Will Aleppo be another Sarajevo?


One of the worst catastrophes of our times



The killing of more than 500 people in the besieged northern city of Aleppo in continuing Syrian and Russian offensive – termed as ethnic cleansing by Turkey – marks a new abysmal point of human suffering in the conflict-ridden Middle East.

The indiscriminate campaign in the northern city is invoking comparisons between Aleppo 2016 and the four-year-old siege of Bosnian capital Sarajevo in 1990s.

The United Nations and Turkey are reporting a fresh exodus of tens of thousands of civilians from Syria, with appalling proportions of women and children amidst encirclement of Aleppo, even as international peace efforts, aimed at rescuing it from further bloodshed through political settlement, remain suspended.

During a visit to the Dutch capital The Hague, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said a new wave of migrants numbering as much as 60,000 had massed on the Turkish border.

“One of the aims of the latest attacks is to conduct ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing in Syria and Aleppo aimed at only leaving regime supporters behind is being conducted by the Syrian regime and Russia in a very deliberate way,” Davutoğlu said, according to a Reuters report.

Ankara is also deeply concerned about the growing power of the Kurdish militants – who are seen in the US as effective allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

As Russian and Syrian forces perpetrate their campaign against residents of the historic city, the UN has said around 300,000 people could be cut off from essential life-saving aid supplies.

Turkey – which is already hosting 2.7 million refugees — has said it will keep its border open for the terrorised and injured people fleeing atrocities in Aleppo and other areas.

Militarily, the Syrian regime’s encirclement of Aleppo – the ancient northern city at the end of the fabled Silk Road — strengthens Bashar al-Assad and weakens rebels and moderates.

Meanwhile, ISIS – an offshoot of the Iraq war and Syrian civil conflict and now expanding to Libya – continues its campaign of violence with a car bombing in Damascus Tuesday that killed 10 people.

Syria has been in the grip of civil war bloodletting since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising with serious ramifications for the Middle Eastern, European and American security in the form of ISIS terrorist violence, large humanitarian crisis and refugee influx into Turkey and Europe. The US has led a coalition of countries to destroy ISIS while Russia has launched its own campaign of bombing against any Assad opponents including west-backed moderates.

But it is the civilians who are paying the heaviest cost in the conflict involving Russia, Iran, and forces loyal to Assad defending the regime, and militant organisations including ISIS and al-Nusra Front as well as disparate groups of moderates supported by some Gulf and western nations, trying to dislodge the Assad regime.

“I am gravely concerned by reports that over 30,000 civilians have been displaced from Aleppo City and other areas in northern Syria over the past week by heavy clashes and aerial bombardment by the government of Syria, allied forces and armed groups,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said.

“About 80 per cent of them are estimated to be women and children. We have reports that civilians have been killed and injured, and that civilian infrastructure, including at least two hospitals, has been hit,” he noted in a statement reported by the world body.

The official also expressed grave concern for people in other parts of the country, including in Dar’a governorate in the south, where intensified fighting has displaced thousands of people, killing or injuring civilians. More than 260,000 people have been killed and nine million uprooted in Syria over the last five years.

Meanwhile, the UN-led peace talks face an uncertain future after they were suspended last week soon after their launch. Special envoy Staffan de Mistura has claimed that negotiations would resume on 25 February but the parties to the talks continue to hold the other responsible for uncertainty.

A BBC report says the talks collapsed as the Syrian government said it had “dealt a major blow to the opposition by cutting a key supply route to the rebel-held city of Aleppo.” According to the Syrian state television, cited by the broadcasting service, government forces had broken the siege of Nubl and Al-Zahraa, two towns northwest of Aleppo.

Reports say the Syrian regime forces, backed by the Russian aerial bombardment and Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy, have surrounded Aleppo – once the largest city and a thriving commercial hub of the country – and have this way severed supply routes from Turkey to the rebel-held areas of the city.

“Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria,” The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote on Monday.

The reference recounts the siege of the Bosnian capital between 1992 and 1996, which in the face of international inaction saw around 14,000 people killed in the longest siege in the history.

The UN meanwhile says displacement camps in the areas close to the border with Turkey are already full and running above capacity, with people urgently requiring shelter, food and basic household items.

The fall of Aleppo would represent the biggest gain for the Assad regime, making it clear that the ruler will continue to cling to power with the help of his Russian and Iranian backers. Russian military involvement in Syria is seen by many as a game-changer.

The United States holds Moscow partly responsible for failure of the talks while France has accused both Russia and the Assad regime of undercutting the peace talks. Saudi Arabia, which along with Turkey, Qatar and some western nations banked on moderate forces in rebellion as opponents of the regime in Damascus, has threatened to send troops to Syria. Teheran has dismissed the thought of Riyadh attempt ground forces into Syria. Shi’a Iran and Sunni conservative Saudi Arabia – the two bitter rivals for regional superiority – are locked in a political and diplomatic standoff. Their escalating war of words, support for regional governments along sectarian lines, and inhuman treatment of minorities, has deeply hurt the region.

In the US, the Obama administration is also facing questions over its Syrian policy. Washington, despite initial setbacks for the UN peace move, is pinning hopes on finding a negotiated settlement. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Munich and Defence Secretary Ash Carton will be in Brussels to consult with NATO allies.

At the same time, Washington is worried that the unfolding scenario in Syria would make its fight against ISIS even more difficult. According to an AP report, Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s point person focusing on destroying ISIS, told a Congressional panel that Moscow’s Aleppo offensive is weaning the local fighters away from the fight against ISIS to the war against Syria’s government.

“What Russia’s doing is directly enabling ISIL,” he said.

With the brutal Syrian regime and its allies trying to bomb Aleppo into submission with their ruthless campaign of state terror, untold massacres of civilians, Ankara’s state of heightened concern, and lack of a coherent international strategy to stop the bloodshed, the region finds itself on another dangerous precipice. Some analysts fear the Aleppo conflict – viewed as make-or-break moment for the Syrians’ struggle for democracy on the one hand, and beginning of the end to the conflict by the Assad regime on the other end — might suck NATO ally Turkey into war.

By encircling Aleppo, Assad and his backers see an opportunity to turn around the five-year-old conflict their way. In the process, they are again challenging the international system with their unbridled perpetuation of violence against Syrians in one of the worst humanitarian and international political catastrophes of the times.