Well, is it our fault? George Osborne has repeated his claim, which he has made already, that the situation in Aleppo did not ‘come out of a vacuum’ but was due to a ‘vacuum of Western and British leadership’. Specifically he was taking issue with the Commons’ vote three years ago not to back airstrikes on the Assad regime on account of its use of chemical weapons – you know, Barack Obama’s red line issue. There’s a lot of this kind of thing around. The Commons yesterday was in full blown tearful mode yesterday in the debate on Aleppo called by Andrew Mitchell in the course of which George emerged to take the moral high ground. Personally, I think that 2013 vote not to intervene against Assad was one of the few instances of MPs behaving rationally in this entire unhappy situation, but it says much about the defective character of debate that almost everyone who took part took it as read that MPs, notably Labour, had let humanity down on that occasion.
To be blunt, I think it would have made things worse if the rebels had won, not lost, as it now seems almost certain they will. At the core of the fighters holding out against the government were thousands of al-Nusra soldiers – perhaps 4,000, perhaps more – who are indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. And that’s par for the course on the rebel side. The most risible element of David Cameron’s case for intervening against Assad in Syria back in 2013 was that there were no fewer than 70,000 moderate rebels on the ground whom Western air strikes would support. No one has managed to identify them to date. And if Russia backed the government sides, the rebels were kept going with the support of Saudi Arabia, pace Boris Johnson. In fact the only problem with Boris’s puppeteering observation the other day about the Saudis is that it didn’t go far enough: he should have mentioned Qatar and Turkey conducting a proxy war in Syria as well.
Most of the moderate opposition activists are now to be found in conferences outside Syria, not within it. Actually, that’s one of the tragedies of this awful, sectarian war: if you are a half-decent Syrian social democrat, your choice is at present limited to backing the ghastly Assad regime or the Islamist fanatics fighting against it. Not surprisingly, many people hold their noses and opt for the former. Actually it would be interesting to see how long MPs or journalists would survive if they visited the remaining rebel-held areas – not as a result of Russian bombardment, but of being bundled into the back of the boot of one of the groups who make money from ransoming their captives. Rather few journalists, even the most impassioned, are actually embedded with the rebels, not since the late Marie Colvin, and things have got worse since; there’s a reason for that, you know.
No one could possibly regard the situation in Aleppo as anything but tragic, especially now that fighting has resumed. But on balance I think it is better that Syrian government forces – Assad’s lot – have to all intents and purposes retaken Aleppo than that the rebels should remain entrenched there, dragging out this wretched war even longer. There have been hair-raising reports of atrocities by the troops taking the rebel-held areas but the attempts to give opposition fighters a means to leave the city seems a positive move, always supposing this is a serious offer. What should be our priority right now is attempting to influence the way the Assad victory in Aleppo is being played out: safeguarding civilians leaving the enclave, ensuring that rebel soldiers who surrender are not summarily executed, providing humanitarian relief as soon as it’s safe, getting hospitals up and running. But our influence is limited, because we have, right from the start, gone with the illusory notion that the Assad regime can be overthrown, regardless of the nature of its opponents, and we have stuck to that sustained wishful thinking.
I do think that Staffan de Mistura, the UN man with the least enviable job on earth – that of promoting a peaceful settlement in Syria – is right to say to the regime that there must be a political settlement as well as military victory. The pre-requisite for a deal is that it should enable refugees to return, all five million of them. Also, there must be some autonomy for the Kurds as part of that settlement, whether Turkey likes it or not.
But the one thing to be said for the advance of the Assad forces in Aleppo and elsewhere is that it clears the ground for government forces properly to take on IS in northern Syria. It’s one of the feats of that genocidal group that it has managed to make even the Assad regime seem like the lesser evil. But of them, in yesterday’s debate, hardly a peep from emotionally ventilating, tearful MPs.