With or without Aleppo, Assad has already lost Syria
The Syrian regime’s capture of eastern Aleppo is certainly a major blow to the opposition but it is not the prelude to a total victory that the government and its supporters are portraying it to be.
The regime controls only a minority of Syrian territory, the rest split between various formidable forces that will fiercely resist President Bashar Assad’s attempts to retake the whole country.
Despite the shrinking territory of the Islamic State (ISIS), its recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra shows it is still a serious threat. Kurdish forces control swathes of northern Syria and are backed by both the United States and the Syrian regime’s key ally Russia. Syrian Kurds can also call on support from their ethnic kin in neighbouring Iraq and Turkey and would staunchly confront any threat to the autonomy they have declared.
Various rebel groups control territory throughout Syria. A northern alliance is backed by Turkish ground and air forces. A rival northern alliance is similarly backed by the United States but US President-elect Donald Trump has distanced himself from Syrian rebel groups. However, he might not withdraw support from this alliance because it has been an effective enemy against the ISIS. Defeat of the extremist group is central to his Middle East policy.
The irony of Assad regime victories in Aleppo and elsewhere is that they highlight its inherent weakness. They would not have been possible without Russian warplanes, Iranian forces, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and other foreign Shia militias. Russia intervened directly in 2015 because it looked as through the regime was on the verge of collapse.
In the summer of 2015, Assad acknowledged manpower shortages in his army. It became clear that it is unable to capture or keep territory without foreign military backing. Those manpower shortages have worsened considerably since Assad’s acknowledgement, so retaking and governing the entire country would be impossible without a long-term foreign military presence.
As such, Assad’s vow to do so is entirely dependent on the will and ability of his allies. However, such a foreign occupation would not be popular in the countries involved because it would be open-ended, financially costly and their forces would be constantly targeted. It would also be unpopular in Syria itself, even among regime supporters.
Even without foreign help, it is unimaginable that the Syrian people would willingly accept the reassertion of regime authority over the entire country after rising up against decades of dictatorship.
In the almost six years since, the regime has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, destroyed the country and sabotaged peace efforts, all to keep Assad in power rather than allow the population to live in freedom and dignity.
If Syrians had had enough in 2011, why would they accept the regime now after all it has done to them? The capture of eastern Aleppo is indicative of the contempt with which the regime and allied forces hold the Syrian people — bombing the city into oblivion and besieging and starving its people into submission, then kidnapping men, executing women and children and looting their homes.
This is what the Syrian people would have to look forward to: A regime that is more brutal, paranoid and emboldened than ever. Assad is sorely mistaken if he thinks Syrians will resign themselves to such a fate after all they have sacrificed and endured.
He is confusing peace with pacification and, even if he achieves the latter — a big if — it will only be a matter of time before he is challenged again.
Assad’s foreign allies may be handing him battlefield victories but he has lost outright the most important battle, the one for hearts and minds. That will eventually be his undoing.