Just as the catastrophic Anglo-American invasion of Iraq brought an end to epic Western military adventures in the Middle East, so the tragedy of Syria ensures that there will be no more Arab revolutions. And it’s taken just 13 bloodsoaked years – from 2003 to 2016 – to realign political power. Russia and Iran and the Shia Muslims of the region are now deciding its future; Bashar al-Assad cannot claim victory – but he is winning.
“Aleppo must be taken quickly – before Mosul falls,” a Syrian brigadier announced to me with a wan smile in the country’s army headquarters in Damascus. And it did, scarcely a month later. There were – and still are – little Aleppos all over Syria in which the government and its armed “jihadi” opponents are playing “good guy” and “bad guy”, depending on who is besieging whom. When the Sunni militias end their siege of little Shia towns like Faour, the civilians flock to government lines. It’s reported as a slightly incomprehensible local dispute.
But when the regime’s forces storm into eastern Aleppo, it’s deplored around the world as a war crime. I’ve grown tired of repeating that, yes, war crimes are committed on both sides, and Bashar’s forces are no squeaky clean military cadets – although these days, we have to remember that 42 Royal Marine Commandos were not that squeaky clean in Afghanistan. But the story of Aleppo is still being re-threaded into old loops, the brave but largely “jihadi” defenders disguised as nondescript “rebels”, their opponents compared to Milosevic’s Serb killers or Saddam’s gas-bomb pilots.