A 64-page report details the bombing, siege, and disinformation in the destruction of Aleppo by the Assad regime and its allies
The Atlantic Council has published a 64-page report, “Breaking Aleppo“, on the systematic destruction of much of Syria’s largest city by the Assad regime and its allies — including Russia and Iran — before it was finally reoccupied by pro-Assad forces in December.
The report is authored by Maksymilian Czuperski, director of the Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab; Faysal Itani, a senior fellow of the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center on the MIddle East; Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow of the Digital Forensic Research Lab; Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, another senior fellow of the Digital Forensic Research Lab; and investigative journalist Emma Beals.
We post the Foreword of the report — written by Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State; Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden; Nicholas Burns, former US Undersecretary of State; and Jon Huntsman, Chairman of the Atlantic Council — and the authors’ Conclusion:
After nearly five years of bitter fighting, bombardment, and siege, the Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran, and Russia finally broke Aleppo on December 22, 2016, defeating the opposition and displacing much of the local population. This represented a critical turning point in the Syrian civil war and shifted the balance of power between the United States, its local allies, and its adversaries in Syria.
The siege of Aleppo brought the horrors of the 20th century’s wars to the twenty-first century. Hospitals were bombed, not once or twice, but repeatedly; cluster bombs and incendiaries fell on residential areas; chemical weapons were used.
Siege, hunger, and indiscriminate strikes brought suffering to women, children, the disabled, and the very old. This report details the tactics and strategy that the regime coalition used to break Aleppo.
Beyond Aleppo’s implications for Syria, it bears highlighting what it means for the United States. First, despite being party to the ceasefires negotiated by the United States and Russia, the Syrian regime used them to prepare offensives
or freeze some frontlines in order to concentrate on others. Instead of being punished for this, the regime was actually rewarded with more ceasefires, which it then exploited in the same fashion. These breaches weakened the United States’ moderate opposition partners and undermined the confidence of US allies in the region.
Breaking Aleppo also involved a pernicious misinformation campaign – nothing less than a war on objective facts by the regime, Russian officials, and media. This was aimed less at convincing than at confusing and disorienting rivals, sapping confidence, sowing disunity, and making truth entirely subjective, such that one party’s lie became just as good as another’s fact.
This obfuscation, even in the face of clear evidence of regime or Russian wrongdoing, exposed the “post-truth” era of international relations. In this world, the United States and its allies proved ill-equipped to vocally, visibly, and consistently drive the counter narrative despite frequent, severe, and well-documented atrocities by the regime side.
Finally, the regime’s war in Aleppo showed that Assad was ineffective against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremists – suggesting that the Syrian regime would be a poor if not harmful partner for the United States. He was unable to rein in sectarian Shia militia even after Aleppo fell, and his regime more closely resembles an unwieldy coalition of sectarian and organized criminal elements. He and his allies deliberately conflated extremist groups with Syrians holding even legitimate grievances against the government, and rather than use ceasefires to deploy forces
against extremists, the regime coalition chose to attack mainstream rebels, in some cases actually losing territory to ISIS as a result.
Aleppo’s fall was catastrophic for Syrians of course, but it was not only a humanitarian tragedy. The events surrounding Aleppo seriously damaged the interests of the United States and its allies. The events in Aleppo documented by this report
are a reminder that diplomacy without leverage is dangerous, that the new information wars waged by US adversaries demand a new counter-strategy, and that the victors in Aleppo are not our allies against terrorism. The Assad regime is incompetent, unreliable, and shares none of the United States’ core interests in Syria; it is also deeply implicated in well-documented atrocities.
This report tells the story of breaking Aleppo in detail, so that the world will know these facts, and the United States and its regional partners will be able to adjust policy accordingly – securing their interests, defending their values, defeating terrorist groups, and protecting vulnerable populations.
Rescuers attend to victims of bombing of eastern Aleppo city, December 10, 2016
This report has described in detail and context how the regime and its allies finally broke opposition-held Aleppo using siege, indiscriminate bombing, chemical weapons, incendiary bombs, and unrelenting misinformation. The findings are a
sound rebuttal to the regime coalition’s deliberate obfuscation and denials over what happened there.
Telling Aleppo’s story offers an in-depth view of some of the strategies being employed elsewhere around Syria, but even this is only the start of any effort to handle the Syria crisis and the role of Bashar al-Assad’s allies in it. The battle of Aleppo is over, the battle for Syria not nearly so.
Aleppo’s fall was an inflection point for the Syrian civil war, tipping the balance in favor of Iran, Russia, and the regime. It also coincided with dramatic political change in the United States in the election of President Donald Trump. With a new administration comes the possibility, and perhaps the necessity, of revising the many components of US policy in Syria including the war on ISIS; checking Iranian power; managing relations with Russia; balancing ties with Turkey
and support for Kurdish proxies; addressing Arab allies’ interests; and deciding the fate of Bashar al-Assad himself.
Breaking Aleppo secured Assad’s survival for now, but solved none of the other issues, and indeed further complicated
In the aftermath of Aleppo’s destruction, the Trump Administration inherits a US position that is weaker than ever, in an even more shattered Syria. The city’s prolonged destruction discredited US-allied opposition groups that had fought ISIS
and were a potential counterterrorism partner. It also worsened population displacement and the refugee crisis, embarrassed and undermined the United States and its allies, continued the trend of violating humanitarian law and the Geneva
Conventions, and empowered Iran.
But while Aleppo itself may be broken, the United States is not without options to reverse these losses. Any successful strategy must center on population protection in areas at risk of getting similar treatment to that meted out in Aleppo.
A successful ceasefire led and enforced by the United States and willing partners would allow Syrian allies currently targeted by Iran and Assad to take the fight to extremists, ensure the flow of aid to all areas, stop the ongoing forced
displacement of Syrians, and boost the local credibility of Syrian forces allied with the United States. A US-backed ceasefire would firmly check Iranian and Hezbollah expansionism. It would also affirm the United States’ commitment to regional allies calling for an assertive US posture against Iran.
A credible ceasefire in Syria does not require occupying the country, or engaging in nation building. What it does require is the imposition of costs on violators (overwhelmingly the regime, Iran, and its proxies) whether through direct kinetic action, robust support for local allies on the ground, or any other effective measures in the policy toolkit. Breaking Aleppo did not end the war or its serious challenges to US interests. Dark as it is, however, it is also a valuable call to action, a hard lesson in the cost of inaction, and a case study in a new and devastating combination of tactics honed by the United States’ adversaries. Aleppo’s catastrophe must inform a US strategy that is both bolder and wiser than that which allowed it to happen.
TOP PHOTO: Men retrieve bodies from regime shelling of people fleeing eastern Aleppo city, November 30, 2016