Some wars do not end. Russian forces – Tsarist, Bolshevik, and post-Soviet – have been fighting in the North Caucasus for the best part of three centuries, and the conflict stubbornly refuses any attempt by the Kremlin to declare its mission there accomplished. What confidence can anyone have that the civil war in Syria, a land just as riven with old scores and ancient rivalries, will reach a definitive conclusion – the ousting of Bashar al-Assad and the establishment of a government committed to free elections, reconciliation and reconstruction? At the moment, very little.
The battle taking place in Aleppo is a case in point. Syria’s second city is key and by general consent will, in theory, provide the tipping point so desperately sought in a conflict that has already claimed over 19,000 lives. In practice this is proving to be an elusive concept. The regime holds the west of the city, and the militias that comprise the Free Syrian Army the east. The regime has only committed troops to one front, Salaheddine district in the south-west, and is reluctant to throw in the rest of its infantry, opting to shell and bomb from the air. There are theories as to why there have been no serious attempts to recapture the city, one of them being the fear of defections if units became detached from their officers. But in theory the eastern half of Aleppo, which is being contested by only 4,000 rebel fighters, should be relatively easy for a well-equipped army to retake.
The fight from the rebels’ perspective is not going well either. As they openly acknowledge, their presence is contested by much of the city’s population. The fighters are not seen here as liberators, but as harbingers of terrible suffering to come. The FSA fall between two stools. They are ill equipped to shoot down Assad’s warplanes, but eminently visible enough to attract the regime’s aerial firepower. Assad’s warplanes are also using bigger bombs in civilian areas. If this is a deliberate strategy by the regime that has strewn the city with craters, it may be working. Aleppines blame the FSA for military operations in their city, rather than Damascus for its brutal response. Whatever the cause, the rebels are by their own admission not getting the support in the city that they got in the countryside. This is not just a function of the demography of Aleppo. Support for the FSA in Damascus also depends on whether the insurgents are local. This may change, and could be more a result of the Balkanisation of Syrian society than the product of any lingering sympathy for Assad, which surely has evaporated. If the space for non-violent protest has shrunk – although there are still opposition groups who cling on to this hope – the road ahead for the armed revolt can only be long and bitter. Despite high-level defections and the deaths of four senior security figures in a bombing last month, Assad’s army is intact and he retains no shortage of options.
One of them is to make a Lebanon out of Syria. Assad has withdrawn his forces from Kurdish parts of Syria, and Turkey claims he has invited the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) back in. Turkey blamed a car bomb attack on a police station near its south-eastern border on the PKK and Syrian intelligence. Another sign of things to come is the bombing in Azaz, only kilometres from the border, which killed 40 civilians. Assad is doing his utmost to provoke a Turkish incursion. Gun battles have broken out between rival groups in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, as fears of contagion grow. The possibilities of exporting chaos are legion, and that is before Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah, the two most powerful foreign forces in Assad’s armoury, are deployed.
One ethnic group fleeing the country is Syria’s Circassians. They are part of a worldwide diaspora created when Russian troops expelled them from the North Caucasus, in what Circassians claim was a genocide. The world will be literally skiing on the graves of their forefathers in the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. The date of their expulsion was 21 May 1864.