Monday Briefing: Regime Advances in Aleppo

In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Charles Lister, Yousef Munayyer, and Mabrouka M'Barek provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including the Assad regime's advances in Aleppo, Fatah's annual conference, and Tunisia's upcoming conference for its economic plan.

Regime Advances in Aleppo
Charles Lister, Senior Fellow

After months of siege and concerted indiscriminate bombing, a third of opposition-held districts of eastern Aleppo have fallen to a determined ground offensive led primarily by Shiite and other pro-Assad militiamen. Thousands of civilians have fled into Kurdish and regime-held territories, with unconfirmed reports of fighting age men being arrested en-masse. Armed opposition groups, meanwhile, have withdrawn to the city’s more defensible southeast.

These are the biggest and most significant opposition losses in over four years. Though the international community’s failure to prevent the medieval-style siege of the city and its relentless bombing had made this eventuality all but inevitable, the stunning international silence amid the city’s fall is deeply dangerous. Syria has already witnessed its government repeatedly shell its own population with chemical weapons with impunity, so the fall of Aleppo risks giving further tacit justification for Bashar al-Assad’s use of any means necessary to “cleanse” his country of opposition.

By standing silent or failing to intervene, the international community is indirectly ensuring continued instability and Syria’s further breakdown, as well as the further empowerment of extremism. The biggest losers from Aleppo’s collapse are Syria’s moderate opposition groups, which had remained the city’s primary actors ever since conflict first erupted there in early 2012.

Meanwhile, northern Syria’s opposition looks set to transform itself into a guerrilla-style insurgency in 2017, the conditions of which will encourage further violence and indiscriminate killing. Rather than stabilize the country, Assad’s conquest of Aleppo promises the opposite, with 5 million Syrian refugees looking even more unlikely to ever consider returning home.

Fatah Holds Crucial Party Conference this Week
Yousef Munayyer, MEI Scholar

Fatah is holding its party congress this week on November 29. The convening is the first of its kind since 2009, and the meeting before that was 20 years prior, in Tunis. The party finds itself at a crossroads. Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the party and also holds the title of President of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is 81 years old. The question of succession, both for party leadership and national leadership, are on many minds.

The congress provides an opportunity for Fatah to at least partially address this question. Elections for the various party committees could yield a new cohort of younger party members. But while this may provide some clarity for the future of Fatah, it muddles the picture elsewhere. Abbas is a figure with very little legitimacy. He was last elected in 2005 for a four-year term. His approval ratings and public confidence in governance during his tenure is low. Still, he has managed, albeit poorly and precariously, to balance the three-headed role he inherited from the late Yasser Arafat. There is no one figure among a younger cohort who could do the same. More pressing than the question of who will succeed Abbas today is what will happen to already weak Palestinian representative institutions as they inch toward this inevitable precipice?

As various players will seek to stake their claims in the ensuing power struggle, the result is likely to be the further fracturing and dismemberment of Palestinian political (and perhaps even security) institutions. The void this creates may well be seen as an opportunity by Israel to further advance its expansionist agenda through continued colonization or even annexation.

Tunisia Seeks Funding for Economic Plan
Mabrouka M'Barek, MEI Scholar

Tunisia is holding an International Conference on Investment this week, with 142 investment projects to be presented. This conference represents an ultimate attempt to attract investors, and for Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, an opportunity to present to major investors, nations and donors his government’s 2016-2020 economic plan. The organizers are hoping to present Tunisia as a peaceful, stable and competitive country in order to fund this plan, which amounts to 120 billion dinars ($60 billion).

The plan was to be submitted to parliament in June 2016, but was never voted on nor discussed. The detailed plan, which will be revealed during the conference, is still unknown to the Tunisian public. Only a draft strategic note and a synthesis have been published. This troubling lack of transparency is likely due to the inclusion of austerity measures recommended by the I.M.F. as a pre-condition to receive loans.

The timing chosen, during presidential transitions in France and the United States, and during a heated political disagreement in Tunisia over the 2017 budget law, represents a major shortcoming for Chahed. More importantly, Chahed’s vision is no different from previous successive governments. Since the revolution of 2011, the Tunisian people have heard the mantra of foreign investors’ potential to save the country from its dire economy, and yet, betting exclusively on foreign investors, debt and austerity has not yielded positive results. This government, like others before, is persisting in deploying austerity measures and attracting investment for an export-led economy; the same failed economic model that was at the root cause of the revolution.