Argument

Too Big to Fall

Aleppo was the Syrian rebels’ first big prize. If Assad retakes it, is the war as good as over?

Is the Syrian opposition about to lose Aleppo? With the world's attention focused on the war in Gaza and the aftermath of the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, President Bashar al-Assad's regime has made great strides in recapturing the country's largest city. Earlier this month, and without much of a fight, the regime took the strategic industrial area of Sheikh Najjar in northeastern Aleppo, and for the first time in a year it attempted to enter the rebel-held neighborhoods of Salaheddin and Bustan al-Basha.

The regime's recent gains mean that it may be able to strangle the opposition's strongholds in Aleppo, and threaten its support networks outside the city. Sheikh Najjar is a strategic gateway for the regime into Aleppo's northern countryside, and if it can capture the still rebel-held Infantry School and Handarat camp, it can secure northeastern Aleppo and encircle the rebels. It can also disrupt the rebels' supply lines to Turkey, which represent their main source for arms and supplies.

Thus, the rebels in Aleppo find themselves squeezed from all sides: They are facing pressure from much of the city's surrounding countryside, the loss of strategic territory on the outskirts of Aleppo, and now regime incursions into the city's internal districts. The regime has also successfully opened a supply route into Aleppo from the southern countryside, which activists say was one of the key reasons for the regime's latest advances in the city. To make matters even worse, the Islamic State (IS), previously known as ISIS, is advancing toward Aleppo from the east, from its strongholds in the cities of Raqqa and al-Bab.

Aleppo's recapture by the regime would be catastrophic for the opposition. From the opposition's point of view, the city is too big to fall: The takeover of the country's northern economic hub in 2012 helped the opposition to establish itself as a viable challenge for the regime. If it now falls to the regime, the opposition would have lost four main provinces -- after Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Homs -- to its rivals in the regime and the Islamic State. According to activists, fighters, and residents of Aleppo, there are three primary reasons for the precipitous decline in the opposition's fortunes in the city.

The first reason is that the rebels are fighting on three fronts. Besides the regime, rebels are concerned about the Islamic State making a comeback. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around 7,000 people have died during the rebels' fighting against IS -- battles that have sapped the rebels' strength in the fight against the regime. Fresh from the capture of large swaths of northern Iraq, the jihadist movement is also resurgent in Syria: It controls al-Bab, 50 miles from Aleppo, and appears to be trying to take the areas near Aleppo International Airport on the way to Sheikh Najjar. If that happens, the Islamic State will be in the regime's backyard, and the rebels' movement from Aleppo to the northern countryside will become more restricted.

The rebels are also beset by internal conflicts. Some of the main opposition factions have launched a campaign against rogue groups affiliated with them over robbery and looting. The Islamic Front, a merger of some of Syria's most powerful Islamist brigades, kicked out one of its constituent brigades, Qabdat al-Shamal, and has clashed with it because the group rejected a trial. The Tawhid Brigade (Liwa al-Tawhid), which was credited with the takeover of Aleppo in 2012, is also struggling. The group has been drained by fighting with IS and by infighting: After the death last November of its charismatic leader, Abdul Qader Saleh, the coalition lost many of its fighters to other groups, and has recently split into two factions.

The second reason for the opposition's setbacks is a sharp drop in military help from foreign sponsors. Although rebel groups had enough fighters to prevent the regime from entering some areas around Aleppo, they said they were forced to concede the battle because they did not have sufficient ammunition. The Islamic Front, in Aleppo and elsewhere, has been affected by U.S.-backed measures to ensure resources reach only vetted groups. Aside from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, the only two groups that appear to be doing well are Harakat Hazm and Harakat Noureddin al-Zinki, both of which are supported by the Saudis and the Americans -- and both of which have received U.S.-made anti-tank guided missiles. Although it has few fighters compared to other groups, Harakat Hazm is fighting on the front lines, especially in the Handarat camp, the hot spot closest to Sheikh Najjar.

The alienation of the local population from the rebel groups is another important factor that has played into the hands of the regime. Most of the fighters in Aleppo come from the countryside, and it is common to hear from residents that the fighters pay little attention to the destruction of their home city. "The countryside has been marginalized for 50 years, and [so fighters from there] dealt with the city residents out of spite in many cases," said Ahmed Hasan, an activist from the northern countryside, who spent six months in a regime prison in Damascus before he was released in mid-July. "They did not try to win the population's hearts and minds."

As a result, the regime's "barrel diplomacy" -- a caustic term used by Syrians to describe Assad's strategy of bombarding Aleppo with barrel bombs -- has pushed some people to welcome peace deals with the regime. According to Hasan, who said he was privy to such moves, delegations from some rebel-held areas have been visiting Damascus as part of negotiations for peace deals similar to the ones struck in districts around the capital. "Now there are delegations visiting the [presidential] palace from [the border town of] Azaz and from many areas in [the] Aleppo countryside."

Hasan adds that the regime has offered residents reassurances of safety, security, and stability -- unlike the opposition. Despite Assad's use of barrel bombs, the prospect of an end to the violence is tempting for civilians who have spent the past months coping not only with fighting between the rebels and the regime, but also with robbery and looting from rebel sub-factions. As one frustrated activist put it, "Maybe the regime's controlling of Aleppo would be the best thing that happens to the civilians."

Collaboration between local forces and the regime may be one reason why the regime took Sheikh Najjar with such ease, activists suspect. "There were rumors of a treason from within the industrial area," one activist said. "Some people no longer trust the rebels because they proved to be a failure in managing liberated areas, in addition to the miserable security situation."

Whether the regime can make good on its promises to rebuild the industrial area, however, is an open question. "The regime has reassured people and businesses in these areas to repair and protect their property," another activist said. "Barrels are getting people to surrender to the regime, [and] reach out to it."

While these dynamics have played out elsewhere in Syria without affecting the military situation significantly, the combination of all of them at once makes the possibility of the regime's recapture of Aleppo ever more real. To be sure, this will not happen quickly or easily: The regime's strategy does not appear to involve a complete takeover of Aleppo in the short term, and the rebels still have cards to play -- such as their ability to open quiet fronts inside Aleppo if the regime encircles them at the outskirts. Meanwhile, the rebels inside the city still have an extremely tight grip over several key districts. As one rebel fighter jokingly put it: "It is easier to smuggle heroin from Gaza to Israel than to enter some rebel-held districts, especially in the Old City and eastern Aleppo."

But the rebels risk being transformed from a force dedicated to pushing back regime advances and attacking regime-held areas into one trying to break a siege. If the regime can link the areas loyal to it, such as the Shiite villages of Nubl and Zahraa, to areas that favor the regime but are currently under rebel control, the rebels' lives will become much harder.

It is hard to predict what will happen in Aleppo, but the situation does not look good for the opposition. Unless something fundamental changes in the dynamics of the conflict, it may lose its most important foothold in the battle against Assad.

FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Rights Abuses Uruguay Doesn't Want You to Know About

A small South American country has been making big strides in human rights. But it's still got some work to do.

Over the last year, Uruguay has garnered a remarkable amount of international attention. The country of only 3.4 million citizens took the lead in legalizing same-sex marriage, passed the continent's most liberal abortion law, and became the first nation in the world to legalize and regulate the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. President José "Pepe" Mujica's famously modest lifestyle and his decision to personally provide housing for 100 Syrian refugee children have further bolstered his country's image. When he visited the White House in May, U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Mujica's "extraordinary credibility when it comes to issues of democracy and human rights."

All of this makes for great copy; everyone loves a human rights champion. Yet while Uruguay certainly deserves many of these accolades, it still has a few skeletons in its closet. Uruguay's successes in the realm of human rights should not overshadow its shortcomings -- which include violations of minority rights, a current push for a law that would infringe on children's rights, and a failure to effectively address the legacy of the country's dirty war.

Uruguay suffered under a harsh military dictatorship during the 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, the military shut down an independent press, dissolved congress, and imprisoned one in every 50 people, resulting in the highest rate of political incarceration in the world. Hundreds more were "disappeared," both in Uruguay and in neighboring countries, and over 10 percent of the Uruguayan population fled the country in fear. When Uruguay finally underwent a "pacted," or negotiated, transition back to democratic rule in 1985, the military was hesitant to relinquish any power and wanted to ensure that it would not be tried for crimes that took place under its rule. The new government therefore chose to forgo transitional justice in favor of building a stable democracy. These power struggles, along with the difficulty of combating long-ingrained ethnic prejudices, continue to plague Uruguay's current human rights landscape despite the progressive social legislation it has passed in the last few years.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in Uruguay's otherwise admirable record has to do with its treatment of Uruguayans with African origins. Since the almost complete eradication of the native population in the early 1800s, Uruguay has enjoyed a myth of homogeneity that forestalled accusations of racial or ethnic inequality. That is, until its 2011 census asked respondents for information on race for the first time. Since then, concrete statistics about the country's gross inequality have emerged. Though Afro-Uruguayans make up 8 percent of the country's population, 27.2 percent of them live below the poverty line, more than double the poverty rate of the country as a whole (12.4 percent). In addition, almost half of Afro-Uruguayans only complete primary school (45 percent of men and 42 percent of Afro-Uruguayan women), and only 5.7 percent attain a university or postgraduate degree. Afro-Uruguayans have less access to education, which leads to lower wages and higher unemployment rates among Afro-Uruguayans: 14 percent of Afro-Uruguayans are unemployed, 3 points higher than the overall unemployment rate.

Democratic Uruguay has taken some steps to address this serious inequality. Recently, the Uruguayan legislature passed a law to grant more scholarships to Afro-Uruguayan citizens, improve access to vocational training, and set up quotas in government jobs, while providing subsidies for private industries. In addition, the bill would require that schools teach Afro-Uruguayan history. The law will only come into effect in 2015, at the earliest. Those extolling Uruguay's reputation as a defender of human rights must acknowledge that, despite these recent advances, Uruguay has a long history of ignoring the nation's chronic discrimination toward Afro-Uruguayans.

Meanwhile, Uruguay is poised to make disastrous decisions in another field: juvenile justice. Citing a rise in crime, the country is currently debating a bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. This October, there will be a national referendum on whether to approve this law, which aims to deter youth crime by allowing much harsher penalties to apply to a broader range of citizens. Yet Uruguay is a signatory to international agreements protecting the rights of children until the age of 18, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it ratified in 1990. Opponents of the law argue that lowering the age of criminal responsibility will not solve the problem of insecurity (since only 7 percent of crimes in Uruguay are committed by minors), but that the best way to solve juvenile delinquency is through work, rehabilitation, and education. On top of this, the United Nations has also routinely denounced the poor conditions in Uruguay's prisons -- making the possible passage of this law one of the most pressing human rights concerns in the nation. In parallel with the "No a la Baja" ("No to the Lowering") campaign that opposes the law, the country's foremost human rights film festival, Tenemos Que Ver, picked "children's rights" as the theme for this year's annual event. Yet this pressing human rights concern has also largely been ignored at an international level.

Lastly, and in some ways most troublingly, Uruguay is still struggling with the legacy of its authoritarian past. Similar to many other Southern Cone nations, Uruguay's strong democratic traditions devolved in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in a dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1985. As described above, during this period Uruguay was often referred to as "the torture chamber of Latin America."

Since the nation transitioned to democratic rule, Uruguay has failed to hold the perpetrators of these crimes to account, and has yet to conclusively investigate the fates of the disappeared. Both the initial government inquiry in 1985 and a Peace Commission report in 2003 failed to determine the location of the bodies of the disappeared or fully investigate the circumstances surrounding their disappearances. Throughout both of these inquiries, the military refused to open its archives to investigators, and those files remain inaccessible to this day.

Aside from a few high-profile trials, like the one that led to Juan María Bordaberry's conviction in 2010, more widespread justice initiatives have also been stymied. Just last year, Mariana Mota, one of the most prominent judges advocating for courts to hear these cases, was transferred to a civilian court by the Supreme Court of Justice, and her criminal cases were largely dismissed. On top of this, and despite widespread protests, the Supreme Court also revalidated the statute of limitations against trying these crimes within the country, in effect renewing a law granting amnesty to members of the military, which had been overturned in October 2011.

These setbacks were particularly devastating for the activists who had spent the previous 30 years trying to learn what had become of their loved ones, and who thought President Mujica might help them in their quest for justice and truth. Having been a member of the Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group that was active in the 1960s and 1970s, Mujica was targeted as a subversive by the military government and spent most of the dictatorship in solitary confinement. He was only released when the new democratic government took power in 1985. Many of his friends and comrades had been victims of the dictatorship, and he began his presidency by complying with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling to acknowledge state responsibility for the crimes of the dictatorship.

But since then, Mujica has been criticized for his role in reproducing conditions of impunity. Many were surprised to see Mujica participate in this year's "Marcha del Silencio," a yearly march marking the death of the two most famous "disappeared" politicians, Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz and Zelmar Michelini, who were killed in Buenos Aires during Operation Condor. (The photo above shows marchers carrying portraits of their disappeared relatives.) This year's march, held on May 20, was themed "¿Dónde están? ¿Por qué el silencio?" ("Where are they? Why the silence?") to protest the Mujica government's silence and resistance to issues of human rights accountability. Remaining in the middle of pack, Mujica did little to garner attention. He and his wife arrived without security and trudged along in the pounding rain for the last half of the silent march, on a night that, coincidentally, happened to be Mujica's 79th birthday. Some activists praised the president for bringing further attention to the march's objectives and hoped that his presence indicated that he would work to resolve these issues during the last few months of his presidency.

Others, however, were deeply critical. With presidential elections this fall, many castigated the president for playing politics at an event meant to cut across political divides. They also argued that he might have used his position of power to speak out against Mota's transfer, contest the Supreme Court amnesty decision, or launch a fact-finding mission, rather than merely participating in a purely symbolic event.

Mujica's symbolic presence at this march, underscored by his continued inaction on accountability issues, provides a window into the complicated human rights legacy the president is leaving behind. For all the advances the country has made, it is just as important to recognize that Mujica and his successors have a lot of work to do if they truly want Uruguay to return to being the "Switzerland of South America."

PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP/GettyImages