After Aleppo, the civil war in Syria is not lost

Alan Philps considers the next chapter in the Syrian conflict.

Forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al Assad walk inside Aleppo's historic citadel. Omar Sanadiki / Reuters
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Over the past month the backers of the rebels in Aleppo have quietly concluded that the logic of war was unstoppable and they could do nothing to help the defenders. As the four-year struggle for control of the city reached its bloody denouement, the powerlessness of the countries, which had banked on the collapse of the Syrian regime, was total.

There was not even the smallest diplomatic fig leaf to disguise the nakedness of the opposition’s backers. All that was left was empty words.

Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, fired a series of rhetorical taunts at the Moscow – is there nothing that would make you feel shame? Is there nothing you will not lie about? The Russians said it was time to stop whining. They had set a clear objective – to rescue their client in Damascus, Bashar Al Assad, and cast all the rebels of whatever stripe as terrorists, in which tasks they had succeeded.

The Americans could not decide which was more dangerous – the survival of the regime or the triumph of the rebels. To that end, the CIA has spent $1 billion a year supporting “moderate” rebels.

The last word went to an old man in Aleppo who declaimed amid the ruins: “Where are you, Arabs and Muslims, while we are being slaughtered?” It is an old refrain. It was heard when America invaded Iraq in 2003, and whenever the Israelis attack Gaza. But when the attacker is the army of an Arab state with a predominantly Muslim population, it pierces the heart.

As for the Arab countries, they have mainly kept their counsel, though commentators have stressed that the fall of Aleppo is a battle lost, not the end of the war.

The truth is that the battle was won by the most resolute forces with the clearest goals. For Mr Putin, Syria was a chance to prove that Russia was once again a power to be reckoned with, on the way to becoming an equal to the United States as that country is hobbled by the contradictions of democracy.

As for Iran, its ambition to stretch its influence all the way to the Mediterranean has not been dimmed by years of US sanctions, rather it has only been strengthened.

Without the support of Russia and Iran, the Assad regime would no doubt have crumbled. There was a time when loyalists controlled only a few streets of Aleppo. Soon the whole city, or rather its ruins, will be theirs.

The immediate task is to secure the evacuation of the estimated 50,000 civilians and fighters. There is a plan for the fighters to leave, on buses with their weapons, to Idlib province, a border area controlled by the local Al Qaeda affiliate, where the Russians hope they can be corralled and killed, away from the urban spotlight of Aleppo.

The fate of others at immediate risk – the doctors, nurses, journalists, and civil defence workers such as the heroic White Helmets – is unclear. For the regime, they are traitors no less than the fighters, likely to be arrested and tortured to death in regime prisons if they try to pass through the army lines, unless they are wealthy enough to be kidnapped for ransom.

In the longer term, once the regime has finished celebrating, things will not look so rosy. The regime does not have the men to secure the city of Aleppo, nor the money to rebuild it. The fact that it lost control of the desert town of Palmyra in the final stages of the battle for Aleppo proves that its forces are stretched to the limit.

The Syrian army may be able to field 125,000 men at most, and an assortment of militias of around the same number. About half of these militias are foreigners supplied and controlled by Iran, from the Shia Muslim populations of Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. These militias, particularly the Iranian and Lebanese shock troops, are better paid and trained than the Syrian militias, who are no more than loyalist criminal gangs bent on vengeance.

Foreign mercenaries cannot secure a Syrian city. And the Syrian army command is barely in control of the loyalist forces, meaning it will always be slow to respond to the rebels as they move under cover.

Most worrying for the Russians is that once the rebels no longer control urban territory but have moved underground, their air power will serve no purpose. The tables will be turned: aircraft have been used to attack rebel-held areas, they cannot defend regime-held cities from rebel attack.

Logically, Mr Putin knows that the best strategy would be to declare victory and withdraw. If that is a theoretical possibility for the Kremlin, it is not for the Iranians. Withdrawal would be a strategic loss for them. They are obliged to stay, even if that means becoming the recruiting sergeant for Sunni Muslims in Syria and beyond.

The next stage of the war is becoming clear, a guerrilla conflict where the rebels are present in the countryside, and the regime controls the populated areas in the west of the country and tries to project an image of stability at variance with the gangster reality of its hold on power.

If Donald Trump turns out to be the deal-making president he claims to be, there is a cynical bargain here for the Americans: Drive a wedge between the Russians and Iranians by offering Mr Putin partnership and a relaxation of sanctions in exchange for allowing a United Nations-monitored transition of power away from the Assad family.

This is not a done deal, however. The Assad clan sees the battle for Aleppo as a rerun of the destruction of Hama in 1982, when the city was brought down on the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood rebels. In Al Assad lore, that act preserved the regime for more than 30 years. But in this case history teaches the wrong lesson. That will not work twice.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps