BEIRUT – The Syrian government and its allied forces took control of nearly all of rebel-held Aleppo this week, displacing tens of thousands of residents and trapping thousands more. An evacuation of civilians and rebels who remained in the enclaved city was underway on Thursday, following the collapse of an earlier cease-fire deal this week.
Syria Deeply spoke with Lina Sergie Attar, Aleppo native and co-founder and CEO of The Karam Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable solutions for the future in Syria, about the implications of complete government control in the country’s largest city after a four-year battle with opposition forces.
Syria Deeply: What do you think this means for political negotiations, now that Aleppo is not on the table?
Lina Sergie Attar: We are witnessing a real death of the revolution as we have known it, and it has been dying for some time now. I don’t think it will continue to exist in the same form, and it will become something that people hold within them, resisting in ways very different from what we’ve seen. But I don’t see the opposition taking back Aleppo, and I see the creeping of the regime’s influence to extend beyond [Aleppo]: the next frontier, which is Idlib, is very frightening to think about. There are hundreds of thousands of displaced people there who have been displaced for many years, and now [there is] the extra exodus of displaced from Aleppo. Other fronts in Syria have been collapsing for months now, and even years; you have [the] Damascus suburbs, you have Homs, you have Daraa and then you have the entire eastern side of Syria, which is occupied by ISIS. The future of Syria is very grim at this moment.
Obviously, political negotiations at the end are going to determine what happens. We always knew that at the end of this war there’s going to be a negotiation table. The problem is that the negotiations will have very little to do with the true voice of Syrian activist opposition views, these people who came out on the streets in 2011 and demanded two things: freedom and dignity. Those people will not be represented in negotiations. I think many Syrians at this point want to find a way to peace, an end to the violence, the killing, the aerial bombardment and find a way to actually survive. So I don’t think that the original calls of the revolution are what’s going to be negotiated, but instead some kind of existence of the Syrian people in their own country on the conditions the regime sets.
Syria Deeply: What are the implications for the Syrian opposition?
Attar: For me the armed opposition and the official political opposition are two fronts that are not equal, but have been exposed as failures for different reasons. Not all of their own making, but there were major mistakes made on both fronts, and I think those mistakes were part of what made us reach our situation today. I think we need to have a complete self-critical look at the mistakes that were made in the past five-and-a-half years if we want to build a stronger opposition for the future, I think they were also not supported [by] the international community for various reasons.
The true activists, the media activists and activists who stayed the course throughout this entire time, those are the people who I feel were true to their vision, but they were failed by everyone around them. Those are the people whom I mourn today, and those ideas I mourn today the most. Those people are our friends, and they died for that vision, and they created so much. That’s the part of the revolution I think we need to continue to celebrate. Over the past five years we’ve seen an outpouring of creativity, survival tactics and ingenuity from all different kinds of activists, whether in media, arts, music, local civil society governance, the White Helmets, the schools, the hospitals and the humanitarian efforts that defied the largest aid organizations in the world and were able to continue to function inside of Syria.
Syria Deeply: What does this mean for Russia, now that it seems to have committed long-term support to restoring government control of Aleppo?
Attar: I think Russia is in this for the long haul. Its military presence in Syria is something they have invested in and will continue [to] in the long term. It will be difficult for them to continue in this war because Aleppo is falling very soon, but this war is far from over. There are many areas where the fighting will continue, there will be many military operations that the regime will want to do. And, as we know, they are a weakened military, and I don’t know how Russia will be able to continue to give that unconditional support to the regime. But I think in a long view, with or without this specific regime in place, or with or without its president in place, they are invested in having a presence in Syria.
Syria Deeply: What do you think complete government control of Aleppo will look like?
Attar: I think it’s going to look like our worst nightmare. I lived in Aleppo in the late 80s [and] all through the 90s, and we know what it’s like to live in fear, we know what it’s like to live in complete silence, and we know what it’s like to live in denial. We see this even now with the images of Syrians in Aleppo’s western side celebrating. Syrians in general learned how to live acting as if we are celebrating, as if we are happy with what’s happening, as if we’re liberated or suddenly safe when every Syrian knows there is no safety living under this regime. I see a very dark period in Aleppo’s future that is the most terrifying thing for us who have lived [through] these past six years, which is a return to silence. A dictatorship of complete silence and fear.
Syria Deeply: What do you think life will be like for people who lived in rebel-held Aleppo and now live under government control?
Attar: I hope that life will at least be peaceful, that they will be able to live with their entire families and not be separated from each other. I hope the young men and [other[ people will not be detained just because they were residents of east Aleppo, which is what we’ve been hearing [in] accounts of [what’s] happening to civilians. I personally was very affected by the expressions of people wanting to commit suicide rather than being detained by the regime. Because people know what their fate is if they’re detained by the regime.
I hope there will be open humanitarian acts. Now that Aleppo is under government control, there’s no excuse for all the agencies who continue to function through the regime to not be moving full force and opening aspects of aid, healthcare, education and housing for these families. The Syrian organizations who do this work will not have access to government-held areas. Now it’s time for all these agencies who have been holding back from supporting people in eastern areas demand access from the regime to help Syrians.