Aleppo Captures the Generational Battle of the Whole Arab World

The outcome of military and political developments in Aleppo in the coming months will clarify critical dimensions of the Syria conflict that also reverberate widely across the region.

The outcome of military and political developments in Aleppo in the coming months will clarify critical dimensions of the Syria conflict that also reverberate widely across the region. Four critical issues in particular are at play here. Each one can be pivotal in itself; together, they are epic in their impact on the situation in Syria and the region.

The issues to watch are:

a) whether the Jaish Al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition of dozens of rebel groups that broke the Syrian/Russian siege of Aleppo can maintain their unity and continue to regain territory;

b) how the Assad government and its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah backers retaliate militarily, as they have been doing fiercely in Idlib and other cities;

c) whether the foreign powers directly fighting in Syria (United States, Russia, Iran, UK, France) adjust their policies to achieve anything more useful than the current destruction of the country; and,

d) whether the rebels’ military successes in Aleppo mark the start of a deeper, long-term entrenchment among the Syrian population by Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (Syria Conquest Front), the new name for the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al-Nusra.

The first three issues reflect short-term developments anchored in military conditions on the ground; the fourth issue is potentially much more significant, because it captures a massively important dynamic that has been playing itself out on the ground across the Arab world for the past two generations, without a clear resolution, but that may be approaching a turning point in the Aleppo-Idlib region of Syria. That issue is the unresolved tension between, on the one hand, the cumulative failures and slow loss of legitimacy and land by incumbent Arab governments whose tens of millions of citizens have experienced serious declines in their material well-being and their children’s shrinking future prospects, and, on the other hand, the attempt first by non-violent Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to offer an alternative to degraded and dysfunctional Arab states, and recently by militant Islamists who proclaim jihadi endeavors and seek to establish rule by Islamic states, a caliphate, and other such systems that would replace the secular modern Arab state.

Aleppo now is central to this battle because of the several simultaneous, very significant recent moves by Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (Syria Conquest Front) to achieve several goals: to seek to expand its rule in Syria by gaining the support of local people rather than by force, to unite the many other rebel groups into a single coordinated military force that could protect civilians from government and foreign attacks, and to unite Islamists, jihadis, salafists, and others in creating some sort of sovereign system ruled by Islamic dictates.

This is more feasible now because Syrians are increasingly desperate for any authority that allows people to live a reasonably normal life, whether that authority is Islamist, civil-secular, tribal, ethnic, or anything else. The last five and a half years of warfare in Syria have seen government forces, regional and foreign powers, and Islamic State (Daesh) in parallel fueling fighting that has shattered the lives of millions of Syrians, leaving their families and communities in tatters, and many of their cities as piles of rubble.

If the Jaish Al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) military coalition that seems to have been largely coordinated by Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (Syria Conquest Front) continues to liberate Aleppo and other districts from government control, and somehow succeeds in reducing the pace and ferocity of Syrian/Russian aerial attacks against civilians, or even forces a cease-fire, then something pivotal and historic could occur: The assorted but united and coordinated Islamist, jihadi, salafist and other nationalist rebel groups in Syria would emerge as the undisputed leaders of the populist rebellion against the Assad government. They would be the central actors in providing both security and governance in the areas they control, and the most important interlocutors for foreign powers seeking to end the war and launch a political transition that leads to a new national governance system that is defined and accepted by the Syrian people themselves.

The pivot of this entire process remains a dynamic that both Arab and foreign governments have long refused to acknowledge or understand, perhaps because the process cannot be identified from the cockpits of fighter jets or on drone pilot screens. That dynamic is about what group (or groups in the group) can operate effectively in the political and/or military realm to protect civilian populations that are under attack by their own state, foreign powers, or local predators, and to provide citizens the basic material and political needs they expect from their state and society.

Aleppo is the central battle in the current war in Syria, a local contest in one corner of the region. But the much bigger central battle across the whole Arab World that plays itself out in Aleppo now remains that between the stubbornly mediocre, often violent, performance of state authorities and their foreign military backers vs. would-be local rulers anchored in the protective promises of politicized faith and other indigenous values and identities.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global