Fall of Aleppo a major victory for Assad but it has a hollow ring

Sunday 11/12/2016
Fall of rebel bastion in Aleppo will have international effects

Beirut - The Syrian regime’s im­pending conquest of Alep­po will be a major victory for Bashar Assad but one that was secured for him by Russian air power and Iranian-led militias to whom he is now be­holden.
With much of the historic city in ruins after months of relentless bombardment, the Syrian presi­dent’s triumph has a hollow ring to it.
Although it will give Assad con­trol of Syria’s five main cities, it will not bring stability to a country rav­aged by nearly six years of interne­cine battles or signal the end of the often-barbaric conflict in which a ruling dynasty has made war on its own people.
What the fall of Aleppo does mean is that Russia and Iran have tightened their grip on a country that once portrayed itself as the defender of the Arab world. Assad cannot survive without them.
It also means that the Islamic Re­public has moved one step closer to its strategic objective of expanding Shia power throughout the region and that Russia has secured mili­tary bases in the Middle East that advance President Vladimir Putin’s quest to restore Moscow’s global influence, which collapsed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Without doubt, the rebels’ loss of the eastern sector of the city, which they have held since mid-2012, is a major defeat but those opposed to Assad still hold large areas of northern Syria, where an estimated 150,000 fighters are dug in. They are supported by regional powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which seek the downfall of the Assad re­gime and will continue to resist the efforts of Russia and Iran to keep him in power.
The war will go on. Already, Rus­sian warplanes are pounding rebel positions in Idlib province, which neighbours Aleppo province.
“Idlib can no longer be considered as a safe area,” rebel groups in Alep­po said in a statement on December 7th. “It is no longer able to contain any more displaced people.”
With Assad’s forces, largely Ira­nian-backed militias led by Hezbol­lah’s elite Radwan Brigade, holding an estimated 75% of eastern Aleppo and tightening the noose around the last pockets of rebel resistance, it is only a matter of time before the rebels’ last major urban stronghold will be overrun.
Even so, opposition groups launched a surprise offensive in Syria’s eastern desert, with jihad­ist fighters reported within a few kilometres of the ancient and much abused city of Palmyra from which they were ejected in March.
This underlined the capacity of the jihadists and other anti-Assad forces to continue the war.
The fall of the rebel bastion in Aleppo will also have international effects.
Since the war began in March 2011, triggered by the Damascus regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters demanding political and economic reforms, the United States and the West have failed to act to stop the slaughter.
US President Barack Obama was particularly averse to being dragged into another Middle East­ern conflict, while Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council effectively blocked any outside ef­fort to end the bloodletting in which an estimated 400,000 peo­ple have been killed and 10 million, about half Syria’s pre-war popula­tion, have been displaced.
The massive wave of refugees from the Syrian war and other Mid­dle Eastern conflicts has swept to­wards Europe, instigating a sharp political shift to the right that has raised fears that the European Un­ion could break up, long a strategic objective of Russia.
Whether US President-elect Don­ald Trump will embrace a more ac­tive policy towards Syria remains to be seen.
However, if the views of the hard-line figures, including several former generals, he is assembling to run his administration are any guide, US policy on Syria could well take a sharp turn towards bol­stering rebel forces or making new moves to impede the expansionist ambitions of Russia and Iran.
“Trump’s determination to weaken Iran, which cannot be done without reducing its influ­ence in the Middle East, and espe­cially in Syria, could also be used as leverage to increase US support to the rebels,” observed Beirut-based analyst Haid Haid.
A pointer towards what may be coming was a defence bill passed by the Republican-majority US Congress on December 2nd. It con­tains language that could authorise the Trump administration to sup­ply some Syrian rebel groups with surface-to-air missiles. This would give them, for the first time, weap­ons that could effectively counter Russian and Syrian control of the skies.
The Americans have shied away from providing such potent weap­ons because of fears they could fall into the hands of terrorists and threaten commercial airliners.
“This provision could be the first step towards a profound shift in US policy,” Matt Schroeder of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey warned.