“Aleppo” as a term has become something of a buzz word in the West that is still full of ignorance: while many have heard of the city, few can correctly name it as a city in Syria and fewer still are aware of just how complex and vicious it has been as a symbolic center of the Syrian conflict for the past four years. What it mostly represents to the semi-initiated in America is the epicenter of the refugee crisis exclusively caused by Pro-Assad government forces, amply assisted by a Russian Air Force that is indifferent to human suffering.
That is the orthodox narrative. It is also a pale shadow of reality that does an egregious disservice for any people actually hoping to make an impact on ending the conflict and possibly alleviating the human suffering there and beyond. Tragically, anyone looking to understand Aleppo with nationalist agendas and geostrategic grandstanding removed will uncover a global village of perpetrators that have done nothing but cause insanity and injury.
The battle for Aleppo has been raging on and off since mid-2012. It was a primary front for rebel groups and a symbol overall of the revolution, given that Aleppo as a region was the most populous in all of Syria and a major industrial center. The Assad regime knew the importance of Aleppo simply because it felt it was the one area in the entire country that could somewhat legitimately mark itself as a beginning point for forming an alternative state to the government in Damascus. From the very beginning, however, this conflict has never been ‘neat’ or ‘clean.’ It has never been formal government forces against officially recognized rebel forces. Assad allegedly released extremists from jail on the condition that they go fight for the government in Aleppo. This was almost immediately countered by rebel groups openly recruiting and welcoming Islamist extremists into their ranks for the exact opposite purpose. As we will see below these groups, never exactly loyal or truly aligned with either side in the battle, quickly transformed and grew into their own independent splinter groups. Sometimes the agendas aligned with the general pro-Assad/anti-Assad chief narrative, but disturbingly often they did not.
As the battles raged back and forth and began to gain greater media attention, first regionally and then globally, more and more foreign fighters tried to make their way towards Aleppo. This ‘mercenary migration,’ as it were, had several outside countries loosely playing with the rules of war and Geneva Convention standards: Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all participated at times in a chaotic and inconsistent policy of both turning a blind eye to mercenary fighters crossing their borders on the way to Syria and then viciously hindering, arresting, and killing such groups attempting to cross. What exactly would trigger the blind eye or the stick contextually has never truly been examined or explained. But the end result is inarguable: what was already a confusing mixed bag of combatants in and around Aleppo only became more vicious, bloody, and immoral because of the encouragement / indifference of surrounding nations trying to figure out for their own national security interests what the future of Syria should be.
A quick overview of Turkey’s most recent involvement reveals how decidedly distasteful and amorally strategic foreign attention has been. In August of 2016, Turkish troops de facto occupied the northern Syrian town of Jarablus, which had previously been controlled by DAESH. But instead of being a regional attempt at conflict resolution leadership, Turkey’s actions are better explained as a counter-move to hinder the American policy of empowering Kurdish factions fighting against Assad. For Turkey, it is not so much a concern of how much control Kurdish fighters might achieve within Syria, but rather the worry that Kurdish success on its doorstep could trigger inspiration within the PKK, its decades-long Kurdish problem in Eastern Turkey. Thus, it was not looking to help end the suffering in Aleppo as much as deliver a warning blow to the Syrian Democratic Forces and People’s Protection Units, both of which are Kurdish-led blocs backed by America. Even more confusing, Turkey has supported different coalitions of Syrian rebels and Islamist groups that are not aligned with the rebel groups supported by the United States. These competing blocs that are ostensibly on the same side, but do not get along, also do not align obviously with groups sponsored by Assad or his two main international allies, Iran and Russia. Thus, in short, Turkey’s increased involvement in the conflict really did nothing except add a new layer of tension and discord between US-backed groups and a formal NATO ally while likely helping pro-Assad initiatives. In Aleppo, alas, sides that should be perfectly aligned if the chief priority is to stop the suffering of civilians are barely coordinated or even cordial.
When a breakdown of the various groups internally fighting within Syria is highlighted it almost becomes comically surreal. Take, for example, a schematic of Southern Front rebels loosely associated with the Free Syrian Army, the group which has for years been largely regarded in the West as the ‘formal opposition’ trying to overthrow Assad:
Within this one section of the main opposition there are nearly 50 groups, all claiming their own leadership hierarchies and not necessarily formally pledging allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. There is unity on the concept of removing Assad, without doubt. But how to accomplish that goal and then what to do with Syria in the aftermath of Assad’s removal is utterly in shadow or simply ignored. There are no rebel summits. There is no formal explicit policy distributed by any media wing. It is simply bloody chaos. And it only becomes worse when considering the ‘independent’ groups that have come to Syria and are supposedly aligned with the Free Syrian Army:
These supposedly FSA-friendly groups are almost as numerous as the Southern Front. When the fact that the Free Syrian Army itself is also not strictly unified and suffers from some of its own internal splintering, it becomes clear that there could be at any one time nearly 150 ‘rebel groups’ operating around Aleppo and supposedly trying to remove Assad but with no trans-rebel coordination and unity between them. So, while it is understandable why the West laments the suffering in Aleppo, transfixed by moving and emotional images of bloody children being pulled from collapsed buildings, it is an error to think the planes doing the bombings are the sole cause of the insanity.
Internally, a seemingly infinite number of rebel groups continue to splinter off of each other and make little to no real progress at showing semblances of political coherence and governing unity; transnationally, hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters have enacted a ‘mercenary migration’ into Syria with their own personal agendas of jihadist glory and individual profit; regionally, half a dozen countries have exacerbated the geopolitical chaos by being diplomatically inconsistent and prioritizing their own national security interests over humanitarian ones; globally, the big players of America, Russia, and Iran make an awful lot of noise in the media about peace while behaving in manners that can do nothing except exclude peace as an outcome. And here is the final nail in the crazy coffin: the picture I just painted, as chaotic and ridiculous as it admittedly is, is absent any mention of the impact and influence of the Islamic State. Throw that terrorist wild card in and you understand why Aleppo is so much more than just a complaint about Assad bombing civilians. Aleppo insanity is truly tragic and disturbing. But it is not the consequence of a single actor. It unfortunately took a global village of selfish idiots to accomplish this tragedy of so much suffering and so little progress. And that global village is large indeed.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, “Aleppo’s Mistakes,” http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2016/12/19/Aleppo-s-mistakes.html, Dec 26, 2016
Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham, “US Strategy to Fight ISIS has set off New Conflict in Syria, The Intercept, https://theintercept.com/2016/08/31/u-s-strategy-to-fight-isis-has-set-off-a-new-conflict-in-syria/, Aug 31, 2016