Photo Gallery: The Worsening Quagmire in Syria

Foto: © Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters/ REUTERS

Battle for Aleppo How Syria Became the New Global War

As the noose around Aleppo tightens -- and the Assad regime and its Russian allies continue to bomb the city -- the extremely dangerous nature of this proxy war is becoming more apparent than ever. Could escalation between Moscow and Washington be on the horizon? By SPIEGEL Staff

According to Abu Yazen, a scout for the rebel group Levant Front who is stationed a couple of kilometers outside the siege ring, Syrian Arabic dialect no longer gets you very far on the front lines surrounding Aleppo.

Every group participating in the murderous fighting around the city is trying to listen in on the radio communications of their opponents. "But to understand Assad's troops, I would have to be multilingual," Yazen said over Skype during a recent moment of calm, when no bombs from the regime or from Russia were falling on the city.

In the "Afghan sector" near Khan Tuman southwest of the city, Dari is spoken, a dialect of Persian common in Afghanistan, Yazen says. In the "Hezbollah sector" in the south, Arabic with a Lebanese accent can be heard. The Iranian officers, meanwhile, speak Persian. And nobody, the scout continues, understands the Pakistanis when they speak Urdu. He says that the Iraqi militias surrounding Aleppo tend to speak with the strong accent prevalent in southern Iraq, "but we've gotten used to it." The only reason they don't hear much Russian, he says, is because the pilots flying overhead "only use frequencies that are difficult for us to intercept."

Aleppo, the destroyed, divided city, has become a symbol for the horrors of the air war that the Syrian regime and its allies are waging against the Sunni rebels, as well as a symbol for the impotence of the West. Seldom have Western politicians been as helpless as they are now. And seldom has the air war in Syria been as brutal as it has been in the last two weeks.

Now that diplomacy has collapsed, the eyes of the world are once again squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has thrown his unconditional support behind the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. And they are on US President Barack Obama, the leader of the Western world, who didn't want to become deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.

An Apocalyptic Wasteland

It was the hours-long September 19 air attack on a United Nations aid convoy -- allegedly carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance -- that spelled the end of the arduously negotiated cease-fire after just one week. The attack appears to have been initiated by a Syrian helicopter. Reporting by the Washington Post indicates that a Russian drone and warplanes were also in the air. The rebels have no air force.

Since the collapse of the cease-fire, the regime once again seems to believe that it can emerge as the winner of this war. Russian jets and Syrian helicopters have pounded besieged eastern Aleppo, transforming it into an apocalyptic wasteland. According to the United Nations, more than 300 civilians have been killed in the city in the last two weeks and five hospitals have been either partially or completely destroyed. Some 250,000 people are thought to be still living in eastern Aleppo, which is completely surrounded by forces loyal to the Assad regime.

Russian bunker busters and incendiary bombs are being dropped on eastern Aleppo without any consideration for the civilians living there. That, says UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, constitutes a war crime. Complete annihilation is a strategy that Russia has successfully pursued before -- in the 1990s assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny. But even as the West accuses Syria and Russia of committing war crimes, Moscow and Damascus have issued blanket denials.


Even if the Syrians are the ones being forced to suffer, for many of those involved, the conflict is no longer about Aleppo or even Syria. Of this, the Babylonian mixture of languages spoken on the frontlines and in the air above is just one of many indications. "I have the feeling that we have become laboratory rats for Russian, Iranian and Syrian weapons -- and for the West's political experiments," says Sharif Mohammed, a civilian who is holding out in eastern Aleppo.

In its sixth year, the conflagration has become a kind of world war in three respects. Firstly, for the last four years, large numbers of foreigners have been flowing into the country to join the fight. More than 20,000 radical Sunnis have joined Islamic State (IS) and about three times that many Shiites from a half-dozen countries are thought to be fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

The US-Russia Proxy War

Secondly, the conflict has destabilized the entire region, a development that has helped Islamic State expand its influence in addition to heating up the civil war between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government.

Thirdly, Syria has become a proxy war between the US and Russia. At stake is the role America wants to play in the world -- and the role that Russia can play in the world.

It has been a year since Putin began his intervention in Syria -- on the pretext that he intended to fight Islamic State. For a year, the Americans and Russians tried to convince themselves that they shared common interests in Syria and could agree to fight terrorism together. But in reality, Russia is playing a role similar to the one it adopted in Ukraine: It is providing massive amounts of military support to one side, thus becoming a de facto party to the war, while posing on the international stage as a mediator and part of a possible diplomatic solution.


Many Western politicians had hoped that Russia would play a more constructive role this time around. That, though, has proven to be an illusion. And that helps explain why the diplomacy that many Western politicians had hoped would bring about a solution has repeatedly failed. Because Russia is taking part in Assad's air strikes on civilians, the US last week withdrew from all peace talks. In response, Russia pulled out of a deal for the disposal of surplus weapons-grade plutonium -- which can be seen as an indirect threat to use atomic weapons.

For the first time in a long time, officials in the US government are once again considering military intervention in Syria and bombing Assad's military. Former General David Petraeus said last Wednesday that it would be "very, very straightforward" to destroy Assad's air force using cruise missiles and other weapons launched from a distance.

Is it time for the US to finally take action? How dangerous would an American intervention be in Russia's backyard? Could Syria trigger a global conflagration?

Presumably to underline the plausibility of such fears, Russia is now sending two additional warships and a missile corvette with anti-aircraft capabilities to the Mediterranean. The Russian Defense Ministry has openly threatened to shoot down US warplanes over Syria and said that the Syrian military is in possession of Buk surface-to-air missile systems. That is the same weapons system used to shoot down Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Putin is hoping that Barack Obama will not want to launch a military engagement in the final months of his presidential tenure.

And what are the Europeans doing? Not much. German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn't believe sufficient support can be found for new sanctions against Russia, particularly since the Social Democrats, her center-left junior coalition partner, are pursuing reconciliation with Moscow.

At the end of last week, Russia's foreign minister and the US secretary of state were at least talking with each other on the phone again and Putin announced that he was interested in meeting with French President François Hollande. Nevertheless, there are no current prospects for a new cease-fire -- and even as global politics continue to focus on Syria, and men, women and children continue dying in Aleppo.

The Developing World War


"We aren't expecting anything anymore. We are, of course, still watching the news, but nobody is still hoping that talks will bring a solution," says Ibrahim al-Mousa, a 33-year-old doctor. He looks extremely tired. Wearing a blue surgeon's cap and a carefully trimmed beard, Mousa is one of the last remaining doctors in the city.

"At the beginning of the revolution," he says, "people still hoped that a no-fly zone would be established over Aleppo. Now, we are just hoping that the rebels will be able to break the siege" so that food can once again be delivered to the city. He spoke to us from Aleppo via Skype, which is the only way left to communicate with people in the eastern part of the city. It has been a year since the last SPIEGEL reporter was able to visit Aleppo.

Mousa is a doctor in the hospital called M1. Back in 2012, rebels in Aleppo gave the city's most important hospitals code names, from M1 to M8, so that they would remain secret and be less easy targets for Assad's barrel bombs. These days, though, hospitals are regularly coming under attack. Even the usually reserved UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon felt it necessary to issue a reminder: "Deliberate attacks on hospitals are war crimes," he said in late September.

Last week, hospitals M2 and M4 had to be evacuated and temporarily closed after being struck by bombs. It wasn't the first time, says Ibrahim al-Mousa, but there used to be twice as many doctors in the city. Many medical professionals have since left Aleppo, he says. Pressure has steadily risen on those who have remained, he says, adding that only two orthopedic surgeons are still in the city. Sometimes, in particularly severe cases, he calls for help from a British doctor with whom he used to work in Aleppo. Last week, Mousa had to reconstruct a jawbone, a challenging and complex operation. The British doctor provided guidance via Skype.

Regime Cynicism

"Everything around our building lies in rubble. We know that there are no safe places in Aleppo," Mousa says. "Two days ago, a missile struck just 25 meters away from us." Inside the hospital, they carefully ration the electricity produced by a generator and still have food in stock. In the rest of the city, there is no electricity anywhere, nor is there drinking water or milk. Those needing to move around Aleppo have to wait on the side of the road for someone to pick them up, Mousa says, before adding that it has become too expensive to drive. In the night, he says, the city is completely dark, with no light anywhere -- neither from the streets nor from the buildings.

Ibrahim al-Mousa had originally intended to become a plastic surgeon, a service that, given rich Syrians' eagerness to have their noses done, had been in high demand prior to the war. But in the fourth year of his specialized studies, he broke off his training and began operating on the wounded in field hospitals. Now, he says, he can't imagine anymore what it is like to live in a city with traffic lights, restaurants, peace and normal life.

In eastern Aleppo, all the schools have closed down, there is hardly any bread and a bomb can strike your home at any time.

Two weeks ago, the Assad regime's news agency published a video on Twitter showing young and beautiful people dancing to house music in a club. At the end of the video, a subtitle appears reading: July 16, 2016, Aleppo. The Tourism Ministry published a second video showing picturesque drone images from intact western Aleppo to the "Game of Thrones" soundtrack.

The two cynical clips were not meant for tourists. Rather, they were meant to show that in the government-controlled parts of the city, in western Aleppo, people's lives were good. And that the others, those living in rubble, were suffering because they were against Assad.


No one could have predicting in spring 2011 that Friday demonstrations against a dictator would develop into a regional war that now has implications for almost the entire world.

Back then, the opposition activists who rose up peacefully were beaten down and hunted by militias. Many of them were shot. The result was a civil war that increasingly developed along sectarian lines. On the one side were the rebels, most of whom are Sunnis, who make up the majority of Syria's population. On the other side was the regime, supported by several of the country's minorities. Assad's core supporters are Alawites, who make up 10 percent of Syrian citizens, and the Shiites, who represent 2 percent. In addition, many Christians (10 percent of the population) also support the dictator.

How did this civil war develop into a conflict affecting the entire globe? It is primarily the result of a fateful combination: Numerically, supporters of the Assad regime are in the minority in the country, but Russia and Iran were both determined to prop up their trusted vassal. This has created situation that nobody wanted, yet no power moved to prevent -- in particular the United States, which might have been able to put a stop to the violence early on.

As the conflict has developed, more and more parties have joined. Donations from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states mostly went to radical-Islamist groups among the rebels, which contributed to their strength, and Turkey also supported select Islamist groups in addition to Turkmen. Locally rooted, moderate militia groups that were initially the strongest rebel groups -- collectively known as the Free Syrian Army -- increasingly found themselves in competition with ideologically and financially powerful rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Finally, Islamic State also began expanding its control over Syrian territory.

The result was a "quagmire" that Barack Obama wanted to avoid at all costs. And Vladimir Putin took advantage of the opportunity to increase Russia's geopolitical influence.

Without the ground troops, warplanes and bombs of his allies, Assad's regime would have collapsed years ago. But if he and Putin are allowed to continue bombing unhindered, it is likely that they will ultimately be able to take Aleppo. It might require a few months; it might even take a year. But the upshot would be that the Assad regime would then control a rump state encompassing both the capital Damascus and the city that was once Syria's most important economic hub. It would be devoid of people and little more than a pile of rubble, but it would be in Assad's hands. Aleppo would be part of Pax Russica -- and it would be as quiet as a cemetery.

Not Enough for Victory


Has Syria become Obama's greatest failure? In an interview with Vanity Fair, the US president recently said in response to a question about what keeps him up at night: "Another good example of that is the situation in Syria, which haunts me constantly. I would say of all the things that have happened during the course of my presidency, the knowledge that you have hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, millions who have been displaced, (makes me) ask myself what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years."

His critics have a clear answer to that question. They are certain that the situation in Syria would not have spun so far out of control if the US had intervened more courageously years ago. But Obama had one primary goal for his tenure in the White House: He wanted to prevent the US from becoming involved in yet another war in the Middle East.

He embarked on a significant modification of US foreign policy, away from the interventionist tendencies of his forebears -- a lesson learned from the devastating war in Iraq, started by the 2003 US invasion. The US government supported the uprising against Assad, but did little to ensure its success.

The British-American analyst Charles Lister has been keeping close tabs on Syrian rebel groups for years. "The Obama administration has never demonstrated a willingness to implement policies that would lead to what its rhetoric has always stated: that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy and must be removed from power," he told SPIEGEL. "The Obama administration's policy approach to Syria can best be described as a containment strategy, whereby the opposition is given just enough to sustain itself, but not enough to get close to winning."

Lister notes that military support, organized by the CIA, was provided, but it was insignificant compared to the ever-increasing support Assad received from his allies. This American policy, he says, has had a devastating effect. It has strengthened the radicals and weakened the moderates, primarily because radical groups receive their money and weapons from other sources. "As time has passed, the spillover effects of this containment policy have ... recently encouraged the US to adopt a strict counter-terrorism lens to the whole conflict," Lister says.

Frustrations with USA

Obama put his eggs in the diplomatic basket, but without the threat of military intervention. The US hoped that Russia would be prepared to drop its support of Assad, an approach which has proven erroneous. Now, the strategists in the White House and in the State Department don't know what to do.

The "red line" that Obama once drew -- the use of chemical weapons by the regime -- was transgressed by Assad without consequences. "That robbed US foreign policy of any deterrent effect," says Thanassis Cambanis, an expert on the Middle East with the Century Foundation. America's hesitant strategy, he says, encouraged Putin to test out a more offensive-minded approach in the conflict -- and to actively intervene militarily a year ago. "Putin waited until he was certain that the US would not intervene and then he did so himself."

Frustration over the deadlock is particularly apparent with US Secretary of State John Kerry. He met with Syrian civilian representatives on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly and was unusually frank about the failures of US diplomacy in the conflict. "I lost the argument," Kerry said during the closed-door meeting. "I've argued for the use of force. I'm the guy who stood up and announced that we're going to attack Assad for the use of (chemical) weapons." A recording of his comments was later leaked to CNN.

The increasingly confusing situation among the rebels has also deterred the US. Who is moderate? Who is extreme? Many fighters have become radicalized as the increasingly brutal conflict has progressed, while some of those fighting for extremist groups joined them simply because they paid the best. Because the US wanted to avoid the mistake of supporting the "wrong" rebels, they have refrained from becoming involved at all and decided roughly one year ago to focus their efforts on defeating Islamic State.

That, though, says Charles Lister, is a short-sighted policy because "adopting a counter-terrorism approach to Syria is directly undermining out own counter-terrorism approach!" Islamic State is a consequence of the Syrian war and its expansion was only made possible by the situation in the rest of the country. It would be in America's interest to strengthen an opposition movement that is not led by extremists. The vacuum that was created by America's limited engagement, he says, has instead been filled by Iran, Russia and countless terror organizations.

'Time to Call Moscow's Bluff'

Lister has developed a 30-day plan as a possible blueprint for a US intervention in Syria. He proposes that the first 20 days be spent massively boosting the military capabilities of moderate rebel groups -- by providing them with anti-tank and light anti-aircraft weapons. The next 10 days should be spent negotiating another cease-fire, this time flanked by the threat of cruise missile strikes against Syrian military facilities should the regime violate the cease-fire. The US, he says, must try to incorporate Russia in the plan and to obtain a UN Security Council resolution or, if that proves unworkable, to assemble a "coalition of the willing."

After day 30, the cease-fire could take effect, Lister argues. The goal would not be to topple Assad but to limit his ability to take military action. The next step would be to negotiate a de facto partitioning of the country, in the hopes that the cease-fire would strengthen the hands of moderates in both rebel-held territories and in areas under the control of the Assad regime. Lister assumes that a decade of negotiations and transition would follow.

Lister believes that fears of Russian escalation in the event of US intervention are unfounded. Russia's intervention in Syria has been relatively low-risk thus far, he argues, and Moscow is uninterested in a "World War III scenario." He writes: "It is time that the United States called Moscow's bluff."

Thus far, it is the most detailed publicly known plan for US intervention. Lister, though, does not work for the government; he is merely a well-known analyst. And even if military options are once again being discussed in the US government, there is currently no indication that Barack Obama is thinking about changing course.


The intervention in Syria filled many Russians with pride, but the most recent escalation has caused significant consternation. Ever since Washington suspended cooperation with Moscow, concern has increased in the Kremlin that the US could launch attacks on Syria's army.

Such "direct aggression" by the US against Syria, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said 10 days ago, would result in "frightening, tectonic shifts" in the Middle East.

Critical political observers say that the conflict in and around Aleppo has spun totally out of control and has all the hallmarks of a catastrophe. The two major powers, they say, now stand in direct confrontation -- and it is time to abandon the illusion that Russia can cooperate with the Americans.

The end of the cease-fire comes at an inconvenient time for Russia. Many in Moscow had hoped that the deal would help Assad by weakening US opposition to his continued presidency. But then, helicopters apparently belonging to Syria destroyed the UN aid convoy near Aleppo. If the Russians were indeed involved, as it appears they were, it is unclear who among Putin's acolytes would stand to benefit.

The Shiite Jihad

The official explanation for Russia's involvement in Syria remains to fight international terrorism, not prop up the Assad regime. Unofficially, though, Russian politicians own up to the real goal: achieving geo-political parity with the US. Assad's political survival is merely a means to that much larger end. He is the only political actor who can preserve Russian influence in the region. Should he topple, Russia would have to bid farewell to its dream of wielding influence over the Middle East and the Mediterranean from its military bases in Tartus and Latakia.

Leonid Asayev, an expert on the region at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, has warned that Russia is increasingly taking sides with the Syrian regime and could be made liable for the crimes Assad is committing. He says that Assad is masterfully playing Russia off against the US.

When Russia entered the conflict a year ago, Moscow said the intervention would last but "a few months." Now, the Kremlin is openly saying that Russia will have an extended presence in Syria.

In the last 12 months, Russia's air force has flown 13,000 attacks in Syria and Moscow has spent 58 billion rubles on the conflict, or around 830 million euros -- according to calculations made by Russia observers on the strength of official data. Yet Moscow has not been able to boost Assad's troops to victory over the rebels. This would have given Assad the ability to dictate his conditions for a political settlement. But Russian military leaders say that the military capabilities of Assad's forces are far too limited. Indeed, from the very beginning, the former argued for a much more significant intervention in Syria. But if Russia had begun suffering heavy casualties, it would have been difficult to assuage the Russian population.

Putin's Shady Strategy

That helps explain why Russia is relying on an instrument in Syria that has only been developed by the Kremlin in the last several years: private military firms in the model of Blackwater, the private US company that was heavily involved in the war in Iraq. Moscow has deployed its mercenary units as ground forces to spare its regular troops from the risk. "What we do there? We are the first wave attack," wrote one of the men on the Saint Petersburg Internet portal "Syrian special forces courageously follow us before they are immediately interviewed by Russian state television." The general public in Russia is told virtually nothing about the deployment of the Russian mercenaries and it is unknown exactly how many of them are active in Syria.

Now, Moscow is preparing for the US to implement plan B and perhaps begin attacking Syrian government troops directly. That would leave the Kremlin with no other choice than to increase its military support of Damascus.

Already, it looks as though the Kremlin has decided to increase the number of planes it has stationed at Khemeimim air base southeast of Latakia. Additional Su-24 and Su-34 bombers as well as Su-25 warplanes are being prepared for deployment in Syria, according to the newspaper Izvestia. The latter model, designed to provide close air support for ground troops, can fly up to 10 sorties each day, thus enabling them to "attack fighters almost without interruption," the paper wrote. In addition, the Admiral Kuznetsov -- the Russian navy's only aircraft carrier -- will set sail for the Syrian coast in mid-October along with the rest of its battle group.

Moscow has denied involvement in the Syrian ground war, but experts believe that several thousand Russian officers and soldiers are in the country. The website has collected photos of Russian soldiers from Latakia, Hama and Homs that have been posted on social media.

On occasion, reports emerge in the Russian media that include the names of casualties. The army leadership is quick to claim in such instances that the victim "hadn't been in the military for some time." When it came to the 19-year-old soldier Vadim Kostenko, the military claimed that he had committed suicide due to "lovesickness." His parents, however, refused to believe the explanation because of the number of injuries on their son's body.


The strict focus on Russia and the US leaves out an extremely important party to the conflict. After all, Assad's most important ally isn't Moscow, it's Tehran. Though even if both Russia and Iran back Assad, the two countries view each other with mistrust and jealousy.

What is currently taking place in Syria is nothing less than the first international Shiite jihad in recent history. Largely unnoticed by the global public, tens of thousands of Shiite fighters have been recruited from half a dozen countries, trained and sent to Syria. It is a shadow army with fighters from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Around 10,000 of them are standing at the gates of Aleppo.

In the last weekend of September, an airplane landed at an airport near Aleppo with great pomp. It was carrying an Iraqi cleric named Akram al-Kaabi, the founder of the Nujaba Movement, a Shiite militia that is thought to have 1,000 Iraqi fighters on the frontlines surrounding the city. "Youth like you are conducting jihad inside Iraq and outside Iraq," he said in an address to his fighters that was filmed and later posted on social media channels.

He didn't say anything about Assad or about the political situation. Instead, consistent with fundamentalist Shiite dogma, he sought to declare the deployment as being part of a religious war. He told the men they were fighting the same "monster" as Hussein once did, a reference to the venerated grandson of the Prophet who fell in the year 680 during a battle in the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala.

Nujaba is just one of around 60 Shiite-Iraqi militias that arose in the wake of rapid IS advances in Iraq. They are fighting in that country as well as in Syria. And they are part of a much larger network whose chains of command come together not in Iraq, but in Iran. Over 30 years ago, thousands of Sunnis joined the jihad in Afghanistan against the country's Soviet occupiers, and now it is Shiites who are going to war in a foreign country in the name of religion.

Revolutionary Guards Strategy

This stream of mercenaries is being organized by the Quds Force, a military branch within Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, who are responsible for foreign operations. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Revolutionary Guards have developed into a state within the state, an army with its own business empire that only reports to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a leader in the Iranian revolution. The Iranian government under the leadership of President Hassan Rohani essentially has no influence over Tehran's Syria policies.

The Revolutionary Guards developed an internationally active network of militias, schools and charity organizations over the years that pursues but a single goal: committing Shiites from myriad countries to the goals pursued by Iran's Islamic revolution. Troops for foreign deployments in Iraq and Syria are recruited from this network.

When Islamic State conquered Mosul and large swathes of western Iraq in the space of just a few days in June 2014, a number of Shiite militias joined together to form a parallel army called the Popular Mobilization Forces or, in the Arabic abbreviation, Hashd. They include up to 100,000 fighters from dozens of groups and there is apparently no clear command structure. Most of the militias were founded by the Quds Force and remain under its control.

On Feb. 22, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi even provided them with official authorization in his "Decree 91" as a long-term "independent military formation" belonging to the state. The units, the decree stated, will be "allied" with the commander in chief of all armed forces, meaning the prime minister himself. The decree does not indicate that he will have command authority over the militias. In other words: The Iraqi government will finance a gigantic power made up of numerous militias, but will not have control over them.

That means that the Revolutionary Guards has managed to establish an ideologically pure bridgehead in Iraq, comparable to the 1982 founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now, the third such bridgehead is to be established in Syria.

From a demographic point of view, it seems like a hopeless task to find enough loyal fighters from among the Shiite and Alawite minorities to cling to power against the Sunni majority. Indeed, this probably helps explain why the Revolutionary Guards is trying to convert Syrians with money and jobs. Houses in areas abandoned by Syrian rebels are also being given to Shiite fighters, who are being encouraged to have their families join them.

A Second Proxy War

Most of those recruited by the Quds Force come from Afghanistan and many are sent to camps in Iran for training. But the Iranian network has also mobilized fighters from the Shiite minority in Pakistan. This shadow army has suffered immense losses -- their families receive paltry compensation and a flag, but fresh recruits keep on coming. At least for now.

In the end, all of the strands come together in Iran -- or, to be more precise, at Quds Force commander Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, a man who likes to pose as a pop star of war, having his picture taken on the frontlines with a keffiyeh thrown casually across his shoulders, his graying beard carefully trimmed.

There is only one country from which volunteers are not recruited: Iran itself. Losses from among the Iranian population could upset the country's apathy.


The situation in Syria is made even more complicated by the fact that two proxy wars are being waged on the same territory. The more visible of the two is that between Russia and the West. But the structurally more meaningful proxy war is that being waged between the Shiites and the Sunnis -- and between their protector states Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states are on the side of the Sunni opposition. But Saudi Arabia has a problem: Its military has little capacity for involvement in Syria because it is engaged in a second, more important proxy war with Iran. That war is taking place right next door in Yemen -- and things aren't going well for the Saudis. For the last one-and-a-half years, the Saudis have led a military alliance that has been unable to defeat the Shiite Houthi rebels.

As such, it was hardly surprising that nothing came of Saudi Arabia's announcement last February that the country was prepared to send ground troops into Syria. The Saudis also failed to follow up on their pledge to supply the Syrian opposition with mobile surface-to-air missiles. Still, the kingdom did make a military base available to the US where moderate rebels were trained. The most important American air base in the region, Al Deid, is in Qatar, from which attacks in the region are coordinated.

The Saudi government has emphasized that they only support "moderate opposition" forces in Syria. But analysts are convinced that radical Islamist groups also benefit from financial assistance and weapons deliveries from the Gulf -- though from private sources rather than state coffers.

Still, given the military dominance and resolve displayed by the opposing forces, pretty much everything the Gulf states do in the region smacks of toothless symbolism. They could do more, but they don't want to, particularly since they are fearful of destroying what remains of their ties with Russia. In parallel with their Syrian offensive, Moscow in recent years has focused on intensifying its economic ties with the Gulf states -- with some success.

Even Saudi Arabia, whose hard-currency reserves are shrinking, is interested in good economic ties with the Russians. From the Saudi perspective, the US -- its traditional protective power -- can no longer be relied on. The gradual American withdrawal from the region has led Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to increasingly keep Syria at arm's length. But flows of money and weapons to the rebels are unlikely to ever stop completely.


Where will things in Aleppo and in Syria go from here? Last week, the tone worsened between Washington and Moscow, and Russia is doing what it can to prevent a US intervention. On Thursday of last week, the two sides at least spoke to each other by telephone, but at a UN Security Council meeting on Saturday, two competing resolutions for a cease-fire in Aleppo -- one introduced by France and one introduced by Russia -- were vetoed. And the interests pursued by Washington and Moscow remain diametrically opposed.

The Pentagon continues to examine the possibility of arming moderate opposition forces with surface-to-air systems that would allow them to shoot down low-flying helicopters belonging to the Syrian air force. There is also speculation about US Special Forces which, according to several sources, are currently in rebel-held areas between the border city of Azaz and Aleppo. But it remains unclear if the troops were there to continue the assault against IS or to support rebels as they advance on Aleppo. It seems more likely that the conflict between the US and Russia will continue to be fought on the diplomatic level.

What is clear, however, is that external powers have much more control than the Syrians do over how the war will develop in the future. A decisive factor will be how long and to what degree those external powers want to support their local allies. Russia, for its part, is hoping to increase its geopolitical footprint in the world -- and it must achieve results, either diplomatically or militarily, to do so. It will remain a party to the conflict for as long as it takes.

Much is also dependent on the results of the presidential election in the US. Should Donald Trump become president, the US will likely pull back even further than it has thus far. If Hillary Clinton wins, one can expect the US to pursue its conventional strategy as an interventionist power.

It is thus likely that things will remain the same in the near future: Jets and helicopters will continue pounding eastern Aleppo into rubble and the world will continue to stand by as the blood flows and children die. And in a few weeks or months, the Shiite ground alliance will take over the destroyed city.

Everybody Loses

That would not, however, mean victory for Assad. The Sunni uprising would likely continue as a guerilla war and remaining moderate rebels would be pushed even further into the arms of the extremists. That could mean that the conflict will continue for many years to come, with Syria remaining a source of global instability. And as long as that is the case, it will be impossible to completely eradicate Islamic State.

The alliance of Russian troops and Shiite militias is sufficient for keeping the Syrian uprising in check. But if Russia were to withdraw, power structures in the country would shift dramatically. As a result, Moscow likely faces an extended stay in the country. The Syrian rebels, for their part, have continually proven their ability to stand firm. There is little reason to believe that the Sunni rebellion against Assad's rule will end any time soon.

There is something that all parties to the war -- except for the Kurds in the north -- agree on: maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria. The regime wants to preserve the country and the rebels have vehemently rejected all demands for partition, as have Russia, US and Turkey. The Iranians, according to Walter Posch, an Iran expert in Austria, are also "allergic to anything that looks like a break-up of the state."

And yet, should the war continue, partition seems the most likely outcome. No side currently appears able to win enough public support to control the entire country and Syria is falling to pieces. Only those who are too poor to leave remain in the country -- or those who are profiting from the war. Those who will be needed to rebuild the country at some point in the future have already left -- and the longer the fighting continues, the fewer reasons they will have to return to the rubble of a destroyed Syria.

No one, it seems, will emerge victorious.

But this war isn't just destroying Syria. It is changing the entire world. Leaders around the world who are interested in crushing uprisings among their populations will take a close look at how the world reacts when the rules of the international community -- as weak as they may be -- are completely ignored. Such leaders will be pleased to note that nothing is beyond the pale. Huge, bunker-busting bombs can be dropped with impunity on schools and hospitals, as Putin is now doing. Sarin and chlorine gas can be deployed, as Assad has done. And as long as you have a powerful ally, preferably one with a seat on the Security Council, nothing happens.

A few days ago, there were a few -- but not many -- newspaper reports that Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir had, according to Amnesty International, used chemical weapons in Darfur. The story wasn't worth much more than a brief blurb. It has, after all, become normal once again.

By Riham Alkousaa, Benjamin Bidder, Christian Neef, Maximilian Popp, Gordon Repinski, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Samiha Shafy and Holger Stark


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 41/2016 (October 7th, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.

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