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 some.
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.