Photographer: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images
Middle East

Lessons From a Dark Year in Syria

Sometimes injustice wins.

The fall of Aleppo at the close of 2016 signals an especially depressing future for the civil war, the region, and the vast number of refugees within Syria and beyond. For all practical purposes, the end of this battle means that the Syrian dictatorship has, with Russian help, won its war for survival.

However, there is no clear path for the Assad regime to wipe out the last of the rebels.So fighting will continue, and a rump Syrian Sunni statelet will persist. And because displaced Sunnis will remain deeply wary of going home to places now controlled by the hostile regime, the long war's refugee problem may become permanent. That's no small matter. In scope it dwarfs the Palestinian refugee crises of 1948 or 1967.

The human rights failure in Aleppo is on par with other failures in recent decades, from Srebrenica to Rwanda. The international community had no leverage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin as they remorselessly bombed the city, killing thousands of civilians. Worse, the tactic worked, which sends a lesson to other future rights violators that they should use whatever means necessary to achieve victory.

Yet like every such tragedy, the fall of Aleppo also has a particular meaning for the struggle in which it has taken place. Specifically, Assad’s victory shows that with air support from a great power and no compunction for collateral damage, an armed regime can displace rebels from urban space, even when the rebels have substantial civilian support.

The U.S. could have gotten Islamic State fighters out of Syrian cities using the same scorched earth techniques, had it been inclined to ignore international law and not to care about the loyalty of the bombed civilians after the conflict was over.

The difference isn’t just that Assad and Putin don’t care about being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. It’s that Assad himself doesn’t care about winning Sunni hearts and minds, now or ever.

Rather, Assad has judged that he is perfectly happy if Aleppans, like other Syrian Sunnis, never return to their homes if and when the conflict ends or is reduced.

This is the most consequential upshot of the whole Aleppo bombing campaign: Its "success" was achievable only on the assumption that Sunni Syrian refugees are never coming home. No one who suffered under this bombing is going to forgive and forget, at least not if Middle Eastern history is any guide.

By killing civilians, the Assad regime is saying it doesn’t care. Assad can tolerate a country with a much reduced population. Nearly 5 million Syrians are now abroad. That still leaves perhaps 18 million Syrians in the country, of whom 6 million are displaced internally. (Estimates of deaths and injuries run as high as a half million.) If Sunnis abroad never come back, Assad won’t miss them.

To win some international favor, Assad may eventually say that he welcomes all Syrians home. He might even offer a limited amnesty to some who rebelled against him. But who would trust such a promise? And what Sunni would choose to go back to Assad’s Syria after the atrocities that have taken place?

As for the internally displaced, those in the Sunni-controlled areas like Idlib province and the Islamic State area around Raqqa can also stay put, so far as Assad cares.

In the long run, Assad might ideally want to bring the entire country under his control. But for now, there is a substantial political advantage to be had from the presence of radical jihadis on the battlefield.  It makes Assad into an international champion fighting Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It justifies continued Russian support. And it keeps the jihadis out of regime-controlled territory.

That is one reason Assad can be expected to tolerate Sunni statelets like the one in Idlib province for some time into the future.

The other reason is that Assad can’t utterly defeat either the al Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), which controls much of Idlib, or Islamic State, or even the more moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army. In major urban centers, sustained bombing can make life unbearable and troops can occupy the space when opponents are gone. But in towns or rural areas, bombing is of limited value, and holding space that has been conquered requires manpower that Assad simply does not have.

That’s a big part of why Palmyra fell back into Islamic State hands after being held by the regime for months. Assad simply didn’t have enough fighters to hold the town while pursuing his other initiatives. And Russian air power was ineffectual against light insurgent troops like those of Islamic State.

The status of Kurdish enclaves in Syria is another story. Turkey would like to see them eliminated, but right now it’s still opposed to Assad. Over time, the fate of these spaces depends on whether Turkey eventually reverts to its traditional position of colluding with its neighbors, including enemies, to keep Kurds from gaining sovereignty.

The sad but I think inescapable conclusion is that the Syrian refugee crisis has a high probability of becoming permanent -- even if the war eventually ends in a de facto Assad victory. It shocks the conscience to think of almost 5 million people unable to return to their homes. But as 2016 ends, there is little prospect of that changing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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