Aleppo is a synonym for hell. That succinct observation of the UN Secretary-General just about sums up the tragedy of this Syrian city, indeed the worst that the Arab region has witnessed since the Jasmine Revolution was ignited in 2011. The fact that the deal to free the remaining civilians fizzled out on Sunday is symptomatic of the deepening crisis. A smooth execution of any agreement is anathema to the stakeholders, pre-eminently the big powers and the United Nations no less. As a convoy carrying medical supplies for children left Britain for Syria over the weekend, the cruel irony was much too palpable. Six of the “evacuation buses” were intercepted and set on fire by the Jund alAqsa, a jihadi faction aligned to the Syrian opposition.
The conflict has gone beyond the targeting of the presidential palace in Damascus; Aleppo and Syria in the greater scheme of things bear witness to the war within a religion. The deal to partially lift a siege of the villages, Fua and Kefraya, has been opposed by the Al Qaidainspired Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was largely responsible for a three-year siege of the predominantly Shia enclaves. The 40,000 trapped civilians cry out for evacuation, but sabotage attempts ~ signifying the Shia-Sunni conflict ~ have thwarted the move. Indeed, Aleppo showcases a humanitarian crisis no less heartrending than the exodus of migrants. The civilians and the sick and the dying ~ languishing without medicines ~ have been driven quicker to death than to safe havens. The humanitarian effort. however stuttering, has come a cropper. It has come a cropper owing to the geostrategies of the countries in the almost relentless power-play. Iran and Syria have been determined to use the fate of east Aleppo to settle scores with the opposition elsewhere in the country. Jihadis, who influence the rebel movement, have delayed the process to win concessions as their grip over northern Syria steadily slips. The seemingly obscure villages of Fua and Kefraya are now the primary areas of discord.
For the past 18 months, Iran has tried to broker a deal with the powerful Islamist militia, Ahrar al-Sham, which would allow the remaining villagers to be relocated in an area between Damascus and the Lebanese border. In return, Sunni residents of those towns would be sent to Fua and Kefraya, as part of a population swap that would change the geopolitics of the region and help build a Shia presence from the suburbs of Damascus to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. The population swaps were not part of the original terms of the Aleppo evacuation deal, which was brokered between Russia and Turkey. However, soon after the deal was announced, Iran made a series of its own demands. Aleppo contends with a lethal cocktail of evacuation, sectarian strife, and international power-play.