Fall of Aleppo a Major Victory for Assad but it has a Hollow Ring

Ed Blanche

BEIRUT — The Syrian regime’s impending conquest of Aleppo will be a major victory for Bashar Assad but one that was secured for him by Russian air power and Iranian-led militias to whom he is now beholden.
With much of the historic city in ruins after months of relentless bombardment, the Syrian president’s triumph has a hollow ring to it.
Although it will give Assad control of Syria’s five main cities, it will not bring stability to a country ravaged by nearly six years of internecine battles or signal the end of the often-barbaric conflict in which a ruling dynasty has made war on its own people.
What the fall of Aleppo does mean is that Russia and Iran have tightened their grip on a country that once portrayed itself as the defender of the Arab world. Assad cannot survive without them.
It also means that the Islamic Republic has moved one step closer to its strategic objective of expanding Shia power throughout the region and that Russia has secured military bases in the Middle East that advance President Vladimir Putin’s quest to restore Moscow’s global influence, which collapsed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Without doubt, the rebels’ loss of the eastern sector of the city, which they have held since mid-2012, is a major defeat but those opposed to Assad still hold large areas of northern Syria, where an estimated 150,000 fighters are dug in. They are supported by regional powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which seek the downfall of the Assad regime and will continue to resist the efforts of Russia and Iran to keep him in power.
The war will go on. Already, Russian warplanes are pounding rebel positions in Idlib province, which neighbours Aleppo province.
“Idlib can no longer be considered as a safe area,” rebel groups in Aleppo said in a statement on December 7. “It is no longer able to contain any more displaced people.”
With Assad’s forces, largely Iranian-backed militias led by Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Brigade, holding an estimated 75% of eastern Aleppo and tightening the noose around the last pockets of rebel resistance, it is only a matter of time before the rebels’ last major urban stronghold will be overrun.
Even so, opposition groups launched a surprise offensive in Syria’s eastern desert, with jihadist fighters reported within a few kilometres of the ancient and much abused city of Palmyra from which they were ejected in March.
This underlined the capacity of the jihadists and other anti-Assad forces to continue the war.
The fall of the rebel bastion in Aleppo will also have international effects.
Since the war began in March 2011, triggered by the Damascus regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters demanding political and economic reforms, the United States and the West have failed to act to stop the slaughter.
US President Barack Obama was particularly averse to being dragged into another Middle Eastern conflict, while Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council effectively blocked any outside effort to end the bloodletting in which an estimated 400,000 people have been killed and 10 million, about half Syria’s pre-war population, have been displaced.
The massive wave of refugees from the Syrian war and other Middle Eastern conflicts has swept towards Europe, instigating a sharp political shift to the right that has raised fears that the European Union could break up, long a strategic objective of Russia.
Whether US President-elect Donald Trump will embrace a more active policy towards Syria remains to be seen.
However, if the views of the hardline figures, including several former generals, he is assembling to run his administration are any guide, US policy on Syria could well take a sharp turn towards bolstering rebel forces or making new moves to impede the expansionist ambitions of Russia and Iran.
“Trump’s determination to weaken Iran, which cannot be done without reducing its influence in the Middle East, and especially in Syria, could also be used as leverage to increase US support to the rebels,” observed Beirut-based analyst Haid Haid.
A pointer towards what may be coming was a defence bill passed by the Republican-majority US Congress on December 2nd. It contains language that could authorise the Trump administration to supply some Syrian rebel groups with surface-to-air missiles. This would give them, for the first time, weapons that could effectively counter Russian and Syrian control of the skies.
The Americans have shied away from providing such potent weapons because of fears they could fall into the hands of terrorists and threaten commercial airliners.
“This provision could be the first step towards a profound shift in US policy,” Matt Schroeder of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey warned.

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