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Rebels bank on Aleppo as new Benghazi

No longer a conflict but a war … a boy plays on a wrecked Syrian army tank north of Aleppo.

No longer a conflict but a war … a boy plays on a wrecked Syrian army tank north of Aleppo. Photo: AFP

Let's get real. The Syrian conflict is a war, not a French-knitting circle - so it's absurd to claim that any help for the rebels somehow is ''non-lethal'' and, by implication, that the donor country is not a participant in the war.

The tens of millions of dollars worth of ''non-lethal'' aid confirmed this week as coming from Washington and London frees up tens of millions in cash donations from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf for lethal purchases. News that the US President, Barack Obama, has authorised unspecified assistance from the CIA can serve only to sharpen rebel shooting.

So, not exactly passing a spool of yarn - is it?

After nearly 18 months, external aid to date is small beer. But an increasingly vicious fight for control of the strategic northern city of Aleppo could alter that.

It does not require Duntroon training to discern the rebel objective in gatecrashing a regime stronghold that also is the country's biggest city and its commercial heart - and which, until two weeks ago, had been spared from violence. If the rebels' audacious advances into Damascus were intended to wrongfoot the Assad regime, their efforts to take the fight to Aleppo are more about manipulating the West, and Obama in particular.

Recall the international intervention in Libya. It was the assembly of Libyan rebel forces in the eastern city of Benghazi and the dictator Muammar Gaddafi's threat to annihilate them that broke the resolve of NATO leaders who until then were refusing to intervene militarily.

Now look at a map of the Levant - Aleppo is to Syria what Benghazi is to Libya.

Tucked up on Syria's northern border and fed by supply lines from pro-rebel Turkey, Aleppo is perfectly positioned to serve as an alternative capital from which the rebels would demand recognition as the new government of Syria. Under rebel control, it would invite a NATO air campaign of the kind, which in Libya, initially was offered as a shield for Benghazi but which morphed quickly to a nationwide campaign to get Gaddafi.

As the fight for Aleppo began late last month, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seemed to be reading from the rebel songsheet, telling reporters: ''We have to work closely with the opposition, because more and more territory is being taken and it will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria that will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition.''

Can the rebels pull it off?

They have advanced militarily, but remain divided - politically and organisationally. There are signs too that, unlike Benghazi, the people of Aleppo are split in terms of loyalty to the regime or the rebels. And aware of all that is at stake, the regime has unleashed its big guns - fighter jets.

Don't be surprised in the coming days and weeks, when you hear rebel supporters in the West demanding a NATO or American no-fly zone over Aleppo, or when they up the ante with demands that the safe-haven stretch all the way to the Turkish border.

Diplomatic hand-wringing and a new round of the blame game in the wake of this week's resignation by UN peace envoy Kofi Annan underscored a failure by many to appreciate the 'fight-to-the-end' dynamic in Syria - and its consequences.

It's all set out in a chilling study released this week by the International Crisis Group.

Alluding to too many ominous trends in the conflict, it says: "None [are] more alarming than these: a regime seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival; a [minority, regime-aligned] Alawite community increasingly embattled and persuaded that its fate hinges entirely on the regime's; and an opposition that, despite sometimes heroic efforts to contain them, is threatened by its own forms of radicalisation.

"Together, [all] this could portend a prolonged, even more polarised, destructive civil war."

Having written off any chance of redeeming the Assad regime, the only glimmer of hope is what the ICG suspects is an improbable undertaking - that the rebels could peel the Alawites away from the regime, to somehow neutralise rising sectarianism, retaliatory violence and creeping fundamentalism in their predominantly Sunni ranks; and then somehow to leapfrog the fighting, with a deal that convinces the Alawites they have a safe future in a post-Assad Syria that is ruled by justice, accountability and amnesty.

Seeming to suggest that all is lost, ICG tracks what it rates to be the most significant and least appreciated developments during the conflict - the mutation of a regime which, had it remained in its pre-crisis incarnation, could not have survived.

Likening the security forces more to a militia than an army, it writes: "The regime essentially has been stripped down to a broadly cohesive, hardcore faction fighting an increasingly bitter, fierce and naked struggle for collective survival - it is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate."

The implications are frightening. Militarily, the war will be messier than envisaged by either side - the regime cannot suppress the rebels because its every attempt to quash them inspires more to join the rebel ranks; likewise, the rebels' campaign has left the Alawite community with the option of kill or be killed.

"When [the rebels] say they will topple the regime," the report concludes, "what Alawites hear is that their source of income, employment and physical protection will be eliminated. When it evokes the undoing of the system and all its institutions, they hear a return to second-class citizenry. When it speaks of justice and accountability, they hear the threat of collective retribution."

In the event of a rise in Assad's chances of survival, watch the West and its Arab allies stretch their already elastic definition of 'non-lethal' aid. As the ICG puts it: "The bottom line … is that the conflict will be sustained and influenced by outside parties but not determined by them. That unenviable role will fall on Syrians."

Strange, isn't it, that Assad, a London-trained ophthalmologist, can't read the writing on the wall.

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