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Aleppo evacuations and the ‘heart wrenching’ decision ahead for Syrians

For nearly six years—since the so-called Arab Spring of 2011—Syria has descended into a bitter civil war between President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and rebel fighters. The conflict has caused one of the most severe refugee crises in recent history, with millions of Syrian civilians displaced and seeking haven in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as various countries across Europe.

Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city, has become the epicenter of this conflict. It’s been nearly split in half, with Assad’s forces controlling the western half and rebel forces controlling the eastern half. Late this week, opposition fighters and civilians began evacuating the neighborhoods that represented the final rebel foothold, following a ceasefire deal struck by Russia, which backs the Syrian government, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

We asked Valen­tine Moghadam, pro­fessor of soci­ology and inter­na­tional affairs and director of Northeastern’s Inter­na­tional Affairs and Middle East Studies pro­grams, to discuss the broad significance of the evacuation, its global repercussions, and what’s next for Syria and those who called it home.

Retaking eastern Aleppo from rebel control has been a major focus, perhaps the major focus, for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the civil war began six years ago. Thursday, Assad described the “liberation of Aleppo” as a moment that will change history. What is the broad significance of the fall of Aleppo?

The liberation of Aleppo is certainly a historic moment, given that the ancient city, also the commercial center of Syria, had been the major stronghold of the armed rebels. By ending the rebel takeover of eastern Aleppo, the Syrian military and its coalition allies have forced the withdrawal of ISIS, the al-Nusra Front, and al-Qaida elements.

The attempted destabilization of Syria created nothing but misery for the Syrian people, the expansion of ISIS and other jihadist groups, the destruction of cultural heritage, and infrastructural damage that will take years to repair.
—Valentine Moghadam, director of Northeastern’s International Affairs and Middle East Study programs

Yes, the rebels have retaken parts of Palmyra, but their days are numbered and they will surely be defeated again. No wonder Syrian President Bashar al-Assad compared the liberation of Aleppo to the birth of Christ and the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.

The battle in Aleppo, and more broadly, in Syria, is one that’s ensnared multiple world powers—including Russia, Iran, Turkey, the EU, and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.—which have backed either Assad’s forces or rebel forces. What global repercussions can we expect from the evacuation of rebel fighters?

There have been competing narratives about the Syrian civil conflict and the role of domestic and outside forces. In my judgment, the “Assad must go” mantra of the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others back in 2011 encouraged the armed rebellion, which in turn gave way to participation by foreign fighters in a brutal “jihad” that had the logistical and military support of Western and regional powers (a violation of international law).

Destabilizing states (or economies) is almost never a sound policy objective, and especially when the alternatives are unclear or predictably awful. Think of what happened to Iraq after the invasion and occupation of 2003, and to Libya after the NATO bombings of 2011 and the overthrow of Gadhafi. The attempted destabilization of Syria created nothing but misery for the Syrian people, the expansion of ISIS and other jihadist groups, the destruction of cultural heritage, and infrastructural damage that will take years to repair.

Perhaps by now some lessons have been learned. The Western powers and their regional allies could not overthrow a regime that still had considerable domestic support; Iran, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah would not stand by and let Syria go the way of Libya; and rule by ISIS and jihadists is infinitely worse than an authoritarian regime that at least guaranteed security and protected religious minorities. The world-system is in transition, the Western powers can no longer call the shots, and citizens in Europe and the United States would prefer that their governments focus attention and resources on domestic matters rather than on foreign wars.  Nevertheless, the U.S., U.K., France, and their regional allies are ultimately responsible for the Syrian refugee crisis and the proliferation of armed jihadists, and they must be held to account.

Millions of Syrian citizens have been displaced from their homes or worse as the country becomes increasingly beleaguered by war—leading to one of the most intense refugee crises in years. As the humanitarian effort to evacuate civilians continues, what’s next for Syria and for the people who had called it home? Can you put into historical context the humanitarian crisis we face as a result of the violence?

Syria faces years of reconstruction and reconciliation, as well as the disarmament of the rebels.  As I have indicated, the Western countries and the regional allies that sought to destabilize Syria and arm the rebels have a moral and legal responsibility to help rebuild Syria, and I would hope that a trust fund would be created for that purpose.

The millions of Syrians who are internally displaced or have become refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan may wish to return to their homes, but given the destruction of their communities, this will be a heart-wrenching decision for them.

The scale of the humanitarian and refugee crisis is similar to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when a modernizing, left-wing government backed by the Soviet Union and its military fought a tribal-Islamist armed rebellion backed by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, and other countries. Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan and Iran, and they stayed there even after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in early 1989, because the erstwhile Islamist allies, the Mujahidin, turned on each other, ushering in the Taliban. Many refugees returned after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban by the U.S., but the Taliban’s resurgence since 2006 has resulted in more conflict and instability. Some 37 years after the Carter administration decided—most unwisely—to covertly arm the tribal-Islamist rebellion, followed by the Reagan administration’s overt support via Pakistan, Afghanistan remains impoverished, unstable, and dependent on U.S. aid.

I expect that Syria will do better, as it can count on its more considerable internal resources as well as the support of Iran, Russia, possibly China, other independent-minded countries (that is, outside the orbit of the Western powers), and of course those international organizations that are tasked with humanitarian assistance, reconstruction, and development.

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