Analysis: The fall of Aleppo and a new chapter in the Syrian crisis

Column: Simple criteria for ending the Syrian tragedy
Most of Aleppo is reduced to ruins, as Assad regime declares victory on the mountain of rubble and sculls his forces made. A man walks on the rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 25, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

As Aleppo is about to fall after Assad regime forced control over 85% of the rebel-held areas, many fear the this is the start of the Syrian revolution’s end. However, David Hearst has another opinion, as he said it will just open a new chapter of the war. How rebels respond will decide if a united Syria can emerge from its ashes.

The Assad regime forces, backed by Russian air power, Iranian ground forces and Shi’ite militia fighters from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been tightening its grip on rebel-held districts of Aleppo since the start of this year.

They have gradually closed in on eastern Aleppo this year, first cutting the most direct lifeline to Turkey before fully encircling the east, and launching a major assault in September that killed hundreds of civilians but was blocked by the rebels.

The offensive was followed by a ceasefire for a week and threats for the rebels to withdraw, which were ignored.

Assad regime forces started a major offensive to push opposition fighters out of the besieged eastern half of the city on 15 November.

Helicopters continue extensively dropping barrel bombs in conjunction with airstrikes by warplanes on areas in the eastern neighborhoods of the city, accompanied by artillery shelling by the regime forces in the same places.

Civilians were also suffering through daily bombing, including by bunker-buster and incendiary weapons, and through starvation, as limited supplies run out and aid convoys are blocked from the city.

The regime’s forces’ persistent and the intensive airstrikes forced the rebels to leave the areas they hold.

In a blistering, three-week offensive, Assad regime forces have seized about 80 percent of east Aleppo, a stronghold for rebel groups since 2012, and became close to winning the battle there.

Vladimir Putin does not simply think he has just won back Aleppo. He also thinks he has won the argument with America. This much was clear from the tenor of Sergei Lavrov’s speech last week in Rome. He thinks the incoming administration has finally got the message that “terrorists” – however Russia happens to define them – pose a greater threat to US national security than Assad does.

Future of Syria

More shattered than the physical infrastructure of Syria is its political one. After five years of murderous civil war, the Syrian state is a fiction, in which sectarian and foreign militias are free to roam. The main function of the Central Bank, to take just one example, is to manage Rami Makhlouf’s portfolio. A state which commands the loyalty and trust of each Syrian denomination does not exist.

In the Stalingrad analogy that right-wing nationalist Russian commentators are so fond of using, the ruins of Aleppo are unlikely to be the symbol of resurgence of a new Syrian state. More likely, these ruins will become the battleground of resistance to militarily superior foreign invaders, of whom Russia is one, Iran is another, Hezbollah is a third. Russians are not the liberators of Aleppo, they are Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army, and if they stay around, they will meet the same fate.

There are two scenarios after the fall of Aleppo. The first is that the Syrian opposition in all its forms, both FSA and Islamist, will disintegrate and vanish.

Taking back Aleppo would make its forces focus on ending the remaining rebels-held areas. These areas include the rebels’ stronghold in Idlib in addition to isolated areas in rural Damascus, Homs, and Hama.

As a conclusion, defeating the rebels and retrieving Aleppo may mean destroying the last major resistance stronghold of the Syrian rebels and will lead eventually to the victory of Assad regime and ending the Syrian revolution.

Assad will be left in power while talks about a transition will continue indefinitely. No elections will take place that include the refugees outside Syria for the same reason that no Palestinian elections include the Palestinian diaspora in the camps. Regime preservation will be key to all the calculations of Assad’s foreign backers, who have paid a heavy price in maintaining him in power.

For this reason, when Aleppo falls, Putin and Lavrov will work overtime to declare mission accomplished as Bush did in Iraq and end the war officially. This is wishful thinking. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was right to warn Lavrov in Rome last week that the fall of Aleppo will not be the end of the war. The degree of destruction and human displacement in this civil war will only fuel more resistance. This is not a repeat of Hama, the scene of a Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in 1982, which was contained when the city was destroyed by Assad’s father, Hafez.

Will rebels and their backers learn the lesson?

The fall of Aleppo will only increase the crisis of Sunni leadership. A reaction will surely come. The big strategic question is whether it will be irrational, jihadi-led and destructive, or whether the rebels can fashion a rational response.

And this is the second scenario. Will the rebels learn the lessons of their huge strategic and military failure? These are many. They believed the various assurances from America, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar that they were about to get the battlefield weapons they needed to fight this war. They never came.

Michel Kilo, the exiled Christian Syrian dissident, whom the Russians tried hard to conscript, furiously accused Saudi of “committing a crime against the Syrian people”. He said: “Our brothers in Saudi Arabia are neither capable of drawing a plan nor are they able to lead a comeback against the campaign that is being waged against Arab and Islamic societies. They live just because they have money; they live in the desert. But tomorrow they will see.”

“This havoc will eventually end up destroying them [the Saudis],” he said. “If events in our country do not come to an end, they [terrorists] will move towards them in multiples, because they are the ones with the money.”

The lesson from this is that the Syrian opposition can rely on no one. But in order to be self-sufficient, they need unity. The political wing of the Syrian opposition which consisted of defected diplomats and academics in the diaspora simply could not cope with the task in hand. They were riven with schisms. They were weak, deluded about the help they would get from America, outmanoeuvred and outgunned.

The Syrian rebels have to recover their multi-confessional face. The war started as a unarmed civilian uprising against a family-run dictatorship. They are forgotten now, but the faces of this revolution were George Sabra, a Greek Orthodox Christian and the first president of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, a Sunni chairman of the Transitional National Council, and Fadwa Soliman, an actress of Alawite descent.

The faces of fighters are today jihadi, sectarian, or in Kilo’s words, “non-democratic”. The original face of this revolution has to be recovered if a united Syria is ever to emerge again from the ashes of Aleppo.