Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War
Beirut/Brussels | 9 Sep 2014
Syria is sliding toward unending war between an autocratic, sectarian regime and the even more autocratic, more sectarian jihadi group that has made dramatic gains in both Syria and Iraq. Without either a ceasefire in Aleppo or greater support from its state backers, the mainstream opposition is likely to suffer a defeat that will dash chances of a political resolution for the foreseeable future.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the battle for greater Aleppo: continued gains there by the regime and Islamic State (IS) threaten the viability of the mainstream opposition as a whole, the defeat of which would be an unprecedented boon to IS and would render a negotiated resolution of the conflict all but impossible. In its latest report, Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War, International Crisis Group focuses on Aleppo’s importance, analyses regime and IS strategies and examines the decision-making and political evolution of rebel forces.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- There are two means of averting Aleppo’s fall. The first – immediately negotiating and implementing a ceasefire there between the regime and anti-IS rebels, including a regime withdrawal from recently captured territory – is unlikely because it would require a fundamental shift in Damascus’ objectives and strategy. The second – improving and increasing support by the opposition’s Western and regional state backers to local, non-jihadi rebels in Aleppo – is risky.
- Risks notwithstanding, augmenting support to mainstream rebels would offer potential benefits such as shifting the intra-rebel balance of power toward non-ideological groups and encouraging greater pragmatism among other factions. Their backers must jointly apply carrots and sticks to promote pragmatic political engagement with the regime and respect for local civil society, while penalising criminal behaviour, indiscriminate tactics and sectarian rhetoric.
- Calls for Western partnership with the Assad regime against jihadis are ill-conceived, unless Damascus and its allies fundamentally revise their postures. As long as the regime’s strategy strengthens the ji-hadis it claims to combat, a rapprochement would redound to IS’s advantage.
- At least in the absence of a coherent strategy to empower credible Sunni alternatives to IS, proposals for expanding U.S. airstrikes into Syria are similarly problematic; the resulting boost to IS recruitment might outweigh the group’s tactical losses.
“At stake in Aleppo is not regime victory but opposition defeat” says Noah Bonsey, Syria Senior Analyst. “If that occurs, the war would continue, pitting regime and allied forces lacking capacity to reconquer north and east Syria against an emboldened IS strengthened by recruits from rebel remnants”.
“If the regime and its Iranian and Russian backers truly wish to diminish jihadi power in Syria, they must change their strategy from pursuing the military defeat of the mainstream opposition to identifying jihadis as the primary threat”, says Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Crisis Group’s President. “Otherwise, they are leaving it to the opposition’s backers to determine whether and how to fight IS”.