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  December 14, 2016

Following Rebel Defeats in Aleppo, Will Trump and Putin Keep Assad Regime in Power?

Zenab Ahmed of discusses the change in relations between the US, Russia, Syria and Iran that could come when Trump takes office and how the battle of Aleppo will weaken international law
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Bilal Zenab Ahmed is the associate editor of He is also a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London.


SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. In Syria, a brief ceasefire Tuesday quickly gave way to more fighting on Wednesday and, for the 100,000 or so civilians trapped in the war-torn city, the conditions are extremely severe without hardly any medical services. Russian-backed government forces in Syria pushed into the Eastern Aleppo on Monday, continuing shelling in rebel-held positions. Joining us now from London to assess what's currently happening in Aleppo is Zenab Ahmed. Zenab is Associate Editor of political and cultural blog and newspapers Thanks for joining us, Zenab.

ZENAB AHMED: Glad to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Zenab, help us understand what government take-over of Aleppo means for the civil war in Syria.

ZENAB AHMED: It's been taken as the beginning of the end of the standing rebel resistance to the Assad regime. It shouldn't be seen as an end to the civil war, as is somewhat being implied by the various newspapers and news broadcasts that have covered the conflict, because the war with Islamic State is part of the Syrian civil war. But it does indicate that the rebels are rapidly losing their strategic position in Syria and, as a result of that, will either need to surrender to the Assad regime or embrace tactics that do not require them to hold standing territory for very long.

So, you could see a transition from a rebel faction that is able to hold strategic points in the country in preparation for eventually taking Damascus and overthrowing the government to a prolonged insurgency that places continuous pressure on the government to give up Assad or to give up a list of significant reforms. Either way, this phase of the Syrian civil war is nearing its conclusion.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Zenab, I want everyone to hear some of what the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, had to say about the siege. She spoke at the UN Security Council Emergency Briefing on Syria on Tuesday, and this is what she said:

SAMANTHA POWERS: To the Assad regime, Russia and Iran -- three member states behind the conquest of and carnage in Aleppo -- you bear responsibility for these atrocities. By rejecting UN ICRC evacuation efforts, you are signalling to those militia who are massacring innocents to keep doing what they are doing.

SHARMINI PERIES: What's your response to that statement, Zenab?

ZENAB AHMED: Well, it is partially true. By not signifying that there will be significant consequences for the Assad regime's actions, the international community is creating a situation where the Assad regime will continue to behave in the way that it is behaving. I don't really agree with Ambassador Powers that there is much that can be done that would actually stop the Assad regime from realistically doing what it's doing. However, I think that there will be consequences for international human rights law and international standards for warfare -- both of which have been compromised significantly by this situation in Aleppo.

SHARMINI PERIES: And do you think that a new administration in Washington -- you know, we've been hearing a lot of references to Trump's new administration and their ties to Russia, especially with the appointment of Rex Tillerson, who's been accused of his proximity to Russia as being discomforting for Washington, including some of his own party members. Republican Party members have come out and critiqued this particular appointment and there's the risk of him not being confirmed as a result. But what do you think, in terms of looking ahead, what the Trump Administration holds when it comes to Syria?

ZENAB AHMED: I think that you're going to see a couple of things. First of all, you're probably going to see a negotiated peace with Syria in which the Assad regime or a large portion of the Assad regime remains in power. And then you will see, gradually, over the four to eight years of a Trump Administration, that the Assad regime becomes once again an increasingly significant ally in the war on terror -- which it once was, until the invasion of Iraq, in which the Assad regime began to have a much colder relationship with the United States. But you could see a much warmer relationship as a result of the Trump Administration valuing its close ties with Russia enough to pursue a peace agreement in Syria that would allow for even more intense bombardments and military intervention against Islamic State.

And one of the consequences in the long term will be what I said before -- the decline in international standards of warfare and the decline of international human rights law, which Ambassador Powers is right to note. Just by allowing the Assad regime to do what it's doing up until this point doesn't just mean that the Assad regime will continue to function in this manner. It also means that the Russian Air Force that has also been behaving in this manner will itself continue to engage in warfare of dubious legality, if not outright illegal tactics, such as bombing hospitals.

But it also means that the United States under the Trump Administration could increasingly shape its own military endeavors in that direction and I think that's the most pressing danger of what might happen as a result of these closer ties with Russia -- that you have far less criticism of Russian military policy when it comes to certain tactics that have been used in this civil war that, until this point, have been agreed by the great powers, at least in theory, to be illegal. And if that's not true anymore then the Trump Administration and the United States military will be much bolder in violating those same international agreements.

And while it is true that this has happened before, in previous wars, and indeed during the War on Terror, if you could see it happening in an increasingly shameless way, that means that even the cobbled-together semblance of international law and international human rights law and constrictions on how warfare is conducted, such as through the Geneva Conventions, those could increasingly just evaporate. And they are still with us in some form, but you could see them continue to deteriorate. And, as a result, you will see increasingly brutal warfare conducted by the great powers. And in response to that, you'll see increasingly violent backlash on the ground.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Zenab, if what you're saying, in fact, transpires -- that is that the Americans will negotiate with the Russians, and prop up the Assad government in order to rule over Syria -- this will mean that Russians will basically throw Iran under the bus and the influence that they have been having in Syria, supporting the Russian and Assad governments here. What will that mean for Iran, particularly given that we have "Mad Dog" Mattis, who might actually be getting his say, which is to undo the Iran Nuclear Agreement and diffuse its presence in the region?

ZENAB AHMED: Well, I'm basically not entirely certain that's going to happen, just as a result of Donald Trump's own rhetoric about Islamic State until this point, and also acknowledgements by the United States military that it is easier to work with Iran in order to take down Islamic State rather than working against Islamic State and Iran at the same time -- which is part of the reason why that deal was signed in the first place. As for Iranian influence in Syria, it may, in fact, wane as a result of a negotiated settlement between Putin and Trump. But it probably won't wane significantly because Putin--

SHARMINI PERIES: Well, that's hard to say because if they don't diffuse Iran, Iran's going to have more influence over Hezbollah and transporting arms to Hezbollah which is going to actually make Israel more nervous. And so, containing Iran in the region is going to be perhaps one of the primary missions of this administration. People like, Mattis has already stated that.

ZENAB AHMED: Well, the issue is that it's not as clear-cut as containing Iran. Because the United States has fundamentally different priorities when it comes to Iran in nearly every country that we're talking about. So, in Lebanon with Hezbollah, that's an example of something where containment of Iran could take place for the benefit of Israel and for the benefit of certain people in the Trump Administration that want to see Iran contained. But when it comes to Syria, that's a case where Iranian influence will not ultimately be affected as much as, say, in Lebanon if Hezbollah is moved against more substantively -- simply because Assad is a close ally of the Iranians. And in Iraq, containing Iranian influence would actually be extremely counter-productive for the United States because Iranian influence is critical for the current makeup of the Iraqi government, outside of Kurdistan.

So, as a result of that you would have an even greater power void in Iraq that the United States simply doesn't have the capacity to fill. So, you have conflicting priorities in all of these countries that mean that simple rhetoric like that of simply tearing up the deal and containing Iranian influence won't actually... probably won't reflect themselves in the Trump Administration's realistic policies. And if they do, which they very much could, it will lead to a disastrous situation.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, you are saying they're going to have to choose between working with the Iranians and getting rid of ISIS, they'll have to weigh which they would prefer?

ZENAB AHMED: Yeah, and ultimately, it's probably going to be a continuation of the Obama Administration's military policies because of that. And you're going to end up having this complex web of strategic alliances and differing US foreign policies in every individual country that reflects the scale and the nature of the decline of American power in the region.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Zenab, complicated times. I thank you so much for joining us today.

ZENAB AHMED: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.




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