By Manish Rai:
After reclaiming almost all of Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial capital, President Assad has got his biggest prize of the war. It puts his forces in control of the country’s four largest cities as well as the coastal region, and cap a year of steady government advances. It should be remembered that more than half of Syria’s population lives in its four great cities – Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. And Aleppo used to its biggest city before the uprising. So by gaining control of Aleppo, the Syrian regime got total control of urban Syria which means control of the heart of the nation. It should also bolster the Syrian government’s position and momentum just as a new U.S. administration is taking hold, freeing thousands of Assad’s troops and allied militiamen to move on to other battles around the country. Eastern Aleppo was the last urban stronghold of the Syrian moderate rebels. With the fall of eastern Aleppo to regime forces and allied militias, the backbone of the non-Jihadist opposition to Assad has been broken. With the loss of Aleppo, the opposition has lost control of its only lifeline for resupply. Aleppo represents the essence of the conflict between the regime and the Syrian armed opposition.
The collapse in Aleppo is a devastating blow to the morale of rebels in other parts of Syria. With Aleppo secure, Assad will be able to turn his attentions to the Damascus countryside and Idlib, the province next to Aleppo. When eastern Aleppo falls, it’s only a matter of time before the remaining pockets of resistance will fall, either by fire or capitulation. And it may mark the end of the uprising against the Assad regime which the Syrian moderate opposition called a revolution. The opposition, always a hodgepodge of often mutually hostile groups united only by their enmity to the regime, hold only scattered and shrinking pockets of territory around Damascus, Homs, Daraa and Aleppo, with the only sizable area still under their control in Idlib province. Turkey supports factions of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ along Syria’s northern border, and the United States backs the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ in the northeast, but both those groups are focused on fighting ISIS, not the regime. The rebel groups that emerged from the popular uprising against Assad’s dictatorship in 2011 now face an existential threat after losing the key territories. The Syrian revolution which was started by the moderates has since its beginning lacked strategic vision because it began without any objective beyond reforming or replacing a regime that had nurtured as many allies as enemies. Because of deep resentment against the repressive Assad regime, the opposition had success in the initial phase of the uprising and was able to take Aleppo. But now, following the loss of this city which was considered as the heart of the Syrian revolution, the moderate opposition which positioned itself as the mascot of the revolution has been vanquished.
This crushing defeat of moderate rebels has one obvious consequence. It has left the jihadist, Salafist and Tafkiri factions of the rebellion practically alone on the battlefields, granting them near monopoly over the revolutionary discourse. This will be disastrous for the original moderate, secular, democratic goals of the Syrian revolution. The fall of Aleppo will cripple much of the rebel activity in the northern part of Syria. With Aleppo wrapped up, the regime and its friends will be able to start squeezing the rebels’ Idlib stronghold from Aleppo in the east, Latakia in the west, and Hama in the south – a move that could eventually escalate into a full-blown siege of the last major province held by the rebels. The fall of Aleppo could have lethal repercussions for the ongoing war and on post-war Syria as it will result in more radicalisation and sectarianism. In an interview with the Syrian newspaper al-Watan, Syrian President Bashar-Al-Assad said, “It’s true that Aleppo will be a win for us, but let’s be realistic – it won’t mean the end of the war in Syria,” he said. “But it will be a huge step towards this end.”
Surely the fall of Aleppo doesn’t mean immediate end to this bloody war in Syria. But the Syrian revolution – which started with the promise of overthrowing one of the most enduring and brutal dictatorships in the region, and of establishing of free Syria based on democratic values – is faced with the prospect of being reduced to a rebellion striving through disruptive acts of insurgency to break out of containment and marginality. Rebel forces will mount classic guerrilla hit-and-run attacks, assassinations, armed raids and roadside bombs on areas under government control. Syria’s civil war will linger on, with low intensity. Innocents will keep dying and some parts of the country will remain outside the control of Damascus. However, the one thing clear is that the Assad regime has prevailed, thanks to Moscow. It is also, perhaps, the final death knell for that string of revolts or revolutions or uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, which have ended in catastrophe.
Manish Rai is a columnist covering the Middle-East and Af-Pak regions and Editor of the geo-political news agency Views Around. He can be reached at email@example.com