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 Syrian and regional local allies, and its adversaries in Syria. The fall of Aleppo was the culmination of a humanitarian disaster, and a case study in the new challenges the United States and its allies face in diplomacy, security, and strategy. Aleppo’s story is bleak, but offers crucial lessons for how the United States can secure its interests in Syria, bolster its allies, defeat terrorist groups, protect vulnerable populations, and restore its weakened global standing.
This report details the tactics and strategy that the regime coalition used to break Aleppo, but beyond Aleppo’s implications for Syria, it bears highlighting what it means for the United States. Firstly, despite being party to US-sponsored ceasefires, the 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 phony ceasefires, which it then exploited in the same fashion. These embarrassing breaches weakened the United States’ moderate opposition partners and undermined regional US allies opposed to Iranian dominance. The United States itself suffered a loss of credibility and became a marginal diplomatic player in Syria, taken less seriously by allies and adversaries alike.The siege of Aleppo brought the horrors of the twentieth century’s wars to the twenty-first century. Click To Tweet
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 would be a poor if not harmful partner against the Islamic State of al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremists. He was unable to rein in sectarian Shia militia even after Aleppo fell, 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.Hospitals were bombed, not once or twice, but repeatedly; cluster bombs and incendiaries fell on… Click To Tweet
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 and standing of the United States and its allies, but also offer important lessons. It was a reminder that diplomacy without credibility 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—lessons learned—the United States may restore its standing, reinvigorate its regional alliances, protect its values, and defeat its terrorist enemies.
Former US Secretary of State
Former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden
Ambassador (ret.) Nicholas Burns**
Professor, Harvard University and former Under Secretary
Jon Huntsman, Jr.**^
Chairman of the Atlantic Council
** Atlantic Council Board Director
^ International Advisory Board Member