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Tom Clonan: 'A Syrian solution will involve a pact with devils such as Bashar al Assad and others'

Around 100,000 civilians and rebels are thought to be left in the slivers of east Aleppo still under opposition control as the Syrian army and allied militias close in, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan

THE RESISTANCE IN Aleppo is in its death throes. Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army will now finalise its street by street, house by house liquidation of enemy combatants and remaining civilians, with little or no distinction drawn between either group.

The international media have been relying thus far on final messages – mobile phone calls and Tweets – from desperate residents to get a picture of what is happening on the ground in the besieged city. In the last few hours these voices have gone silent.

Broadcasters and print media will now turn to correspondents in distant Istanbul or Beirut for analysis on the loss of Aleppo. In the blame game that will inevitably ensue, there will also be a slew of experts from various think tanks and university departments offering comment on the situation.

Many of these analysts, most with no direct experience of conflict or combat, will frame their analysis within a particular ideological or political orientation. In other words, in the infamous fog of war, there will be a great deal of propaganda, agenda setting and ill-informed comment about Aleppo and what is going to happen next in Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East.

What’s happening in Aleppo

As for Aleppo, here’s what’s happening as we speak. Assad’s troops are exhausted after years of bitter combat and are stretched to the limit. This is an army that is on its last legs. They have been fighting a war where male prisoners – boys and men – are routinely tortured, mutilated and executed. Women and girls are routinely beaten, raped and often executed. The prevalence of such war crimes by all parties to the conflict has been commented upon by groups ranging from the UN to Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International.

As Assad’s troops move from house to house, they will clear individual buildings by firing shoulder launched projectiles into doorways and windows. These high-explosive rounds will range from RPGs to heavier anti-aircraft weapons fired in the direct-fire role. The shock, heat and shrapnel effects of such weapons will kill anyone cowering in such buildings, from fighters, to the elderly, children or infants.

FIBUA or ‘fighting in built up areas’ as a tactic

Mideast Syria An insurgents position is seen from a Syrian army position in the Ramouseh front line between the Syrian army and the insurgents, east of Aleppo. Source: Hassan Ammar

The next step in what is termed FIBUA or “fighting in built up areas” is to neutralise the space with automatic gunfire and grenades, raking each room and hallway at point-blank range.

This common tactic is euphemistically referred to as “Reconnaissance by Fire” by military forces such as the Israelis or “Shake and Bake” by the US military. The Israelis have used such tactics in the West Bank and Gaza. The US military used such tactics in their assault on Fallujah.

Hell on earth

In my own direct experience of civilians trapped and besieged by artillery barrage and air-strikes, men, women and children are simply unable to evacuate. It is too dangerous. Families cling to one another. Dehydration sets in very quickly. In the absence of bottled water, women cannot make baby formula. The same women cannot breast feed their children as they become dehydrated themselves.

The elderly succumb very rapidly to this phenomenon and become disorientated and distressed. It is a hell on earth that forces families to forage for food and to expose themselves to risk.

In Srebrenica, Serb forces entered the UN enclave and tortured, mutilated and executed over 8000 boys and men. In Iraq and Syria, boys and men have been singled out for immediate execution by advancing forces. In a practice used by groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, boys from the age of eleven or twelve or so – or any boy unlucky enough to have pubic hair – are selected for execution.

As Assad’s Iranian-backed forces make their final sweep of Aleppo in these dark hours, those civilians who survive the “clearance operations” are likely to “disappear” as so many others have before them. In Syria alone, almost half a million men, women and children have been killed in the conflict. Three million are internally displaced and a similar number have fled the country as refugees.

Defining moment

Mideast Syria A Syrian army soldier flashes the V for Victory-sign as he comes back from the front line with his commanders in Karam al-Tarab east of Aleppo. Source: Hassan Ammar

The war in Syria has now reached a critical moment. Islamic State has seen its territory reduced from 350,000 square miles to around one tenth of that. America has launched an ambitious campaign, titled “Operation Euphrates Anger” to take the city of Raqqa – the de-facto capital of Islamic State’s Caliphate – by January, before Donald Trump is inaugurated as President of the US.

Backed by the US, the Kurds are consolidating their hold on territories and autonomous regions throughout Syria and Iraq. A patchwork of enclaves is emerging in Syria and Iraq along ethnic lines.

Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups, armed along ethnic lines by the Bush Administration, are competing for territorial integrity in much the same way as Serbs and Croats did in the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan conflict. As in that conflict, systematic rape, torture and “ethnic cleansing” are a feature of the conflict in present-day Syria and Iraq.

A Russian deal

As Assad’s army reaches the limit of its endurance in Syria and as Iran becomes a key power broker – with ground troops and militias reinforcing Shia territorial gains – Russia will be keen to forge some sort of deal to consolidate the strategic leverage it has achieved by providing air power to the regime.

Russia has come in for intense criticism – most recently at the UN Security Council forum by outgoing US Ambassador, Samantha Power – for its airstrikes on Aleppo. The US for its part has launched over 10,000 similar airstrikes on cities such as Mosul in neighbouring Iraq with almost 6,000 airstrikes on Aleppo, Raqqa and Kobane in Syria.

As the United States and Russia vie for strategic influence in the Middle East, and as Sunni and Shia interests in the region fight for dominance, the civilian population – men, women and children – are paying the ultimate price.

Carving up Syria

The only bleak glimmer of hope on the horizon is the prospect of some sort of “deal” on Iraq and Syria that might be hammered out by President-elect Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, along with their Sunni and Shia clients in the region. I see a carving up of Iraq and Syria along ethnic lines – a solution not unlike that reached in the Balkans twenty years ago.

If this happens sooner rather than later there is the remote chance that the millions of displaced refugees might return. This will involve a pact with devils such as Bashar al Assad and others.

What is happening in Aleppo is emblematic of an evolving new world order. President Trump calls it “Peace Through Strength”. No doubt Vladimir Putin would agree with this philosophy. It has worked handsomely for him in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, perhaps also in the Baltic States.

As 2017 approaches, bringing with it these new challenges, Europe and the EU have never been in a weaker position to respond.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

Syrian rebels and civilians ready to leave Aleppo ‘at any moment’>

Civilians to be evacuated from Aleppo after reports of civilians being ‘killed on the spot’>

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Tom Clonan

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