For battered Aleppo, the Agony Just Seems to Go On and On

Ed Blanche

BEIRUT — The 4-year battle for the ancient city of Aleppo has, for all intents and purposes, ended with a victory for Syrian President Bashar Assad, a turning point in a savage war that began in March 2011 with street protests against his brutal regime and demands for political and economic reform.
It was a messy denouement in which strains between Assad’s regime and its two key allies, Russia and Iran, began to show, underlining the complexity of a conflict in which foreign powers with divergent objectives have intervened on both sides.
In particular, reports of friction between Moscow and Tehran, whose forces have done most of the fighting for Assad in the last 18 months, indicate that simmering rivalries in the pro-Assad front may be deepening.
The ceasefire that began December 14 after a secret deal in Ankara between Russia and Turkey, a key supporter of some rebel groups, quickly broke down. Iranian-led Shia militias, which had spearheaded the regime ground offensive into eastern Aleppo, claimed they were being sold out by Moscow.
A planned evacuation of some of the estimated 200,000 people, including rebels, trapped in eastern Aleppo collapsed and fighting resumed, reflecting the deep distrust between the warring sides and Assad’s concerns that Russia and Iran have taken control of his regime.
A new ceasefire took hold on December 15, but the interests of Russia and Iran, two powers desperate to extend their influence in the Middle East, have long been at odds in Syria. The bloody events in Aleppo have apparently sharpened those differences, with Assad reportedly conducting his own intrigues to exploit them.
None of this bodes well for Syria or a region in flames and facing even more turmoil.
The final conquest of Aleppo does not signal the end of a war that began in March 2011. That agony will continue, though probably not on the same scale.
As things stand, there is little prospect of a diplomatic solution because Assad, now much fortified, will refuse opposition demands he step down or that he share power with his foes in any transitional arrangement.
The grievances that triggered the street protests on March 15, 2011, have never been addressed and are unlikely to be now that Assad basks in the victory his Russian and Iranian allies have given him.
“The loss of Aleppo is indicative of the weakness of the opposition rather than the strength of the regime, which is reliant on Russian air power and Hezbollah, Iranian and aligned militias to conduct his operations,” observed Middle East analyst Tim Eaton of the Chatham House think-tank in London.
“A better way of looking at events on the ground is that the regime has ensured that it will not lose but that it still lacks the capability and capacity to win in any meaningful sense. Control of the whole country remains a distant and unrealistic prospect.”
The slaughter of civilians and rebels alike in eastern Aleppo since July, when the battle intensified, has also demonstrated the failure of the United Nations, the United States and other outside powers to halt the merciless bloodletting that UN officials have branded war crimes for which Russia and Assad must answer.
There is no sign that Assad or anyone else will be brought to book for the savagery that has occurred in Aleppo or other cities and towns where Assad applied his infamous “starve or submit” sieges on opposition strongholds. Thousands of people died after supplies of food, water, fuel and medicine were cut off.
Such single-minded ruthlessness in dealing with dissent has been the hallmark of the Assad dynasty, founded by Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, a Soviet-trained fighter pilot, in a military coup on 1970.
In October 1982, Hafez Assad crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, a life-long foe, in the city of Hama by shelling it and then massacring an estimated 20,000 people — another atrocity in which the world failed to intervene.
The loss of eastern Aleppo, much of it reduced to rubble after four months of an unrelenting day-and-night aerial bombardment by the Russian air force, was certainly a crippling blow to the disparate anti-Assad opposition and one of its worst setbacks since 2012.
But the rebel forces, estimated at up to 150,000 fighters, still hold Idlib province west of Aleppo and other rural areas in the east and south. Much will depend on what their regional backers, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, do now.
The Islamic State (ISIS) still holds the northern city of Raqqa, de facto capital of its steadily shrinking caliphate across Syria and Iraq, but that is part of what amounts to an entirely separate war between a US-led coalition and the jihadist movement.
In Syria, the largely Sunni opposition forces will undoubtedly continue their war to end Assad’s minority Alawite regime after nearly five decades of oppressive rule but theirs will be a predominantly rural campaign fought from territory that Assad does not consider vital to his survival.
ISIS’s recapture December 11 of the archaeological treasure house of Palmyra in the eastern desert from Syrian Army control was most likely a one-off operation and should not be viewed as the start of a major counteroffensive.

Ed Blanche
has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
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