Syrian regime forces and their allies are advancing towards a decisive victory over rebels in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, in what promises to be a major turning point in the civil war.
The stunning gains on the ground, combined with the electoral victory of Donald Trump who has signaled he may cut US support for rebel groups, puts Syrian President Bashar Assad in his strongest position yet since the fighting started almost six years ago.
In recent days, the Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russian aerial bombardments, have taken back more than one third of eastern Aleppo from the rebels in an assault that has killed hundreds and displaced thousands more. The regime believes it is on track to reclaim remaining rebel-held areas before Trump takes office in January, a victory that would resonate throughout Syria and have regional and international implications.
”The days of the armed men (rebels) in Aleppo are numbered,” a Syrian military source told Lebanon’s as-Safir newspaper, which backs Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group fighting alongside the Syrian army.
”The armed men are completely driven away. They have fled from clashes in a way we did not expect. This collapse will help achieve more quick progress for the army,” the source said, adding that he anticipates rebel fighters being forced to sign agreements to evacuate the remaining areas they hold.
The success of the Syrian army stems from direct and effective foreign intervention on its behalf. In addition to the Russian air power and Hezbollah participation, fighters from Shiite militias in Iran and Iraq are joining in the assault. Kurdish fighters are also playing a role in taking over vacated areas. The rebels’ backing from Washington is by contrast limited, inadequate and indirect. They feel they are being abandoned to their fate.
The fall of Aleppo will be a huge blow to the rebels in a war that has taken the lives of more than 400,000 people. ”It is Syria’s largest city, its industrial heartland, and the fact that rebels were able to control a significant portion of it gave them the credibility and ability to present themselves as an alternative vision for the country and a force that can really govern,” says Tim Eaton, a Syria specialist at Chatham House think tank in London.
”It will be difficult to prevent the perspective that this is essentially the beginning of the end, certainly not the end or close to it, but perhaps the beginning of the end of the opposition’s hopes to govern large areas of the country.” The humanitarian situation in eastern Aleppo, where some 250,000 people remain trapped, is dire. Reuters reported Tuesday that people have been forced to scavenge in the garbage for food as aid supplies ran out. All hospitals have been repeatedly bombed.
And the situation promises to get even worse as the regime and its Russian mentors pursue a strategy of emptying out rebel held areas. ”If you look at the methodology it’s the use of cluster munitions and imprecise weapons that are hitting all kinds of infrastructure indiscriminately,” Eaton said.
”These kind of attacks make it very difficult for civilians to remain in these areas. This approach is a drive by the regime to push its opponents out of areas it wishes to control, knowing it will be difficult for it to control those areas with large civilian populations in them.”
Trump’s victory promises to set back the rebels almost as much as their reverses on the ground. Assad’s regime recapture of all of Aleppo may push Trump even further in the direction of ditching the rebels, who increasingly appear to be a lost cause.
If Trump’s statements are any indication, it appears likely he will move towards reaching an accommodation with Assad and the Russians. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal after his election, Trump implied that the rebels are not worth backing.
”We have no idea” who the rebels are, he said. At the same time he has indicated that he wants to forge better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has said that Islamic state and not the Assad regime are the primary enemy in Syria.
Assad responded by saying Trump would find Syria to be a ”natural ally” if the US fights “terrorism.” Capturing eastern Aleppo will further reinforce the regime’s view that it can win a military victory in the conflict. ”The regime’s strategy will be to continue, to go on and on occupying more territories,” says Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University.
But Eaton says the end of the war is a long way off. He expects the rebels to shift to an insurgency strategy, no longer focusing on holding and administering urban areas but basing themselves instead in rural areas and waging hit and run attacks.
”Those groups will continue to fight, albeit from a weakened standpoint, the regime will continue to advance, there will continue to be an insurgency and people will continue to suffer,” he said.