"Army units chasing down the fleeing terrorists" and "a big collapse of the terrorist morale" is how Syria's SANA news agency yesterday described the approaching end of the battle of Aleppo. Years from now, this juncture may be looked upon as the turning point towards victory for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.
SANA's account is not an exaggeration, with Western news agencies also reporting from Aleppo on disarray in the rebel ranks and the impending fall of the last pockets of rebel resistance.
The importance of the regime's triumph in Aleppo, which was once Syria's largest city and a symbol of the rebellion against Assad, is immense, though by itself it does not spell the end of the six year old conflict that has taken more than 400,000 lives. The rebels are expected to shift now to an insurgency style strategy to disturb the regime's hold over areas it has retaken but their staying power remains to be seen.
The rebels are now expected to shift to an insurgency style strategy to disturb the regime’s hold over areas it has retaken, but their staying power remains to be seen.
“I don’t know if this is the beginning of the end, but it’s definitely a shift in the war,” said Benedetta Berti, a Syria specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies.
“Whatever move the regime takes next it will do from a position of strength. The opposition isn’t in a place to reverse the trend. It doesn’t have the strength to regain what it has lost. That doesn’t mean it will completely go away, and that Assad will be able to rule in a stable way the rest of Syria.
But now the opposition will be more disruptive rather than taking and holding territory.”
The victory comes ahead of schedule for the Syrian military, and for Russia, which had initially hoped the battle could be finished in time for Donald Trump’s inauguration next month. In a larger sense, it puts Russia well on track to achieving its goal of Syrian regime control of what it terms “useful Syria,” comprising the main urban centers of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama, along with coastal areas inhabited by the Alawite minority.
A likely next move of the Syrian army and Russia is to try to retake Idlib province in the northwest, a remaining stronghold for rebels.
“If two years ago everyone was counting the days until the end of the Assad regime, now it’s clear that while it’s dependent more on foreign support, it’s not going anywhere,” Berti said.
Still, the regime’s forces are overextended, raising questions about how much territory it can hold at one time, as it relies on manpower from Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias.
While the regime has been focused on Aleppo, Islamic State fighters scored a victory on Sunday by retaking Palmyra, 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus, nine months after government forces drove them out from the symbolically important antiquities site. Russia is vowing to help reverse that ISIS gain.
While the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo is the direct result of operations by the Syrian army and its allies within the last month, its roots go back to 2013, when US President Barack Obama decided not to intervene militarily in Syria, despite the Assad regime’s crossing a “red line” Obama drew against the use of chemical weapons.
Instead he opted for a deal proposed by Russia, in which the regime’s chemical weaponry was supposed to be destroyed.
That was the turning point, when it became clear that the US – scarred by the disastrous invasion of Iraq – was not going to act militarily to help the rebels defeat the Assad regime. By contrast, in September 2015, Russia launched an effective military intervention on the regime’s behalf, with its air strikes shifting the balance against the rebels. And it was able to do this in the knowledge that the US would do nothing in response.
Indeed, perhaps the main reason Assad is winning the war and is poised to continue doing so is that he had strong support from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias, while the rebels had inadequate backing from the US and Gulf countries. US assistance to the rebels may evaporate entirely under Trump, who has signaled that he wants to build closer relations with Russia.
The rebels’ defeat in Aleppo will resonate throughout the region, dealing a setback to Saudi Arabia in its contest with Iran for regional primacy. Now the Saudis and other Gulf countries have to decide whether to up their support for the rebels, or write them off as a lost cause.
In the view of Eyal Zisser, a Syria specialist at Tel Aviv University, the staying power of the rebels is questionable. “The rebels will continue fighting, but we will see in the future if they come apart completely,” he says.
As for the regime, it has no reason to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict, with the military balance now so decidedly in its favor. It is now more convinced than ever that it can settle the civil war militarily.
Asked whether the fall of Aleppo spelled a defeat for the US, Zisser responded: “The Americans are irrelevant. They are devoid of meaning.
Who even counts them?”