After the fall of Aleppo

The Syrian Army’s seizure of the rebel-held area in eastern Aleppo puts the Assad regime clearly on the ascendancy, but the civil war is far from over.

Syrians walk over rubble of damaged buildings in Aleppo, November 28, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrians walk over rubble of damaged buildings in Aleppo, November 28, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The battle for Aleppo is over. The Assad regime and its Russian, Iranian and Shi’a paramilitary allies have achieved victory.
The process of evacuation of civilians and rebels is yet to be completed. Syrian oppositionists are alleging that pro-regime militias are committing atrocities in the conquered areas. The UN accused pro-regime forces of summarily executing 82 civilians.
Rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo, which held out for four years, has now ceased to exist.
What does this mean for Syria and the further direction of the Syrian war? First and most obviously, there is no longer any prospect of the Assad regime being removed by force.
In effect, any such possibility ended on September 30, 2015, with the entry of Russian air power into the war.
The rebellion had and has nothing in its arsenal capable of challenging the might of a world-class air force.
From the moment of the Russian entry, Assad’s survival was assured. With the destruction of rebel eastern Aleppo, the regime’s ascendancy is sealed.
Assad has now gained control over all of the major cities of Syria’s center. The regime still controls only around a third of the territory of the country. But this includes a majority of the population, the entirety of the coast, and the capital, Damascus.
Second, the fall of Aleppo does not mean the immediate end of the Syrian rebellion. With Aleppo city gone, the rebellion remains in control of Idlib province in the northwest, parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces in the southwest, parts of rural Aleppo, and isolated pockets elsewhere.
The regime side is now likely to turn its attentions to Idlib. One of the original heartlands of the revolt, Idlib province is today controlled by two powerful Salafi jihadist militias – Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
The regime is set to present its actions there as part of the war against al-Qaida. These jihadist organizations also dominate the rebel-controlled area south of Aleppo city.
But while there will be few in the West who will leap to the defense of these organizations, Ahrar al-Sham has a close relationship with Turkey. This support looks set to continue.
In the north Aleppo countryside, meanwhile, the rebels operate in direct cooperation with the Turkish army, and non-jihadist groups have a more significant presence.
Ongoing Turkish support for and cooperation with the rebels in these areas complicate the picture for the regime and the Russians, and are likely to prevent the complete eclipse of the rebellion in the immediate future.
In the south of the country, the rebellion is dominated by non-jihadist groups and supported by Jordan and the West. In that area, however, Amman has in recent months reduced support for the rebels, and begun coordination with Russia. The rebels are instructed to operate against Islamic State forces only.
From an Israeli point of view, the prospect of a regime return to the border is of deep concern. It may be assumed that Israel will be seeking to use its channels of communication with Russia to ensure that the Iranian/ Hezbollah hope of building a new confrontation line east of the Quneitra crossing does not come to pass in the period of regime advancement now beginning.
It is worth noting that the regime’s advances in Aleppo were achieved largely with the help of non-Syrian fighters. A major question remark remains regarding the regime’s ability to reconquer and permanently pacify the Sunni Arab-majority areas still held by the rebellion.
Third, the separate war against Islamic State in eastern Syria is not immediately affected by the fall of Aleppo.
Islamic State’s shocking reconquest of Palmyra from the regime, even as Assad’s forces pushed into eastern Aleppo, is testimony to the continued danger posed by the jihadists and showcases once again the regime’s shortages of available manpower.
Large swaths of eastern and northern Syria remain outside of regime control, held either by Islamic State or by the US-supported, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
The regime is likely now to propose itself as the right candidate for global support to defeat Islamic State in Syria. At least for the immediate future, though, the war in the east is likely to remain largely outside of the regime’s purview.
Finally, much will depend on the stance taken by the new US administration after January 20. The current administration’s Syria policy has been characterized mainly by flailing ineffectuality. Ambassador Samantha Power’s tones at the UN this week – asking Russian representatives whether the suffering in Aleppo didn’t “creep them out” – were a perfect coda to this.
The incoming administration contains hawkish figures who are deeply suspicious in particular of the ambitions of Iran and its allies in the Middle East. Generals Mattis, Kelly and Flynn exemplify this trend. But President-elect Trump himself has spoken of the need to coordinate with Russia in the fight against Islamic State (and Russia, of course, is allied with Iran and Assad in Syria). Incoming secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s close ties to Russia are a further notable factor in this regard.
If the Iran-skeptic element in the new administration wins out, this may usher in a determined policy to contain the gains of the Iran-aligned Assad regime and maintain support to anti-regime and anti-Islamic State forces in Syria.
If, however, the desire to coordinate with Russia against Islamic State wins out, this raises the genuine possibility of pro-Iranian, pro-Russian forces taking the key role in the ongoing fight against Islamic State and by so doing launching a real bid to reunite Syria under their own control.
Even if this latter scenario materializes, it isn’t immediately imminent, given the regime’s manpower problems and remaining priorities in its war against the rebels further west. But it will be a matter of concern for all regional elements, including Israel, which are watching closely the advances made by the Iranians and their allies in Iraq and in Syria in recent months.
So the fall of eastern Aleppo marks the end of any hopes of rebel victory in the Syrian civil war. But in regard to other processes under way in the country – further regime advancement, the rebellion’s survival, the war against Islamic State – the final word has not yet been said.