The fall of Aleppo will neither end the conflict nor bring more stability to Syria. The continuing offensive by the Syrian regime to capture the rest of the eastern side of the city has led to the capture of about 75 per cent of the rebel-held area. But the regime’s swift advances in the past few days have raised many questions about what impact the fall of Aleppo will have on the broader Syrian conflict.
Capturing the city will be an important achievement for the Bashar Al Assad regime and its allies and a significant setback for the rebels. As a result, there is a general assumption that the fall of Aleppo will mark the beginning of a wider military solution to the Syrian conflict in favour of the regime, but the fate of the besieged city alone will not be the decisive factor in the Syrian conflict. To assume that would be to ignore the fact that the regime controls less than a third of the country’s territories and that the specific conditions that led to the swift advances in Aleppo may not apply elsewhere.
The intense Russian bombing of eastern Aleppo and the significant numbers of Iranian-backed ground militias have allowed the Al Assad regime to besiege eastern Aleppo and apply starvation tactics in mid-July to about 250,000 people. However, the lack of support channelled to rebel groups in northern Syria hindered the recent attempt to break the siege. The internal divisions among rebel groups in eastern Aleppo and their infighting during the regime’s offensive have led to a poor military performance and helped the regime’s advance. And it took advantage of the distraction and power vacuum caused by the US presidential elections to launch this decisive offensive.
The same besieging tactics will be hard to replicate in northern Syria, which shares hundreds of thousands of kilometres of border with Turkey, that can be used to the rebels’ strategic advantage. And while the infighting among rebels was triggered by the besieging of eastern Aleppo, the rebel groups in the rest of northern Syria are part of larger coalitions, which provide them with protection and make the possibility of such discord slim — even more so after the loss of Aleppo.
The number of Syrian rebels estimated to still be fighting in the country is about 150,000. The refusal of rebel groups to leave Aleppo despite their slim chances indicates just how committed other groups will be to defending their own territory. In addition, the regional powers — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — are still invested in opposing Al Assad and remain actively against any solution that allows him to rule the country. As a result, the armed conflict is likely to last for a long time, even if it takes on many different military formats and despite calls for a ceasefire.
It is still unclear what shape American President-elect Donald Trump’s policy towards Syria will take. However, the recent United States Congress authorisation to arm Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles for the first time indicates an appetite for a more aggressive policy towards Syria. 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 a leverage to increase US support to the rebels. Al Assad’s advances are also empowering Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and other extremist groups, such as Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, the rebranded former Al Qaida affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra, which continues to use opposition to an Al Assad-led regime as a recruiting tool. This fact is likely to play a role in influencing any US decision to act more aggressively to broker a political deal in the country.
The Al Assad regime’s inability to survive without support from its allies makes any attempt to win militarily impossible without their approval. Despite the short-term objectives that both Iran and Russia share in saving the Al Assad regime, they have contradictory long-term plans for the country. Russia aims to preserve both the regime and the state, while Iran aims to save the regime, but create a weak state to maintain its influence there — similar to the situation in Lebanon and Iraq. Pursuing a military solution in Syria serves Iran’s plan, as it turns Syria into a permanently failed state. Russia, however, is in favour of a political solution that could save its limited resources and preserve the rest of the state. But Al Assad has expressed his unwillingness to share even a slice of his power with other groups.
As a result, this tripartite alliance will surely change at some point, preventing Al Assad from achieving a conclusive military victory. When Syrians started peacefully demanding political reform, they did not expect their struggle to reach this tragic point. The fall of Aleppo will be yet another milestone that takes the conflict into a more terrifying stage than what we imagined could exist.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Haid Haid is associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. A Syrian columnist and researcher, he focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.