Syrian government forces seem set to retake Aleppo, which would be fundamental to ending the civil war
Wedeman says he saw signs of Aleppo divisions in early days of uprising
What he saw in Hama decades ago could be harbinger of what's to come
Thousands of people are fleeing the eastern, rebel-controlled part of Aleppo. Pro-regime forces have breached the once stable front lines in this battered city. The end is near.
It’s the beginning of the end of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad that began March 15, 2011, in the opening phases of what once was optimistically called the Arab Spring. It is also, perhaps, the final death knell for that string of revolts or revolutions or uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, which have ended in catastrophe (with the possible exception of Tunisia).
I reported from Aleppo in August 2012, when it appeared the Syrian uprising had a chance to succeed. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its industrial powerhouse, had initially stayed out of the rebellion. But in the summer of 2012 it rose up against the regime, and when it joined the revolt it seemed, back then, only a matter of time before the regime would come tumbling down.
In the already severely battered neighborhood of Salahadin, a masked rebel fighter told me he was confident victory was near. “We will win, because we have iman – faith – we have faith,” he told me. “We believe in God. They, the regime, don’t believe in God.”
But in the time I spent in Aleppo, there were also hints already that the opposition was divided, and already some of the factions showed signs of extremism.
I recall sitting on the curb in front of a police station in the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Sukkari when we heard a gunshot. The rebels inside, who were part of the Tawhid faction, had just executed someone accused of being a spy.
Moments later a young man was brought outside, blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back, led by two masked gunmen.
His friend, who was sitting next to me on the curb, explained the young man, 16 years old, had been arrested and interrogated because rebel fighters had found the phone numbers of girls on his mobile phone. The faction, which now controlled his neighborhood, was taking him home to his parents, who would be forced to pay a $75 fine.
Later that afternoon, we watched as a man and woman, her face hidden by a veil, left the neighborhood pushing a baby carriage full of bundles.
I asked the woman where they were going.
“We’re leaving. These people are no better than the regime. In fact, they’re worse,” she shot back, without stopping.
Five years later, and the tide has decisively turned. Russia came to Assad’s rescue in September 2015. With massive Russian air power against them, and Assad getting help from Iran and Hezbollah, the rebels are losing ground everywhere.
The opposition, always a hodgepodge of often mutually hostile groups united only by their enmity of the regime, hold only scattered and shrinking pockets of territory around Damascus, Homs, Daraa and Aleppo, with the only sizable area still under their control in Idlib province. Turkey supports factions of the Free Syrian Army along Syria’s northern border, and the United States backs the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast, but both those groups are focused on fighting ISIS, not the regime.
The Obama administration, which drew red lines in Syria, which demanded the ouster of Assad, which called for democracy and human rights in Syria, in the end could do little to change the course of events. The fight against ISIS took precedence over all else.
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In those areas where the government re-establishes control, the future for former opponents is bleak. The dreaded Mukhabarat, or secret police, is almost certain to hunt down and punish those who took up arms against Assad.
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Middle Eastern dictators are not known for their magnanimity, and Syria is no exception.
If you want to know how Assad is likely to deal with his defeated opponents, just look at the case of the February 1982 Hama uprising. That year, members of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to seize the central Syrian city from the regime of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. Regime forces, led by Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat, surrounded Hama and pummeled it for weeks with tank and artillery fire, killing at least 10,000. Afterward, they went in, slaughtering thousands more, rebels and civilians alike.
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I visited Hama repeatedly in the early 1990s: It was an eerie place crawling with informers where, unlike elsewhere in Syria, people were hesitant to speak with outsiders. The regime had bulldozed the old city to the ground, and built atop it a fancy hotel and parks.
When eastern Aleppo falls, it’s only a matter of time before the remaining pockets of resistance will fall, either by fire or capitulation. And the end of the uprising will have arrived.