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Aleppo: the key to conflict resolution in the Syrian civil war?

The international community started having a different view of the ongoing tragedy in the Syrian civil war after a seven-year-old girl, Bana Alabed, who used to live in Aleppo, started posting messages, asking for help, from a twitter account beginning September 2016. Whether these messages were authentic or not, they provided renewed insights into the conflict and paved the way for a change in the existing stalemate in Aleppo and Syrian civil war in general. Finally, just a couple months ahead of the sixth year’s end in the conflict, an agreement has been reached in Astana, Kazakhstan on 24 January 2016 by the participation of the major domestic and international state and nonstate actors, who had stake in the conflict. Why is Aleppo significant? Why are there external states supporting various rebel groups? And, why did the conflict in Syria take so long to resolve?

Aleppo represents the complexity of the Syrian conflict. Two dimensions of this complexity are striking: (i) the multi-ethnic and multi-religious structure of the Syrian population and (ii) the intervention by outside actors and their conflicting interests. The major opposition to the Syrian government has included the pro-Kurdish groups and moderate Sunni Arabs. After the onset of conflict in March 2011, the United States, Western states, and Turkey stood by the side of the rebels, which they considered moderate Sunni opposition against the Alawite, but secular, authoritarian regime of Syria. Once the fighting spread to Aleppo in mid-2012, which was the largest city and financial and industrial center of Syria, it quickly turned into a stalemate between government and opposition groups. The Western part was controlled by pro-Assad (Syrian government) forces and the Eastern part of the city was controlled by rebel groups, mostly consisting of moderate Sunni Arabs. The stalemate continued till mid-2016, when Syrian government forces cut the supply routes to rebels in the Eastern part of the city.

The enduring conflict in Aleppo mostly stemmed from two factors related to both internalities and externalities of Syrian conflict. First, the opposing rebel groups were never able to unify against the Assad regime during the initial phase of rebellion and provide credible signals to the international community that they can replace the regime. Second, there were several outside interveners in the conflict both on the side of the rebels and the government. The United States and Turkey got involved from the beginning in training, arming, and funding the opposition, while Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia have interfered through diplomatic and military means on the side of the Syrian government. The existing research on external intervention in civil wars finds that the presence of outside interveners supporting different sides of a given conflict is a major factor prolonging civil wars rather than resolving them. The figure provides a picture of the actors involved in Syrian war in 2015.

Syria Map
Actors involved in Syrian War in 2015 by Belgin San-Akca. Used with permission.

Regional balance of power

As the conflict endured, the number of external state and nonstate actors who intervened in Syria increased as well. Especially, the presence of US financial and military aid created a competition among the rebels and contributed to the fractionalization of the opposition. The rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in early 2014 provided additional proof that the power vacuum in collapsing states, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, are easily filled with extremist radical movements.

A turning point both in the stalemate over Aleppo and Syrian conflict in general was the intervention by Russia in September 2015. The US had already been complaining about the Sunni Arab opposition in Syria and its inability to present an alternative regime against Assad for a while at the time. The rise of ISIS made the United States and Western alliance more suspicious of a policy designed to empower the Islamist-rooted groups. Russian intervention came at a point when the United States was shifting policy from toppling Assad to fighting against ISIS. In order to achieve this, the United States announced that it would continue supporting the pro-Kurdish groups, i.e. PYD (Democratic Union Party) and YPG (People’s Defense Units). Both of these groups are located under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) with Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party (PKK). PKK is considered to be a terrorist organization by the US, the EU, and Turkey. Unable to convince the US officials about the organic links between PKK, PYD, and YPG, Turkey turned to Russia as a major change of policy in years since the conflict began. Of course, the developments at home contributed to this policy change. Both ISIS and PKK started attacks within the borders of Turkey in the mid-2015. By the summer of 2016, Turkish authorities were convinced that the fight against terrorism should be taken to the strongholds of these groups within the borders of Syria.

Turkey’s policy change played a significant role in starting communication between the Assad regime and the opposition. It is not only that Turkey is unwilling to border a Northern Syria, which might turn into a hotbed of terrorism populated by PKK-PYD-YPG militants, but also it does not want to fight a new wave of terrorism by a religious-rooted fundamentalist group like ISIS. The humanitarian crisis in Aleppo gave Turkey an opportunity to review its policy vis-à-vis its support of moderate opposition. By the same token, the Syrian conflict gave Russia an opportunity to balance against the United States at least in the region, and Aleppo gave Russia an upper hand in terms of signaling to states, such as Turkey, a long-term NATO member, that Russia can be an equally trusted long-term ally like US, if not more.

Supporting rebels as a legitimate foreign policy strategy

Historical data between 1945 and 2010 shows that almost half of rebel groups, which seek to topple an existing leadership, manage to acquire an external state supporter and almost 70% of rebels, which fight for regime change, manage to receive external state supporters. From this historical perspective, the situation in Syria was not unique. Outside rivals of states, which go through internal turmoil, see an opportunity by the upsurge of rebellion in their rivals’ territories and start backing them to compel their rival to do something that they would not otherwise do. There are several specific aspects of the Syrian experience: (i) the number of not only state but also nonstate actors involved, (ii) external actors were equally motivated by ideational drives as much as material and strategic drives. The intervention by Hezbollah and Iran was ideationally driven to support Alawite-oriented Assad regime in comparison to Russian and US involvement, and (iii) it gave birth to a new legitimate foreign policy tool; supporting rebels on the ground to achieve specific objectives against the undesired governments. This was a long-standing instrument in the toolkit of states, yet frequently it was used covertly, rather than overtly as we have witnessed in recent years. It seems from the remarks of Theresa May that this policy is not there to stay for too long, either.

Featured image credit: Aleppo by watchsmart. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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