Yesterday, fighting began in Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities, between the rebel forces known as the Free Syria Army and the government-sponsored military in what Syrian President Bashir al-Assad called the decisive battle of the months-long civil war. This morning, reports are coming in from the New York Times that rebels are currently fleeing the city, having run out of ammunition and facing an overwhelming ground assault by government forces.
The outcome of the battle of Aleppo shows just how far the situation in Syria has deteriorated and how complicated the dynamics of the struggle are. Despite several high-profile defections from the Syrian government, including the resignation of prime minister Riyad Farid Hijab on Monday and his subsequent flight into Jordan, it is now obvious that the Assad regime is able to hold out against the rebels and is even beginning to show signs of a resurgence against the poorly armed forces. Text messages were sent out early Wednesday by the government to those Syrians that had not already fled the country urging them to denounce the rebels in order to “save yourself and your family”.
The conflict seems to straddle ethnic and sectarian lines in Syria, a common factor in many of the uprisings we have currently been seeing in the Middle East, a region where even slight ethnic and religious divisions matter in a way that most Western societies are not typically familiar with. Mr. Assad’s inner circle, like that of the government which his father headed before him, is made up mostly of members of the Alawite sect of the Shi’a branch of Islam. The majority of the population of Syria, however, belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam, a division which the rebels have claimed causes corruption in the Assad government and persecution of a large part of the Syrian nation. Assad’s elite cadre of Alawite followers have been accused of abusing their power and the power of the military at the expense of the interests of the people of Syria, sparking the violent rebellions that have been taking place for nearly a year at this point.
Syria’s civil war is complicated even further by the added international involvement in the conflict and what it represents to the interests of the various nations involved. On the one hand, you have Russia, Syria’s most prominent international sponsor, with naval bases in the country showing support for the continuity of the Assad regime. Regionally, the regime also has the support of Iran, another Shi’ite-governed nation, who has in recent years been in notable and accelerating conflict with Western powers over its nuclear enrichment programs. The United States, most of the European Union, and Turkey (the most significant liberal democracy in the region) have all voiced their support for the rebel forces in Syria and have denounced the Assad regime as despotic and inhumane. In recent months, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun urging the nations allied with the reble forces (known as the Friends of Syria) to begin planning for a post-Assad Syria and a recalculation of the nations place in the Middle East.
Perhaps, however, such talk is premature, given the intensity with which the struggle seems to be occurring and the absence of any sign of decline. The government’s victory in Aleppo, though certainly not a decisive one, is symbolic enough to give further credence to those in support of the Assad regime and will discourage the rebels (many of whom are young and relatively inexperienced in combat) from further aggression. Former UN Secretary-General and special peace envoy to Syria Kofi Annan’s resignation and withdrawal from the diplomatic process is a concrete sign of how little progress is being made in ending the conflict. To this end, if liberal pro-democratic nations want to see the Assad regime toppled, it is imperative that they begin actively supporting the rebel forces in Syria much like those in Libya nearly two years ago. France, who holds to rotating chair to the United Nations Security Council, has already called a special meeting of the Council later this month with the express purpose of deciding a course of action in the ongoing conflict. The United States, who has a serious stake in this conflict given its very sensitive relations with Iran, must make a very clear show of support to the Free Syria Army if it wishes to influence the outcome of the civil war in a way favorable to its own needs.