LONDON - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, assisted by Russia and Iran, is on the verge of re-taking Aleppo in what would be the biggest victory for his troops against rebels in almost six years of civil war. Assad says he’ll turn his attention to remaining rebel strongholds, and his opponents have vowed to fight on in the absence of a political solution. That could lead to a surge in guerrilla conflict in areas reclaimed by Assad’s troops, while jihadists look to exploit any weaknesses. Islamic State did just that with its weekend assault on the historic city of Palmyra.
1. Is an end to fighting any closer?
Much of eastern Aleppo, a symbolic center for the anti-Assad insurgency, is in ruins, leveled by Syrian and Russian bombing that led European and U.S. officials to speak of possible war crimes. But the opposition isn’t ready to give up. “Nobody can think about peaceful solutions in these circumstances,” George Sabra, chief negotiator for rebel forces, told the BBC in November. “Aleppo is an important place for the revolution but it’s not the last.”
That’s one thing Assad agrees on. “Aleppo will be a gain, but to be realistic, it doesn’t mean the end of the war,” he said in an interview with pro-government al-Watan newspaper published on Dec. 8.
2. Where will Assad focus on next?
Assad said in October Aleppo would serve as “the springboard” for other offensives, singling out Idlib. The regime lost nearly all of this region, which lies about 35 miles southwest of Aleppo near the Syrian-Turkish border, in mid-2015. Idlib borders Latakia, the heartland of the Assad regime, and is close to the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
Taking Aleppo, whose eastern neighborhoods had been held by rebels since 2012, will hand Assad control over Syria’s biggest cities. That amounts to more than 40 percent of the country’s territory and about 60 percent of its people. The four components of today’s Syria are now more distinct: Assad with the major urban areas and the west; Kurdish-held enclaves in the north; Islamic State controlling much of the east; and other groups left with shrinking pockets of influence.
3. Will the nature of the conflict change?
Some 150,000 rebels, including jihadists, are fighting in Syria, according to Charlies Lister, a senior scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The biggest losers from Aleppo’s collapse are Syria’s moderate opposition groups, which had remained the city’s primary actors ever since conflict first erupted there in early 2012,” he wrote. The result, he says, will be an even more prominent role for Islamist extremists in leading the anti-Assad fight. In northern Syria, the mainstream opposition looks set to “transform itself into a guerrilla-style insurgency in 2017,” Lister said.
4. What does all this mean for Assad?
He’ll have a hard time keeping local and foreign militias in check, and administrating cities he controls. “The regime doesn’t seem to have the capacity to hold areas and is hostage to the forces that are meant to be helping it,” Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London, said this week. That’s been the case in Homs and most recently Palmyra, where Islamic State at the weekend took advantage of the focus on Aleppo to attack a city it held for about 10 months until March.
“Aleppo will be even more difficult to police and stabilize,” said Raphael Lefevre, author of the 2013 book “Ashes of Hama: the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.” Insecurity has persisted in areas liberated from rebel control, he said, with civilians threatened by outbreaks of criminality and revenge attacks.
5. How will Trump change things?
The big unknown hanging over the future of the conflict is the shifting agendas of global and regional powers. Will Russia and Iran stand by Assad if he continues to insist on reconquering the entire country? And will Turkey resist being drawn further into a conflict that carries the risk of a heightened confrontation with Kurdish forces? And then there’s the arrival in January in the White House of Donald Trump. The president-elect has said he’s open to a more cooperative relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and has vowed to concentrate on defeating Islamic State rather than pursuing the removal of Assad.