The siege of Aleppo is a humanitarian catastrophe on a dramatic scale — and a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has seized on the Syrian civil war to expose an impotent West and show his own geopolitical muscle. By SPIEGEL Staff
Aleppo has been a horrific place for some time now and few thought that it could get much worse. But things can always get worse — that’s the lesson currently being learned by those who have stayed behind in an effort to outlast this brutal conflict. People who have become used to dead bodies in the streets, hunger and living a life that can end at any moment.
They used to get around 10 serious injuries per day, but that number has now risen to 50, says Hamza, adding that most of their time is spent sorting body parts so they can turn them over to family members for burial. Russian missiles, he says, tear everyone apart who is within 35 meters of the impact.
“On one day, we had 22 dead civilians. The day before that, it was 20 injured children. A seven-year-old died and an eight-year-old lost his left leg.” The Russians attacked in the morning, he says, as the children were on their way to school. “We are going to need years of therapy in order to be able to cope with all this.”
There are seven doctors still working in the hospital. “Since the Russians began bombing the city, even more doctors have fled,” Hamza says. There are only about 30 medical professionals left in all of Aleppo, he adds. His hospital too is under fire and Hamza’s voice can be heard trembling over the phone. The regime, he says, has targeted the hospital five times in the past several years, but always missed. “The Russian bombardment, though, is very accurate.” One recent bomb, he says, just barely missed them.
A Nightmare Worse than Sarajevo
“But here in the center of Aleppo,” the doctor says, “there aren’t any Free Syrian Army positions. Only civilians. They are bombing us to soften us up for the regime.” Assad’s troops, he explains, have already taken many surrounding towns and villages and he is afraid that Aleppo will soon be completely surrounded. One thing he is no longer hoping for is external assistance, saying the international community abandoned Syria long ago. “After all, the US supports the attacks,” he says.
Hamza is unsure how he will survive. He does not know. But leaving the city would mean one fewer doctor, which in turn would translate into more deaths. He says that more and more people are leaving Aleppo and that entire city quarters are emptying out. Those who are able are fleeing while they still can.
Once upon a time Aleppo was the largest city in Syria, an economic powerhouse with a city center listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But over the last three years, it has been divided between the regime and the rebels — the same rebels who joined together to drive Islamic State (IS) out of the city two years ago. Aleppo is the most important symbol of the resistance in the country, but now it is all but surrounded and cut off from the most important supply routes. There is no more diesel, hardly anything to eat and there are severe shortages of electricity and water. According to the United Nations, there are still some 300,000 people living in Aleppo — a population that may now have been abandoned to a rapid death from the sky or the slow death of starvation. It is a nightmare that could ultimately become worse even than Sarajevo was.
Ground Zero of Global Geopolitics
Moscow’s approach to diplomatic efforts has clearly shown just how cynical this game has become. Russia has said that a real cease-fire can’t be reached before the end of February, making it clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin only intends to negotiate once he has reached his military goals. And German diplomats have said that Russia has refused to offer any guarantees that the Assad regime would adhere to a cease-fire.
Aleppo has made it clear that there could very well be a military solution for Syria: the victory of Assad achieved with the help of Russian bombs and Syrian and Iranian ground troops. It would be the victory of a regime that tortures and murders, a regime that drops barrel bombs on its own people and kills them with chemical weapons. It is a regime which stands accused by the UN of the “extermination” of its own population.
It would likely, though, be a victory without peace. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s calculation seems to be that once the rebels are destroyed, only the regime and Islamic State would be left — and no other alternatives. But the Sunnis, which have long been in the majority in Syria, aren’t likely to throw their support behind an Alawite-Shiite Assad regime. Syria would face years of Somalia-like failed state status.
The war has long since ceased being solely about Syria. The country has become Ground Zero of global geopolitics, an unholy mixture of Russia’s desired return to superpower status, an increasingly authoritarian Turkey, tentative US foreign policy, the Kurdish conflict, the arch-rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Islamist terror and the inability of a divided, crisis-ridden EU to do much of anything.
The war in Syria has transformed from a civil war into a world war.
It has long since reached Europe in the form of millions of refugees, terror attacks in Paris and attacks on tourists in Tunisia and Istanbul. And America, which has long been the leader of the West and guarantor of security in Europe, has refused to get involved. Aleppo is therefor a test of Russia’s relationship with the West, a measuring stick for the value of democracy and a litmus test of the effectiveness of a morals-based foreign policy.
Vladimir Putin: 1; World: 0
Already, Vladimir Putin looks to be one of the conflict’s winners. When it comes to the war in Syria, he is now in control. Without his bombers, military advisors and special forces, the weakened Syrian army wouldn’t be able to make any advances at all. Indeed, it was the looming defeat of Assad that pushed Putin to intervene at the end of September in the first place. At the time, Putin was still claiming that his goal was that of defeating IS — and many Western governments hoped naively that perhaps Russia could finally impose order in Syria.
Since then, though, it has become clear that the opposite is true: In four-and-a-half months, Putin has reversed the momentum in the Syrian civil war in favor of dictator Assad and has increased the chaos — all while largely ignoring Islamic State. What’s more, Moscow has targeted exactly those rebels that the West had hoped would fight IS. Putin has embarrassed the US superpower, discredited the UN and transformed Russia into an influential power in the Middle East.
In addition, his brutal operation has driven tens of thousands of people to take flight, thus intensifying the conflict between the EU and Turkey, dividing Europe even further and propelling the Continent’s right-wing populist parties to unprecedented heights. Those are all desired side-effects that conform to Moscow’s calculus: Everything that hurts Europe makes Russia stronger.
Berlin, too, has become convinced that Putin’s involvement in Syria is about more than merely providing support for his ally Assad — and about more than just the Middle East. For Putin, it’s about Europe, about ending the sanctions and about recognition of Russia’s zone of influence. “Putin is intentionally aggravating the refugee crisis in order to destabilize the EU. That is part of Russia’s hybrid war,” says German parliamentarian Niels Annen, foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats (SPD).
It has become increasingly clear that Russia is not a partner in the fight against Islamic State, as some in Europe had hoped. Rather, Russia is an adversary that is willing to achieve its goals by way of violence if necessary.
How, then, should Europe deal with the unpredictable ruler in the Kremlin? Should it talk to Putin or fight him? What are the consequences of American reticence for Europe? And how can this five-year tragedy be brought to an end? Is there still a solution at all beyond Bashar Assad?
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow is a combination of Russia’s historical pride and its new-found self-confidence. The tip of the Stalin-era structure still juts darkly into the winter sky, just as it always has, but the facade of the right-hand wing shines with a fresh gloss. Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, whose portfolio includes Syria, receives visitors on the fifth floor.
The Middle East, Gatilov says, will continue to be a focus of Russian foreign policy for years to come. He believes that Moscow has a particular responsibility for the region and that Russia is “geographically and historically closer” to Middle Eastern countries and that “we understand their mentality better than the West may do. At least we have never tried to force our will on the people there.” The comment was aimed at Washington. But in the Syrian drama, Moscow has another significant adversary: Turkey. The ambitions of Recep Tayyip Erdogan are dangerous and the West must finally recognize that fact, Gatilov says.
Would Moscow suspend its bombing campaign during cease-fire negotiations as a gesture of goodwill? Gatilov shakes his head: No, the airstrikes must continue, “even in the event of a cease-fire. The logic of a cease-fire includes all those who have a real interest in negotiations, but it does not include terrorists.”
The Russian Offensive
There are currently around 3,000 Russian troops stationed in the province of Latakia on Syria’s coast and Russian jets have flown roughly 7,300 sorties since the end of September. During daylight hours, a Sukhoi warplane takes off from the Hmeymim air base about every 20 minutes and the Kremlin-controlled media releases claims of success daily: “The terrorists have sustained heavy losses in Aleppo!” and “More and more volunteers are joining Assad!” Footage of advancing Assad units is accompanied by hymnal choir music.
But because the troops loyal to Assad — which have long been made up primarily of Iranians and Lebanese — are in reality only advancing slowly, they are now being supported by Russian troops. That looks to be the case from video footage from northwestern Syria that has been analyzed by Russian activists belonging to the Conflict Intelligence Team. One video shows a Russian-speaking officer who is observing the battlefield. Another shows Msta-B artillery pieces, a weapon that Assad’s army has never possessed. Russian commands can be heard: “Number two, ready. Fire!”
The Russian offensive managed to achieve more in just a few days than the Assad regime had in the years that preceded it — and has also reduced Tehran’s influence in Syria. Putin is now the most powerful man in Damascus and he appears to be following a strategy similar to the one he once employed in Chechnya: destroy everything until there are no more people left, there is no more resistance and no political alternative. Then he is free to install a leader of his choosing.
The West has been observing the consequential brutality of Putin’s new foreign policy strategy with a mixture of awe, indignation and horror. Yet it is a strategy that has long since been outlined in Putin’s speeches or in the papers of Kremlin-allied think tanks. Retired General Leonid Ivashov, once a high-ranking Defense Ministry official and now the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems in Moscow, weeks ago declared 2016 to be a decisive year “in which Russia takes a leading role in the Middle East, thereby challenging the West and reestablishing its civilizing determination. Russia is becoming an independent geo-political actor.” He says that Russia has redefined its goals and will distance itself from the West, thereby breaking America’s dominant role. The Middle East, he believes, will be the focus of conflict.
Putin would never say such a thing openly, but it seems likely that he is thinking in a similar vein. He has never been particularly shy about pursuing his foreign policy vision. He showed as much in Georgia in 2008 and then again in the Ukraine crisis. Now, its Syria’s turn.
Merkel ‘Horrified by Human Suffering’
That’s why it is naïve for senior German politicians, like Social Democrat head and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel or Horst Seehofer, head of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union — the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats — to dabble in foreign policy by meeting with Putin in the hope that he might help solve Germany’s and Europe’s problems. The East-West dialogue that they allegedly wanted to restart has been continuing the entire time. But Putin has never rewarded attempts at mediation, preferring instead to use Moscow visits by Western politicians for his own domestic political propaganda. If anything, Putin is more affected by unambiguous criticism from Merkel, who recently said she is “horrified by the human suffering caused by the air raids, particularly from the Russian side.” The Kremlin immediately and brusquely rejected the critique, an indication that such words are not without effect.
NATO too has recently changed its strategy when it comes to dealing with Putin. The Western alliance is currently preparing an operation in the fight against migrant smugglers in the Aegean and intends to station additional troops in its eastern member states. The plans are to be completed prior to the NATO summit scheduled for the beginning of July, with up to 1,000 troops to be sent to each of the eastern alliance members. Both objectives are primarily to be understood as messages to Putin: NATO is taking action on both the refugee crisis and in response to eastern provocations. An old Cold War term has taken on new life in the debate: deterrence.
But with the intensified air war against Islamic State in Syria, the danger of a direct confrontation with Russia has also increased. There have been repeated airspace violations in recent months, with the Turkish shooting down of a Russian military jet in November marking the most severe incident.
Ankara refrained at the time from asking for help from the alliance. But should Russian provocations continue, the Turkish government could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which holds that an attack on one or more members of the alliance is an attack on the alliance as a whole. Should that come to pass, the Western alliance would find itself on the brink of a military confrontation with Russia.
And the situation in Aleppo could trigger the kind of escalation between the West and Russia that hasn’t been seen in decades.
Currently, refugees from Aleppo and its surroundings are now camping out at exactly the place where this danger is at its greatest: on the border between Syria and Turkey. Tens of thousands of people have fled the Russian airstrikes in recent days, including many women and children, poor people, the elderly and the sick. Most of them possess little more than the clothes on their backs and for many, it is not the first time they have fled the violence of the civil war.
The tents set up on the Syrian side of the border by Turkish and international aid agencies have long since filled up. Instead, people are sleeping on cardboard out in the open, despite the rain and cold. Most of them want to get out of Syria as quickly as they can. But the Turkish military has closed the border, only allowing the sick and injured to pass. Soldiers are patrolling between the checkpoints and tanks roll down the streets while in the distance, explosions can be heard and columns of smoke can be seen.
“Here alone, we need at least an additional 1,500 tents. We have no sanitary facilities and not enough food,” says the manager of the refugee camp at the Bab Al-Salameh (“Gate of Peace”) border crossing. “Some 60,000 people who previously fled live in our camp and in seven additional camps. All schools and mosques are full of people. It is cold, it’s raining. We need help!”
Dozens of refugees are camped out on a bit of unused land on the Turkish side of the border, not far from the city of Kilis. Waled Kabso, a 66-year-old mathematics teacher from Tall Rifaat, a town just north of Aleppo, is squatting on a blanket. He came with his daughter, whose son was injured and who is now receiving treatment in Kilis. His wife and 11 other children remain stuck in Syria. Kabso takes a mobile phone out of his jacket pocket and tries to reach his family, but is unable to. “Erdogan says we Syrians are his brothers, but why isn’t he helping us?”
‘Erdogan Fears Kurds More than Assad or IS’
Turkey has already absorbed over 2.5 million refugees, but Erdogan no longer wants to take any more Syrians into the country. His reasoning has more to do with forcing political concessions from Europe than with fears that his country will be overwhelmed. Although Brussels has approved €3 billion in aid to Ankara for dealing with the refugee crisis in the country, Turkish politicians have been saying for some time now that they consider this sum to be too low.
The escalation of the conflict also provides Erdogan with the opportunity to push ahead with a plan he has long embraced: the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria as a place he can send refugees back to. More important than providing a safe zone for refugees, however, doing so would help Erdogan stop the advance of the Kurds. Erdogan himself has been one of the biggest losers in the Syrian drama. For years, he supported some of the rebels in their campaign against Assad, but with prospects of the Syrian dictator’s ouster slipping, Erdogan’s ultimate nightmare could actually come true — the formation of a Kurdish proto-state located directly on the border, governed by allies of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). “Erdogan fears the Kurds more than Assad or the IS,” says Evren Cevik, the foreign policy spokesman for the pro-Kurdish HDP party in Turkey.
The Kurds have been most adept at positioning themselves in the complex Syrian conflict. They are aligned with the West against Islamic State and, more recently, increasingly with the Russians as well. Last Wednesday, the Kurdish-Syrian PYD opened its second international representation office on the outskirts of Moscow. So far, the liaison office is comprised only of a telephone, a conference table and two dozen chairs, but one need look no further than at one of the most high-profile guests at the opening reception to gauge the magnitude of the outpost’s symbolic impact: none other than Alexander Borodai, who rose to international prominence as the “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a veteran of Moscow’s hybrid warfare.
On the same night of the opening, Syrian Kurds captured the Minnigh air base, located between Aleppo and the Turkish border, following Russian airstrikes and advances by Assad-aligned troops. The Kurds deny they are fighting alongside the regime, but all indications suggest there is some form of cooperation.
The greatest risk right now, though, is that of a direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia. After Turkey shot down the Russian warplane in November, Moscow moved to increase air defenses so heavily in Syria that it would now be extremely difficult for Ankara to intervene in the hostilities taking place next door. There are nevertheless rumors that Turkey could be preparing for an invasion with ground forces. This week, Turkey sought to dispel such speculation that it was considering a solo ground effort, instead asking the US and other allies to form a coalition for a joint ground operation to bring hostilities in Syria to an end.
But what would happen if a Turkish aid convoy were to be attacked by Russian fighter jets? Or if the Russians armed the Kurds with anti-aircraft missiles — and these were then used to shoot down a Turkish jet? Or if Turkey were to provide the rebels with these weapons which they could then use to target Russian jets? Would NATO have to intervene at that point?
The man who could answer many of these questions is saying very little these days about Syria, despite the recent drama. In the past, Barack Obama has said that Assad must step down and he still refers to him as “a brutal, ruthless dictator.” At the same time, though, Obama is doing nothing to counter him and there are no signs that he has anything up his sleeve either.
The New York Times recently wrote that it is difficult to distinguish between Putin’s and Obama’s Syria strategies. Meanwhile, historian and journalist Michael Ignatieff and Brookings Institution fellow Leon Wieseltier lamented in the Washington Post, “It’s time for those who care about the moral standing of the United States to say that this policy is shameful.”
It is very clear at this point that the US has no strategy beyond its half-hearted efforts to provide training and arms to rebels — and to otherwise rely on negotiations. But none of this has born any fruit, as events in early February demonstrated.
Secretary of State Kerry worked for three months to get the warring parties to a negotiating table under the auspices of the United Nations — moderate rebels, representatives of the regime, Iranians, Saudi Arabians and Russians. But Moscow then turned around and launched its offensive right as the talks began. Within 48 hours, the Russian air force carried out 320 airstrikes in northern Syria alone. It was no coincidence that the storm on Aleppo began at that exact moment. The aim was that of destroying any possibility that the opposition would have a say in Syria’s future.
“All sides were aware that a continuation of the talks would become increasingly difficult for the opposition as the regime intensified its military offensive,” diplomats in Geneva said. After two days, the UN mediator Staffan de Mistura suspended talks. Right now, it doesn’t look as though the opposition will be prepared to return to Geneva on Feb. 25 as planned. And why should they?
Assad’s ‘Core Syria’ Strategy
Assad’s aim right now is to capture militarily a kind of “core Syria,” in which the majority of the population lives. If successful, he will be able to negotiate from a position of strength and dictate the conditions, which are certain not to include his resignation.
At a reception held during the Syria donors conference in London at the beginning of February, three human rights activists from Syria asked Kerry why the US hasn’t done anything to ensure the protection of the civilians. The secretary of state countered: “Don’t blame me, blame your opposition.”
“Kerry was really angry,” one of the women, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls. “He said the opposition should have accepted what they were capable of getting. We replied that the Russians had dropped 230 bombs on Aleppo on a single day. He corrected us by saying it had only been 180. Then he said, ‘These airstrikes will continue for three more months. The opposition will be decimated.’ And he said it would be their fault and not that of the Russians.”
Has Obama Given Up Hope?
When Putin intervened in Syria, Obama seemed to give up any hope of being able to solve the crisis in the Middle East, if he hadn’t already. He is afraid of a confrontation with the Russians, but he is also concerned because he needs Moscow to ensure that the nuclear deal with Iran is a success.
The US government will not expand its involvement, argues Hardin Lang of the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the current administration. Lang says Assad’s removal is but a distant prospect now and that it would be hard to imagine how a transfer of power between Assad and a new government could work anytime in the near future. “The world looks different today than it did only three or four months ago,” he says.
Currently, Obama’s Syria strategy consists almost entirely of fighting Islamic State. In contrast to Assad, whom he views simply as being an annoying dictator, the president sees Islamic State as a threat to US national security.
In addition to airstrikes, this strategy also includes an emphasis on supporting Kurdish operations. More than 50 special forces are operating in northern Syria and Iraq right now in support of the Kurds. The strategy is proving effective, even if only slowly, with the area under IS control having been reduced by one-third. But this has also entailed a bizarre division of labor: The US is bombing IS in the east of Syria while Assad and Putin recapture the rest of the country. To many Syrians, that looks a lot like cooperation.
At the same time, in order to force the rebels to the table at the failed talks in Geneva, the US ceased providing military aid to rebel groups and also pressured its allies to do the same. The rebels, who are fighting against Assad, but also against IS, are embittered, angry and desperate. “How could Obama have been so naïve to believe that all he had to do was cordially invite Putin or Assad?” asks a perplexed Ismail Naddaf, of Aleppo’s Fatah Brigade. “America never wanted to topple Assad. They wanted negotiations, but that was illusory. Assad doesn’t negotiate.”
‘Looking on as We Get Massacred’
Abd Alsalm Hmedi, a former fighter pilot from Aleppo who defected to the Free Syrian Army in 2012, also feels abandoned. “You cheered on the revolution, but now you are just looking on as we get massacred by Assad and the Russians,” he says. Like many moderate rebels, he has the feeling that the predictions made long ago by radicals are now coming true: that America is betraying them. Some fighters will now join forces with IS and many will turn to the Nusra Front, part of al-Qaida.
Diplomacy too has its price, particularly when it fails. The price of Western passivity is the endless suffering of people in Syria, the strengthening of Putin, divisions in Europe and the rise of the radicals.
And yet, there were opportunities in the past five years for steering events in Syria down a different path. The West, especially the United States, could have been more resolute in its support of the rebels and provided them with the necessary equipment. It could have implemented and enforced a no-fly zone in parts of the country, giving countless people the possibility of staying in the country rather than fleeing. And Washington should have followed up on its threat that there would be consequences if the “red line” of a chemical weapons attack were crossed, as happened on August 21, 2013. Such a response could have come in the form of targeted military strikes against regime positions and military bases.
Back then, it still wasn’t too late.
Playing Chicken with Moscow
If the West were to conduct a military intervention today in order to prevent further tragedy in Aleppo, the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia would be considerable. Despite that threat, an increasing number of observers are calling for action. If the US and NATO allow the siege of Aleppo to proceed, they will be “complicit in crimes of war,” Ignatieff and Wieseltier wrote in the Washington Post. “Aleppo is an emergency, requiring emergency measures.” It is also an opportunity, they wrote, “perhaps the last one, to save Syria.”
Their plan calls for the US, with the use of its naval and air assets and under the NATO umbrella, to establish a no-fly zone from Aleppo to the Turkish border — and make clear it will be defended. There is, of course, a threat of a confrontation with Russia, but that is in no way a foregone conclusion, especially given that the US Air Force is already in constant contact with the Russian military about its operations in Syria. If the price of intervention gets even higher for Putin, he would likely be more prepared to make concessions, they write. That “may set the stage for a tough and serious negotiation to bring an end to the slaughter.”
Saudi Arabia has already announced that it wants to send in ground troops, prompting Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to warn on Thursday that boots on the ground could spark a “world war.” However, there is nothing to indicate that the United States has any plans to lead an invasion army — at least not for the remainder of Obama’s final term. In all likelihood, though, starting in 2017, a more strongly interventionist president will reside in the White House. But by then, Assad may have won. It’s a victory that would result in many, many losers.
Almost all of the rebels and most of the refugees are part of the Sunni majority. Middle East expert Nicholas Heras, from the Center for a New American Security, believes that changing the country’s demographics is a cornerstone of Assad’s strategy. “The Assad regime has a clear devastation and depopulation strategy,” he recently told BuzzFeed. “Both the Assad regime and Russia understand full well that in order to win the war, they have to destroy the local communities that give the rebel movement support.” If some rebels then join al-Qaida or Islamic State, that could even benefit Assad because it will increase the willingness to see the Syrian president as the lesser of two evils. Yet that would not mark a return to the pre-2011 Syria, nor would it establish the security and stability necessary for a return of the refugees. The hate is too strong, the destruction too vast and the fear of revenge and persecution by Assad’s secret services too great. The remaining rebels may just continue fighting in a bitter war of attrition.
As the situation currently stands, people will continue to die. People like canary-breeder Juma al-Najar, 45, his wife and 18-year-old daughter. When the Russian airstrikes began, they fled their hometown of Maraa, located between Aleppo and the Turkish border. A week ago Monday, they returned in the hopes of soon being able to escape to Turkey, but on Tuesday, a bomb dropped by a Russian jet hit their house. Only their legs, arms and heads remained, quickly buried in six plastic bags.
The horror simply continues, like in Aleppo, where two children were just recently torn apart by Russian bombs in front of their school. The school is in a basement, because it is at least halfway safe underground. The story is told by a former law student named Zuhair, who organizes classes in seven Aleppo schools. “Entire city quarters have emptied out; teachers have fled as have many families. And that even though the border is closed and nobody knows where they might be safe. Everywhere I look, I see fear in people’s faces.”
On Monday, Feb. 7, several bombs fell on a street in the residential Aleppo district of Sakhour, he recalls. “It was terrible. There were body parts lying all over, here a hand, there a head, a foot, a torso. And people just kept walking, hardly any of them looked shocked and nobody stopped,” Zuhair says. “Have we become monsters? Or is that our way of staying normal amid the lunacy that surrounds us?”
By Benjamin Bidder, Katrin Kuntz, Juliane von Mittelstaedt, Christian Neef, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Christoph Schult, Holger Stark, Wladimir van Wilgenburg and Bernhard Zand