For moderate, unarmed rebels, as well as anyone wanted by the government, the rapid and brutal offensive to retake east Aleppo is a sign of what’s to come elsewhere in Syria.
BEIRUT — In the final hours of the siege in Aleppo, as the Syrian military and allied militias closed in on Tuesday, the people who had once dreamed of a free country spoke of more immediate things: the freezing December rain that slicked the streets as people tried to escape. Families huddled in basements. The mother begging for help on her cell phone as she and her three children were trapped under their bombed building — until the line finally went silent.
"Hearing an ambulance is a good sign of life, I guess," said teacher Wissam Zarqa in a voice message to a WhatsApp group conversation used by Aleppo residents to communicate with the outside world. "With the rain, less helicopters in the sky."
As they sent what they feared could be their final words, they tried to convey some last details to a paralyzed world: cluster munitions in the areas being evacuated; phosphorus bombs in the al-Ansari neighborhood; a chlorine attack on one of the last remaining field hospitals; and always the rain. "The sky is crying for Aleppo with soft tears," Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a language teacher who became a media activist, told the WhatsApp group. "The sky is much kinder than human beings. For this, we will stay there finally. There is no justice but in heaven."
On Dec. 13, as the Syrian military closed in on the last remaining neighborhoods of rebel-held east Aleppo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights announced it had evidence of the execution of at least 82 people, allegedly by the Syrian military and allied Iraqi militias, and pleaded with the international community to "heed the cries of the women, men and children being terrorized and slaughtered in Aleppo." Pro- and anti-government partisans alike were posting photos of men being rounded up and lined up against a bright, sunflower-yellow wall. The message was unmistakable: This is what happens to those who don't surrender — and even to those who do.
What happened in Aleppo was many things, but most of all it was a warning — to anyone who may think of resisting the power of the state. To moderates, especially, the message was clear: Oppose us and you will be treated as a terrorist. The Syrian government delayed accepting a cease-fire until the last possible moment — and broke it before it had even begun. This was more than the usual playing for time. It was a live-action illustration of what the Russian-Syrian offensive's leaflets, dropped over east Aleppo in late October, had said: "If you do not leave these areas immediately, you will be finished." It added: "You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom."
In this, at least, the Syrian government was right. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump signaled throughout his campaign that opposing the Syrian government was not on his agenda. As soon as he was elected, Trump began making diplomatic overtures to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "My attitude was you're fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS," Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 11, just after the election. He added that Russia is "totally aligned with Syria," and implied that if the United States attacked Assad, it would end up fighting Russia.
For the Syrian opposition, and those civilians trapped in rebel-held territory, the immediate consequences were bloody and conclusive. Rebel-held eastern Aleppo was the first casualty. Just days after the U.S election, Russian and Syrian warplanes launched a devastating air offensive to clear out rebel territory. It took less than a month for eastern Aleppo to fall. By Dec. 12, the Syrian military had pushed armed opposition fighters and tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in eastern Aleppo into a few small neighborhoods in the southeastern corner of the city.
On Tuesday, Dec. 13, as civilians began to send their last goodbyes, and pleas for help, the Russian and Turkish governments announced that they had negotiated a deal for rebel fighters to leave the last areas they were holding. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the UN, said there was "no need for the remaining civilians to leave" — ominous words, because they meant that there would be no sanctuary for unarmed civilians. Even as the cease-fire was announced, Syrian military officials told Reuters that they had "no knowledge" of the details.
The following morning, as people waited to board the green government buses that would take them out of the war zone, the shelling restarted. The media department of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia and political party, which is fighting alongside the Syrian military, announced that no deal could take place until jihadist fighters stopped besieging civilians in Fuaa and Kefraya, two Shiite villages in Idlib province — effectively holding thousands of civilians collectively responsible for the actions of armed groups in another part of the country entirely.
This was the message of eastern Aleppo's defeat: In the future, any moderate opposition will be considered extremists by definition. This strategy worked well for Russia in Grozny, and the Russian and Syrian governments are banking on the idea that it will work with Aleppo. The defeat of Syria's legitimate political opposition (they do exist, contrary to Russian propaganda) will leave Syrians who can't go back to government-held territory — nobody knows how many, but a lot — with little alternative but to be ruled by extremist groups.
Idlib is where the next chapter of the nearly six-year conflict will likely take place. As the government clears out rebel-held territories, it is transferring large parts of their populations to the northwestern province, historically a rural area that has always had poor infrastructure. After Aleppo, the Russian and Syrian militaries will have a green-light to clear out remaining rebel-held areas and evacuate them to Idlib, which is slated to become, as one Syrian analyst speaking to Syria Deeply on condition of anonymity put it, "a kind of purgatory."
Extremists will be boxed in geographically, confined to Idlib. Moderates who are wanted by the regime for anything from minor infractions to being opposition leaders will be forced to join them. There, they will continue to be an example: this time, of how all those who oppose the government are "terrorists."
"Idlib, it will be a tomb," said the Syrian analyst. "But they need it, as a type of Gaza. You will have all kinds of fundraising. You may even have journalists going to Idlib. They need it to show Europe, to show those who are not supporting a political solution, that this will lead to terrorism. For Bashar, the best thing is to keep Idlib forever."