Were a visitor to arrive at the embattled city of Aleppo these frigid and bleak days from the western government controlled side of the 7000 year old city, even if blindfolded and wearing tight earplugs the sightless and deaf traveler would likely sense something very different from what he experiences in Damascus and other cities in Syria.
Somehow, a visitor just feels it in the ambient atmosphere. Something–expectations, pressure, anticipation, dread, anguish, excitement is rapidly building and seemingly is about to impact profoundly events in this war. With no end even faintly in sight, the BBC reported on New Year day that 76,021 people, 18,000 of them civilians, were killed in Syria during 2014 alone bringing the total close to a quarter million over the past 45 months. As 2015 begins, an estimated 10.8 million Syrians are suffering inside the country with more than half of the population living in extreme poverty and fewer than half of the country’s children attending school. The UN reports that there are more than 3.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and more than 10 million displaced by the conflict.
Aleppo has been and remains, along with Damascus, the strategic area which is critical to both sides of the chaotically stalemated conflict. The victor in Aleppo will achieve momentum which some military experts claim will lead them to control much of Syria and certainly nearly all of the major population centers. Aleppo is crucial for both sides as pressure builds daily and as many Aleppines are expressing a sense that some powerful dynamic in about to occur leading toward a resolution of the four year civil war or perhaps leading to even more abject horror.
None of us knows of course but this observer wondered the other day if this is what his host, the commander of government forces in the old city souk in Aleppo had in mind when he looked up toward the nearby ancient Citidel where his troops are finally stationed after two years of fighting opposition forces. But what did he mean when he cryptically said, “In three days my friend you will see something happen here that will have major consequences, enshallah (god willing) for the good of the Syrian people and my country.”
Well, in the following three days nothing particularly major seemed to happen in the neighborhood where this observer has been staying the western section of Aleppo. The usual thuds of mortars and artillery and aircraft screaming across the sky followed by bomb blasts and passersby often squinting skyward and shrugging at visitors as they hurry on their way.
On the third day in Idlib, rebels and Nusra Front militants did seize at least three government checkpoints near two military bases, Wadi Deif and Hamidiyeh which straddle an important supply route in Idlib Province to the southwest. This achievement suggests al Nusra achieves occasional dominance over the Syrian army. Yet almost immediately government combat aircraft bombed the Bab town area of Aleppo, an area controlled by Da’ish (IS) which are increasingly collaborating with Nusra in some areas. Rebels have also been active recently to the southwest adding more pressure on government forces that are currently scattered over a large area vaguely surrounding Aleppo and fighting to capture it from rebels still building up their forces in the east, north and northwest of the city.
Or did the commander mean the reportedly rapid in-gathering of Hezbollah and Iranian fighters who many believe are preparing a Qalamoun type offensive from the west aimed at cutting supplies lines to rebels’ forces? It’s hard to know, but when we last visited his compound on the fifth day, for sure it had changed, presumably in anticipation of something significant about to be unleashed. The hallways of his three level HQ were now neatly stacked to the ceilings with rockets and ammunition of various kinds. One of his aides joked that he hoped Da’ish or Nusra was not digging another tunnel in the area. With a grimace, his commander explained that his men have only a little outdated Soviet era tunnel detection equipment that does not work well so they rely on literally keeping their ears to the ground to detect deadly tunneling sounds. Rebel tunneling that led to the nearby 150 year old Carlton Citadel Hotel being completely demolished on 8 May 2014.
The blast from a tunnel underneath killed between 14 and 50 people depending of which source one credits. Da’ish claims it was being used as an army barracks. As this observer stumbled alongside army guys whispering into their radios as we climbed through the Carlton Hotel rubble in pitch blackness toward the Citadel, he was advised that some bodies under the rubble had still not been recovered seven months later and he sensed fear in his guides about tunnels being dug below. A well-grounded nervousness because on 12/30/14 a powerful blast from explosives planted in a tunnel near the HQ this observer visited reportedly, by a new rebel coalition in Aleppo called Jabha Shamiyeh, killed or wounded more than 30 soldiers.
Both sides and their allies are getting exhausted with reported increased desertions from both sides and intensifying complaints from the population. Syria’s allies are growing weary of a conflict that could last decades without clear benefits to any side. Russia is tired with major economic problems looming. The recent collapses in oil prices and Western sanctions have battered the Russian economy which has fallen into decline for the first time in five years, according to official figures. This forced drastic interventions from the Russian Central Bank and appears to be creating the biggest crisis in Vladimir Putin’s leadership of the country. Russia’s economy ministry said GDP had fallen by 0.5pc in the year to November, the latest sign that the country is heading for recession.
With respect to Iran, despite repeated assurances from its leaders that the US led sanctions have been defeated, it still faces severe economic problems as well as the growing loss of al Quds commanders in Syria and Iraq leading to increasing criticism of the regimes involvement in both countries and even Lebanon from the Iranian people.
Iran’s worst nightmare in Iraq and Syria and perhaps soon in Lebanon is Da’ish (IS) and Nusra black flags fluttering on the horizon Both have left little doubt that they view Shia as a cult of apostates who tried to hijack Islam in the 7th Century and need to be eradicated or at a minimum converted and watched closely. On 12/19/14 a suicide bomber, presumably from Da’ish (IS) or Nusra attacked Shiite pilgrims on their way to a shrine at Samarra in the Taji area north of Baghdad again, this time killing at least 17 people and wounding more than 35. This as they have recently launched a campaign to liberate Syria and Iraq from what they claim now nearly total Iranian occupation.
Da’ish has launched a social media campaign among Sunni tribes to eliminate once and for all Shia and return Islam to the Caliphate of and by Mohammad the Prophet. One Da’ish adviser discussed with this observer how Iran’s regime has become vulnerable and ripe for removal by the people of Iran due to the same forces plaguing Hezbollah. That is trying to justify to their supporters why they are in Iraq and Syria killing Sunni and Shia alike instead of getting serious about dialogue and salvaging these countries. Time is claimed to be on the side of Da’ish by its spokesmen given the perceived depth of corruption and illegitimacy of rulers in the region and increasingly restive populations.
One student I met at the restaurant in Aleppo explained as only an inspired student seems to be able and willing to do these days: “Change is coming. Deep change. The corrupt incompetents and religious fanatics on all both sides will be swept away. What you are seeing these days in our region are only mild soft tremors presaging the next phase. Frankly, I put religions at the top of my personal Terrorism List.”
Hezbollah is under increasing pressure, even within the Shia community, to leave Syria and Iraq partly because their supporters have tired of seeing posters of their dead sons plastered around the Bekaa, South Beirut, and South Lebanon. Hezbollah leaders have never really convinced many people of its necessity to fight in Syria and Iraq to keep the “terrorist and takfiris” out of Lebanon. According to virtually every poll taken, a majority of Lebanese believe the opposite- believing that IS and Al Nusra are coming here because Hezbollah went there and created a magnate for jihadists to fight them and target their strongholds. Meanwhile some right-wing Israeli politicians, if not the Northern Command, reportedly claim Hezbollah is over stretched and they fantasize about ‘ turf furloughing’ in Lebanon’ and carpet bombing Hezbollah much more severely than during its most recent genocidal ‘lawn-mowing’ in Gaza.
Against this backdrop, maybe the subject most frequently discussed these days with foreign visitors to Aleppo is the urgent need for a ceasefire leading to a negotiated settlement. So the time may be ripe for a ceasefire in Aleppo. One idea is to establish a ‘stand down models’ or ‘freeze zones” to be put into place across Syria in order to stop the seemingly interminable slaughter. UN envoys UN Envoy Staffan De Mistura’s proposal for a ‘freeze’ and the fast approaching Jan. 26-29 Moscow talks could be what the army commander had in mind. Part of De Mistura’s goal is to secure a ceasefire that would allow humanitarian aid to reach those in dire need. He has warned the fall of Aleppo would likely create an additional 400,000 refugees.
The ‘freeze’ proposal was within three days of the commanders prediction and if adopted by the parties could spread to other areas and conceivable lead to a ceasefire and then to peace talks as being promoted by Russia and being studied by the Assad government. The Foreign Ministry told the media this week that “Syria is ready to participate in preliminary consultations in Moscow in order to meet the aspirations of Syrians to find a way out of crisis.”
One example of ‘freezing the conflict in Aleppo” movement, as a step toward a broader settlement along the lines proposed by is the 12/29/14 action by Syrian army allowing more than 30 besieged families and some armed men who surrendered, “safe passage” out of from Douma and Zibdin in Eastern Ghouta adjoining Damascus. There are also rumors that male evacuees might be recruited into a pro-regime militia. The evacuation was the second since December 9, when 76 families were allowed out of Douma.
According to Freeze proponents, this plan to freeze the fighting in Aleppo is the only hopeful one available. De Mistura has said he sees no hope for another plan and it is the only plan capable of freezing the fighting, securing people’s needs and returning the displaced people who are burdening neighboring areas and states. It will also allow for the eventual process of reconstruction he and many others insist. Regime supporters argue that Syrian President Assad is showing readiness to ensure the success of the international plan in Aleppo, and that he convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin of the plan while convincing his Iranian allies as well.
The White House, despite reservations, appears more flexible this week, linking their approval with that of some of their regional allies, meaning Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries. Two rounds of Geneva talks early in 2014 failed to halt the conflict and some claimed actually inflamed it.
A Syrian gentleman who speaks regularly to security officials and leaders from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an important component of his base, said recently that a growing numbers across the political spectrum now are insisting on a political settlement despite others still insisting on a fight to the death. One angry gentleman, exhibiting a ‘no turning back’ mentality and who lost his home, family and all hope for recovery, emphasized to this observer, that, “What happens to us during this period is not important. What matters is how history will judge us 1000 years from now.”
And so the Syrian civil war goes on. As Red Cross Dr. David Nott who returned to Aleppo recently to help treat victims presented a gloomy assessment while describing the nearly complete breakdown of medical treatment in the city. He explained that more than 80% of patients requiring urgent treatment now die as a result of their injuries or lack of basic care, medicine and equipment. A plunge in vaccination rates from 90 percent before the war to 52 percent this year and contaminated water is allowing typhoid and hepatitis to spread and over half of public hospitals are closed resulting in treatments for diseases and injuries being erratic. More than 6,500 cases of typhoid and 4,200 cases of measles, the deadliest disease for Syrian children, being reported in 2014 across Syria.
One can only wish Envoy De Mistura and like-minded proponents of the immediate establishment of a “freeze zone” in Aleppo, to be replicated across Syria as strongly favored by army commanders with whom this observer recently discussed the subject, the very best of luck in the New Year.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|