FPI Conference Call Wrap-Up: Syria After Aleppo

December 15, 2016

The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate.  In remarks at the State Department today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Assad regime’s despicable and barbaric campaign against his own people saying, “The Assad regime is actually carry out nothing short of a massacre.  We have witnessed indiscriminate slaughter—not accidents of war, not collateral damage, but frankly purposeful—a cynical policy of terrorizing civilians.”

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) held a conference call yesterday to discuss these developments.  FPI Executive Director Christopher Griffin moderated a discussion featuring Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute.

Key quotations from the call follow below and an audio recording of the panel is available on our website.


State of the Syrian Conflict

“This is a turning point, I think, for the conflict. This is the second major city that the rebels have been expelled from after Homs two years ago. The rebels now feel that they are crammed in areas like Idlib and in the south, and the Assad regime seems to be on the offensive.” – Hassan Hassan

“When we talk about Russia and Iran in Syria, we can’t really talk about it in isolation from what the Obama administration has done and allowed to happen in Syria. The policy that directly led to Aleppo and will directly be responsible for what comes after Aleppo is the one that the White House has called the ‘de-escalation policy.’ Which, in effect, meant freezing particular rebel fronts, especially in the south of Syria. And this was intensified after the Russian intervention.” – Tony Badran

“The Russian intervention didn’t start in northern Syria. In fact, the first action that the Russians took was in southern Syria, in Deraa. The reason for that was the Russians needed to completely quiet down the southern front and to secure Damascus, which is what the White House’s policy of de-escalation completely reinforced.  This allowed for the reallocation of resources to be able to move north on Aleppo, and second, it allowed the regime to clear out rebel holdouts in the south and in Homs. That included population transfers as well as transfers of rebel fighters from those areas to be backed into Idlib province. As a result, Idlib province becomes one of the main, obvious targets that will come next after Aleppo.” – Tony Badran

“Most of the groups that were operating inside the city were mostly local forces from inside Aleppo and from the rural areas of Aleppo. These are nationalist groups.  Some of them are Islamists, but they’re country-focused Islamists. The forces that dominated in that area were mostly FSA, Free Syrian Army groups, rather the jihadists. However, things have started to change, obviously, over the past year or two because of the weakening of these organizations, because of the bombings, because of the lack of support and inconsistency of support to these groups in comparison to the massive support that comes to extremists, and the increasing popularity of the extremists, in areas that face extraordinary violence, like in Aleppo or elsewhere.  But, up until the regime’s gains recently, the forces that were effective inside Aleppo were not the jihadists. The jihadists came from outside.” – Hassan Hassan

The Human Rights Consequences of Aleppo

“At this point, you have Syria’s largest city under siege, you have tens of thousands of people killed, you have reports of mass rapes and so forth, and the Arab League can’t even be bothered to have a meeting to discuss the situation.  The United Nations has said that it’s probable that war crimes have occurred, but, then again, who cares what the United Nations says when it has nothing to back it? The European Union, for all of its handwringing, also has never developed to enforce a human rights mandate outside of the borders of Europe, and the United States no longer shows an interest in doing so.” – Michael Rubin

“What worries me is as we shift into a more inward-focus that prioritizes stability, how other dictators or would-be dictators might interpret their permissible range of action…. Is Aleppo really not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning as we see this sort of massacre and of human rights violations, occur with ever-more frequency?” – Michael Rubin

Strategic Consequences of Aleppo

“Any deal which is struck with regard to refugees is not going to be the end deal. It’s simply going to open the flood gates as those like Assad or Vladimir Putin or Khomeini extract further concessions from Americans or the Europeans or others. I’m very much afraid that unless we shut the flood off at the source we are going to be in for a very rough ride.” – Michael Rubin

“There is a direct relationship between the Russian manipulation or attacks, be it cyber or all kinds of other warfare, that they are launching in Europe on the one hand and the rise of these kind of Putin-phile candidates in certain areas in Europe, and the refugee crisis, and Syria, and the sort of establishment of a new Russian military base on the southern flank of NATO. We talk about president Obama’s legacy. This has to be one of the colossal failures of that legacy. All of a sudden Russia has a military base on NATO’s southern flank.” – Tony Badran

The Fight Against ISIS

“When we look at the ideology of the Islamic State, they’ve actually set themselves up in a win-win situation. First of all, I mean, some of us who served in the Bush administration, like I did, had passed around to us a 2006 Newsweek article — basically a very snarky article entitled something to the effect of ‘George Bush’s New Word,’ making fun of the fact that George Bush had brought up this notion of a caliphate. And the Newsweek article was talking about how outdated a concept that was. Well, I mean, it turns out that Bush was right. The concept had real resonance, and when you have 30,000-plus foreign fighters from more than a hundred different countries fighting, it’s clear it has resonance. And now this is in living memory. It’s not gonna go away.” – Michael Rubin

“One of my big criticisms of our counter-Islamic State strategy has been we have focused almost exclusively on Syria and Iraq, which is like playing a game of chess but only looking at two squares on the board. Unfortunately, the whole problem of the Islamic State has metastasized far more to the Sinai Peninsula, to Libya, to Nigeria, to Pakistan, to Afghanistan. And so there’s a lot of places where the Islamic State can try to compete to reach a new level of bloodiness.” – Michael Rubin

“[T]hings changed with Aleppo, because, look, ISIS is not there in Aleppo and yet Aleppo has been destroyed and turned into a complete wasteland. Bus ISIS is not there. And you started to see over the past few days when ISIS took over Palmyra, that people are saying this is a good thing. So I think that what happened in Aleppo, and by chance what happened in Palmyra, turned the table for ISIS. ISIS started to feel that the people are welcoming their gains and praising them again.” – Hassan Hassan

The Future of U.S. Policy

“There are a lot of inconsistencies in Mr. Trump’s stated policies. There is also a tendency of incoming administrations be it Democrat or Republican to assume that the fault of diplomacy is with regard to their predecessors rather than their adversaries. It is hard to rely on Putin or Assad without recognizing how that is going to bolster the Islamic State. All I can say, not being a legislator, not having exposure to that world is that I do hope that Congress is a lot more activist in its oversight in utilizing the power of the purse. Simply because, otherwise, we are in for a very rough ride.” – Michael Rubin

“One of the Obama administration’s officials recently was quoted, before the elections, saying that the administration is giving Vladimir Putin time to finish the job in Aleppo, and, in part, it is doing so to tie the hands of the future administration. Mind you they were thinking at the time that it was going to be Hillary Clinton who was going to win. They were looking to use Vladimir Putin by proxy to lock in Barack Obama’s preferences on Syria. To a large extent, that has been accomplished.” – Tony Badran

“I’m a bit hopeful for the trajectory the next administration might follow. Only because, what happened in Aleppo for the opposition, this was something that they envisioned as a worst case scenario under a Trump administration… The Americans will have the choice, either to hand over their sphere of influence or where they are fighting ISIS they used to fight ISIS, now they have control over ISIS area, or in the South. And I think that is going be very hard to imagine that they next administration will just say to the Russians and to the regime, take the areas that we already cleared from ISIS. So maybe there is an opportunity for a grand bargain where these areas in Northern Syria, Eastern Syria, and Southern Syria that will become more of a headquarters of the opposition or maybe American influence.” – Hassan Hassan

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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