Gilsinan: So what’s happened quickly is just the physical regaining of territory?
Tabler: Right. When you set up a siege—and the regime has done this—you determine the rules, and the siege around Aleppo has been quite harsh. So, in doing that, you put tremendous pressure on and you create tremendous fissure between the fighters and the local civilians, who justifiably would like some relief and were being denied proper nutrients, sustenance, and so on. In a way, this is breaking into the news now but it’s been going on for much of this year. There have been attempts to try and deal with it from [the U.S.] side, but they have come to nothing.
Gilsinan: I see a lot of reporting about the United States turning a “blind eye” to this. But [Secretary of State John] Kerry has been working really hard to try and get a ceasefire. Why do you think that hasn’t happened?
Tabler: The U.S. hasn’t turned a blind eye to what’s going on in Aleppo, but it’s the means they were willing to use to achieve their objectives. They’ve tried to get a ceasefire, they’ve tried to make humanitarian deliveries, they tried to get into an agreement with the Russians in the summer to target terrorists, as long as the Aleppo siege was broken and humanitarian deliveries were available. That agreement was stillborn after the U.S. accidentally hit regime soldiers out in Deir Ezzor, and a still-unknown, but widely suspected [to be] Russian, aircraft bombed the UN convoy. That blew up the agreement on the launch pad.
It’s not true that the U.S. hasn’t focused on this. But the only way to keep that siege from happening would have been to escalate militarily, and that’s what President Obama didn’t do, either directly, through direct intervention, [or] also indirectly, through the provision of weapons [to the rebels]. And most interestingly, they were unwilling to carry out airdrops into East Aleppo. So in that sense, the U.S. fell well short of achieving their objectives, and it’s another devastating loss for U.S. Syria policy. What else can you say?
Gilsinan: Where do the civilians go? Where do the rebels go? I’m seeing reports of sort of mass executions. But they can’t kill them all, can they?
Tabler: No, I mean, I don’t think that they will. There will be mass executions. There’s going to be an incredibly brutal roundup, which is going on at the moment. Some of the civilians have left the corridors on the “green buses,” what they call them, these Chinese buses. Some fighters have evacuated to Idlib [the rebel-controlled province to the southwest of Aleppo].
I think the objective will be to get fighters and civilians out into Idlib. And once they’re out in Idlib, then I think that, and many people think, will be the next area, will be teed up for bombardment by either the Assad regime, or the Russians, or both. But I think there will be a lot of way stations in between.