias last May, ominously recalling the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica. It seems to be part of the strategy followed by the Assad regime in its terminal stages to provoke the multicultural population into such conflicts in a cynical effort to justify its savagery.

Delicate calculations of strategic interest and geopolitical advantage animate external actors in this drama which appears to be approaching a fateful tipping point. The United States has carefully avoided talk of a direct military intervention but is being urged to arm rebel forces in several safe havens established near international borders for fear of being blamed for not doing so after their victory. Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, Lebanese and Iranian involvement is similarly motivated by political, religious, economic or security concerns. Chinese and Russian support for the Assad regime is tempered by embarrassment at its excesses and a realisation that they may have backed a loser. French and other European calls for stronger United Nations sanctions and political engagement are valuable multilateral initiatives which deserve more active support from the European Union.

The genuine complexity and risk of regional conflagration attending the Syrian uprisings and the regime’s response must not take from the moral outrage rightly directed against the Assad regime and political efforts to hasten its end.

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