Only one month ago, Syria’s largest city of Aleppo seemed on the cusp of humanitarian catastrophe. Some 350,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo had been placed under siege by Assad regime forces, and humanitarian supplies were running out. The head of key regime ally Hezbollah boasted of having defeated “regional imperial ambitions” in Aleppo. Assad’s main backer Russia triumphantly announced “humanitarian corridors” for civilians to evacuate, as humanitarian organizations expressed concern for those left behind and warned of a repeat of Russia’s vicious assault on Grozny in 2000.
President Obama had practically ruled out U.S. action to save the 350,000 civilians under siege, instead reiterating his longstanding position that no more could be done. Obama vowed to “test” if another “cessation of hostilities” might yield fruit even though a Russian blitzkrieg during the previous cessation had made the siege of Aleppo possible. It looked like Aleppo was doomed to a humanitarian disaster that would churn out tens of thousands more refugees.
Less than 48 hours later, the siege on Aleppo was broken, with peripheral U.S. involvement. Instead, the hardline rebel coalition Jaish al-Fatah led a massive offensive incorporating rebels from across northern Syria. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which only recently broke ties with Al-Qaeda, was integral to the offensive and came away with more legitimacy than ever before. If the U.S. truly wishes to combat extremism or broker peace in Syria, it must learn the right lessons from the rebels’ Aleppo offensive.
The first lesson is that dictator Bashar al-Assad’s position is fundamentally weak. After five years of exploiting the minority Alawite sect, then importing Shiite foreign fighters to quell a popular uprising, Assad forces have begun recruiting prisoners and teachers to relieve a growing manpower shortage. Reports from the rebel offensive showed regime recruits refusing to fight or fleeing en masse from their positions.
Following the offensive, thousands of Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite reinforcements arrived in Aleppo to fight for the regime; Russian bombers initiated intensive air raids, and Iran allowed these bombers to take off from its territory in a decision unprecedented since World War Two; and the pro-regime side still failed to advance. The recent offensive made clear that Syria will never again be stable with Assad in power.
The second lesson, one related to the first, is that Syrians must be accounted for in America’s Syria policy. They can not be dismissed as, in President Obama’s words, “former doctors, farmers, [and] pharmacists.” Participants in the “Great Battle of Aleppo” were close to 100 percent Syrian. Nearly all territory gained in the offensive was attacked, conquered, and held by Syrians. These are the farmers and pharmacists that the president spoke of, and they are a formidable force with staying power.
If the anti-Assad rebels are in fact here to stay, then American relations with the opposition must be properly managed. Herein lies the third lesson, one that 51 diplomats tried in vain to convey to the Obama Administration in a June 2016 dissent memo: “Failure to stem Assad’s flagrant abuses will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as [ISIS].”
During the most recent diplomatic talks in February, the administration heavily pressured the opposition to soften demands for Assad’s departure. It offered no military leverage to the rebels, even when Russia provided plenty to the regime side, and even though Russia made a mockery of a joint U.S.-Russian ceasefire violations monitoring room by denying that regime violations had occurred.
By the end of the talks in April, chief opposition negotiator Riad Hijab was so frustrated by lack of U.S. support that he declared: “We will fight even with stones... We demand that the United States shoulder its responsibility.” Bashar al-Assad, for his part, later credited the talks with facilitating massive military gains for his forces. But the administration responded mainly by initiating discussions with Russia for joint military cooperation in Syria.
The result was just as the 51 diplomats predicted: extremist groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham gained unprecedented credence, by freeing 350,000 civilians from siege two days after the American president insisted that no more could be done.
This leads us to a fourth and final lesson, one that points directly to policy solutions: American military action to protect civilians and promote a diplomatic solution in Syria is eminently feasible. Skeptics of U.S. action against Assad like to issue dark predictions of “boots on the ground” or “dogfights with Russian jets.” But rebel fighters, in only one week, reversed six months of Russian-Iranian-regime efforts to besiege Aleppo without either of these events occurring. At most, rebels received an infusion of ground-to-ground artillery from foreign backers in advance of their offensive.
Rather than attempting to extort the opposition regarding the departure of Assad, the U.S. should empower moderate rebels so that they emerge as the main defenders of Syrian civilians, starting with the U.S.-backed rebels that joined the Great Battle of Aleppo. The CIA-backed Sham Legion is a Jaish al-Fatah member and played a leading role on the southern end of the offensive. The broad Fatah Halab coalition, which includes many CIA-backed groups, scored notable gains by attacking the regime from within Aleppo. Even civilians played a role by burning tires to impede regime air raids ― and hardline and moderate rebels agreed that civilians, including minorities, must not be targeted or besieged.
While the Aleppo offensive brought new legitimacy to hardline groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, it also underscored that U.S.-backed rebels and Syrian civil society remain integral to opposition efforts. The U.S. can best promote a political settlement by providing robust support to moderate rebels so that they, too, can spearhead major offensives against the Assad regime. This would pressure the Assad to negotiate, while ensuring that moderate rebels are his main interlocutors when he comes to the table.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is the director of government relations and a senior political adviser at the Syrian American Council and a Millennium Leadership Fellow at the Atlantic Council