The Long War, Part XXV - Hearts and Minds

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Reversal in Syria

Al-Assad's stunning defeat by on the outskirts of Aleppo marked a stunning reversal of the fortunes of the Syrian rebels. Prior to the alien intervention Syrian government forces, aided by their Russian and Iranian allies, were slowly closing the noose around Aleppo. The rebels, abandoned by their American and Gulf nation allies, were doomed to inevitable defeat - the only question remaining was how long the collapse would take. Pounded by Russian air strikes and surrounded on all sides by Syrian and Iranian ground forces, the only strategy left to the rebels was to hold their ground, dig in, and hope for international intervention that would not be forthcoming.

The destruction of Aleppo was widely reported on international news, and garnered much public sympathy.

No one expected the aliens to intervene, and when they did they did so in a series of slashing and incisive counteroffensives that cut off Syrian troops and seized air superiority over the skies of Aleppo. By the end of July the Syrian offensive had all but stalled, once again opening a window for dialogues and a ceasefire. Furious at the loss of Russian prestige, Putin decided to redouble Russian efforts to crush the rebellion, and immediately gave the order for the deployment of further air and armor assets. Russian military analysts credited much of the aliens' success to their air superiority, but as X-Com and other nations had already demonstrated, the aliens were beatable on the ground. Even the new mechanical units deployed by the aliens around Aleppo were not invulnerable to conventional weapons. Guided weapons were still horribly vulnerable to alien countermeasures, but simple, brute force weapons like artillery, mortars and anti-tank guns could and did take a toll on alien mechanical units. Human forces also had the advantage of numbers - the alien deployment around Aleppo was the most significant demonstration of strength to date, but in terms of size they were no more than a single battalion - about 1000 mechanical units, both large and small, in total. The Russians alone had four to five times that number already in Syria, and could deploy a hundred times that number given time. In addition the Syrian government, along with their Iranian allies, also had the capacity to mobilize large reserves of men and equipment. Assad's four corner strategy in Syria - dispersing his forces across the country to forestall any kind of partition plan from the UN - required him to scatter his units all over the map. Given the symbolic significance Aleppo was gaining, Assad decided to temporarily abandon this strategy in favor of concentrating on the outskirts of Aleppo. For better or worse Aleppo was now a rallying point for the Syrian resistance, and the place where they would be making their last stand.

Aleppo - before and after the civil war that would devastate the nation and send its population fleeing into Europe.

The size of the alien deployment was deceptive, however, as their numbers were being bolstered by more and more EXALT troops. Each EXALT trooper exhibited signs of alien modification that went beyond the cosmetic. EXALT troopers never seemed to tire, could see in the dark, and were fearless in the face of the enemy. Some were documented in videos performing superhuman feats of strength and agility which strained credulity. As the situation in Aleppo became more and more desperate, more and more rebels and freshly radicalized Syrians began to join EXALT. Abandoned by their American allies, the rebels were faced with an impossible choice, and for most of them, the most rational one was to embrace EXALT. The most important aspect of EXALT was their ability to communicate and coordinate effectively with their compatriots across the map, along with their ability to coordinate with the aliens' air forces. The most senior members of EXALT seemed to have a direct line to the alien command, and requests for air support were promptly and decisively answered. More importantly, it was the aliens that kept the supply corridors open and allowed food, water, medicine and ammunition into the city. With the aliens keeping Russian fighters and bombers at bay, the resistance finally had a glimpse of something which they had lacked for a long time - the hope of victory.

The alien intervention in Syria also did much to alter the public's perception. Long feared and reviled in the public eye, the alien intervention garnered much goodwill among those who sympathized with the plight of the Syrian rebels. World opinion on Syria seemed to concur that something had to be done, but no nation or world organization had the political backing, will or capability to mount any kind of effective intervention. The UN once again displayed its ineffectiveness as a policing organization, being scuppered time and time again by Russian vetoes in the Security Council. Obama had once ordered American planes to intervene in Libya in 2011, but in the case of Syria in 2016 he assessed the public mood and the threat of getting into a shooting war with Russia as factors too large to ignore. NATO, Europe's foremost security organization, was paralyzed without the US, and could only watch impotently as Russia propped up Al-Assad's regime under the guise of attacking Islamic extremists. For months on end the world watched as Syria collapsed into a failed state, precipitating the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. It appeared that all the world could do was watch and offer its condolences until the aliens appeared. The alien intervention brought Putin's adventure in Syria to a temporary halt, and grateful Europeans, wary of Russian intentions on their doorsteps, reveled in Putin's discomfiture.

It was not only those that held anti-Russian sentiments that rejoiced. Human rights groups could not help but be impressed by EXALT's conduct in the refugee camps in Syria. Demonstrating a more secular and tolerant bent EXALT camps were becoming havens against the constant strife and turmoil, and international aid organizations as well as media were given free access in and out of the safe zones. The video footage that came back from the camps were a public relations victory for EXALT. This was in stark contrast to the disorganized chaos of the UN relief effort, which was dogged by accusations of incompetence and favoritism towards Al-Assad's forces. The biggest supporters of the aliens were the resistance fighters who directly benefited from the alien intervention. Initial misgivings about the aliens' mysterious conduct soon gave way to shrugged acceptance, even friendly camaraderie, at least on the part of the Syrians. Embracing wholeheartedly the adage that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", the rebels ignored the grotesque appearance of the floaters, and soon took to scrawling messages and graffiti on alien mechanical units which took their defacement with placid equanimity. Soon there was a plethora of photos and videos of rebel soldiers posing with mechanical units, some of which were adorned with hats, shemaghs, and other similar paraphernalia.

EXALT camps were clean, well-ordered and most importantly of all, safe.

This makeshift alliance soon gave way to real solidarity when alien forces saved rebel lives time and time again. EXALT camps provided the necessities of life and advanced medical care beyond anything previously seen on Earth. Wounds that were previously life-threatening or fatal became routine, and were treated as simply as one would apply a band-aid to a paper cut. The world watched with amazement and gratitude as several children amputees had their limbs regrown over a matter of days. Such life saving and life altering interventions had a profound effect on the rebels and their outlook towards the aliens, not to mention on corporations, governments and global cartels all hungry for the technology the aliens could offer. In late July 2016 a stronghold of Syrian rebels was subjected to numerous air strikes from Russian S-34s using conventional bombs. The garrison would have almost certainly be wiped out had an alien fighter not intervened and shot down two of the Russian jets. In the process the alien fighter went down in the sands outside Aleppo, and the grateful survivors from the rebel garrison immediately launched a rescue mission. Footage of rebel fighters carefully and gently carrying out the fallen sectoids from the wreck was circulated widely on news and social media. The sectoids were the size of small children, and their limp, dead bodies invoked a pathos that was undeniable. One sectoid, clearly stricken and near death, was cradled as tenderly as a baby by a rugged Syrian resistance fighter who had tears streaming down his beard. Another wounded sectoid was carried on piggyback out of the wreck, its oversized cranium resting on the back of another resistance fighter. The survivors were brought to Aleppo, where the sectoids became another public relations hit for the visitors. The sectoids could not speak, but they seemed to understand everything that was said around them, and resorted to communicating in a form of crude sign language. Footage of the sectoid interacting with several Syrian children also went viral, prompting questions about alien intentions and whether the UN had acted appropriately in forming X-Com earlier in the year.