Aleppo siege spells trouble for the West
ALEPPO - The siege of Aleppo has taken the West even further from achieving its key goals in Syria of stemming the refugee flow, removing the Assad regime and tackling the Islamic State group, experts say.
As the joint forces of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Syria encircle the divided northern Syrian city, the so-called "moderate" opposition faces a potentially devastating turning point in its five-year war against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The collapse of the "moderate" opposition would have serious knock-on effects for the West.
"The civil war is feeding a horrific humanitarian crisis with obvious significance for the twin Western concerns of refugees and extremism," said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The United Nations says more than 30,000 people have fled Aleppo in just a few days as the fighting intensifies, and officials are warning that Europe could see migrant numbers that eclipse even the record figures of the past year.
"The worst-case scenario that could happen in this region in the short term would be a new influx of 600,000 refugees at the Turkish frontier," Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus warned on Monday.
Assad's main international backers -- Russia and Iran -- argue that the Syrian leader is the best hope for ending the war -- a view that is gaining some currency in Western capitals despite them seeing Assad as responsible for most of the quarter million dead in the conflict.
"There is not the same sense of urgency or moral impulse to get rid of Assad," said Barnes-Dacey.
"But Assad can't win this war outright. No one realistically believes he can stabilise the country and deal with both extremism and refugees," he said.
- 'Rampant wishful thinking' -
The onslaught on Aleppo led to the collapse last week of the first peace talks between the regime and opposition in Geneva, but Washington sees little alternative but to keep the negotiation process going.
The United States is unwilling to throw full military support behind the rebels -- fearful of becoming mired in an indirect conflict with Russia.
Instead, analysts say the White House is still hoping Moscow and Damascus will get tired of fighting and seek a settlement.
"Wishful thinking has been rampant in Washington," said Hassan Hassan, of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.
"The West is banking on the political process, on the idea that the regime campaign will get to a stalemate and will eventually accept concessions. They think the bombardment of Aleppo is just part of the negotiation.
"But they are being played by the regime and Russia. The regime is seeking total victory and wants to get to a point where it doesn't need to negotiate. That's the only doctrine the regime believes in."
- Boon or bust for IS? -
While it will generate still more humanitarian disasters and a fresh exodus of refugees, analysts say the fall of Aleppo will not directly impact the West's primary concern: the war against the Islamic State group (IS), which has become practically a separate conflict in eastern Syria.
"If Aleppo falls, it would be a big symbolic victory for the Syrian government over the Sunni insurgency," said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst for IHS in London.
"But the Western strategy (against IS) shifted away from backing the Sunni insurgency in the middle of last year... It just wasn't working," Strack said.
In October, the US formally abandoned its $500 million (450-million-euro) plan to train a moderate Sunni force to fight IS after a series of embarrassing setbacks that saw some of the first recruits simply hand over their weapons to extremists.
Washington and its Western allies are now putting their hopes in Kurdish fighters, hoping they will act as ground forces against the brutal jihadist group.
Experts are divided on whether the current trends of the conflict will help or hinder the Islamic State.
Some fear the decline of the moderate opposition will force many into the arms of IS.
"The Russian plan is to get to a place where Assad is left alone against the Islamic State," said Agnes Levallois, a Middle East consultant in Paris.
"But that will create a scenario where the Islamic State can present itself as the great and only defender of the Sunni community against the Syrian regime."
Other analysts agree that extremist groups will take advantage of losses by more moderate forces, but point out that IS is currently under considerable pressure in key areas.
"Overall the current trends look bad for the Islamic State -- you've got US-backed Kurdish forces and Russian-backed Syrian forces competing for the territory held by the Islamic State along the Turkish border," said Strack.