MESOP TODAYS COMMENTARIES BY JOSHUA LANDIS – Ammar Abdulhamid – ARON LUND – Nicholas HERRAS
What the Rebel Loss of Aleppo will mean for Syria? – Four Analysts respond – Joshua Landis, Nicholas Heras, Aron Lund and Ammar Abdulhamid – Aleppo Reenforces Regime Claims to Be Able to Retake Most of Syria
By Joshua Landis – Director, Center for Middle East Studies, Univsity of OklahomaThe encirclement of Eastern Aleppo by the Syrian military and its allies is a major blow to the opposition. It reenforces regime aspirations that it can manage, if not entirely destroy the insurgency over the course of the next five years. It signifies four important developments that have been brewing for some time.
First, this major regime advance was made possible by Russia’s direct entry into the war. Russia transformed the balance of power in Syria by taking the side of the Assad regime last October. What is more, it resulted in a retreat of the United States and its allies. President Obama stated on the day Russia entered the war, that the United States would not fight a proxy war with Russia for Syria. That simple statement signaled the collapse of Western, Saudi and Turkish escalation in Syria on behalf of the Sunni militias. The logic of escalation was simple. It was to weaken Assad and force him to cut a deal with the Sunni militias. It was hoped that a political solution could lead to a Sunni rebel ascendancy in Syria. Regime advances put paid to opposition hopes that their allies would help drive Assad from Syria.
Second, Turkey is in chaos. All indications are that Erdogan, once he consolidates his power in Ankara and completes his purges of the Turkish security forces, judiciary and universities, will de-escalate in Syria. Turkey must stop its economic downward spiral. To do so, it must stop its wars. To rebuild tourism and foreign investment and consolidate support among Turkey’s middle classes, Erdogan must fight extremism. Prime Minister insists that Turkey will repair relations with Russia. Erdogan can no longer afford to provide covert support to most of Aleppo’s rebel forces, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafi-Jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. This is why Nusra leader, Joulani, recently announced that he was officially cutting ties with al-Qaida central. He doesn’t want to get bombed.
Third, the US and Western countries have prioritized their fight against ISIS and extremism over their efforts to arm rebel militias. In both US presidential conventions, not one word about removing Assad from power was heard. The West’s enthusiasm for arming “moderate” militias has cooled because so much of those arms ended up in the hands of Nusra and the Salafists. Obama’s recent efforts to formulate a common strategy with Russia to fight ISIS and Nusra has sent a clear signal to the entire region that stability, not regime-change, are paramount for both. This is good news for Assad and bad for the rebels.
Forth, the reconquest of Aleppo fits into the larger regime strategy by consolidating its grip on what has been called “Useful Syria.” More than half of Syria’s population lives in its four great cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. The regime is intent on retaking these four cities for they are the heart of the nation, certainly the urban nation. It should be remembered that Syria is a country of deep divisions, not only between religious communities but also between the classes and between urban and rural society. The upper and middle classes live in the cities. By restricting the rebellion to the poorer countryside and tribal regions, Damascus will have scored a moral and strategic victory. It will be able to turn rich against poor and city against village.
Syria’s rebels have grown progressively weaker over the last year. Russia’s entry into Syria was key to this shift. But other trends also contributed. Jihadist bombings in the West, Turkey and Saudi Arabia eroded support for arming rebels. The refugee problem in Europe, also undermined the desire to escalate in Syria. Iraq’s destruction of its Sunni rebellion weakened Syria’s rebels. The rise of ISIS and Nusra to paramountcy in Syria, undercut those arguing for arming rebels. For all of these reasons, the future looks dark for the rebel cause. Assad’s encirclement of Aleppo is an important chapter in Syria’s ongoing struggle.
Nicholas A. Heras
Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who helped author the center’s new report on combatting ISIS and dealing with Syria.
Losing Aleppo would not be a deathblow to the broader Syrian armed opposition movement, as too much of the country has fallen out of Assad’s control to the various different revolutionary forces. And Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely to import enough IRGC-mobilized militias to hold all of the ground that might be retaken from the rebels throughout the country. Perhaps even within the larger Aleppo governorate itself. However the loss of Aleppo would dispel any illusions that the armed opposition can seize and hold large areas of the most important cities in western Syria. Or that the long-sought unity of Aleppo’s rebel factions to resist Assad, over the long term and without significantly greater foreign military intervention than it has received, was anything more than a daydream.
The loss of rebel-held areas of Aleppo would be a big boost to the al-Assad government’s Narrative of Resistance, and for its assertions that it is marching inexorably toward an ultimate triumph in the war against a foreign conspiracy directed at Syria. It would also reinforce the idea within the upper echelon of the loyalist ranks that Assad’s forces (and their foreign friends) can “win” the war, even if it will be over the course of a long, twilight struggle. Further, a long siege of of opposition-controlled Aleppo would also draw out the horrible suffering of civilians in the rebel-held areas of the city. This suffering, which would play out before the eyes of the international community on an hourly basis, could very well be the death knell of opposition-supporting countries’ credibility with the armed opposition. And it just might be the final push that unites the disparate rebel factions in northern Syria under the banner of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Assad Hopes to Make Aleppo a Turning Point in the War
by Aron Lund
Nonresident Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Unless somehow rolled back by the rebels, Assad’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo could turn into a very drawn-out siege, which would no doubt have horrifying effects for the civilian population. But the effects are not just humanitarian or even military, there’s also a political side to this. If Assad shows that he is winning Aleppo, and he’s now also advancing on the rebels in Damascus, it could trigger a more dramatic shift by finally convincing opposition groups that they have lost the war. Many thousands of them would probably fight on regardless, for ideological reasons or simply because they see no hope for survival under Assad. But some might decide to abandon the fight and flee Syria or try to negotiate a separate peace with the government.
One problem with that is that Assad has historically shown himself to be too politically inflexible to capitalize on his military victories. This has been a constant source of frustration for his allies, but it just seems to be the way the regime works. Now, there are some signs of a more intelligent political management this time around. Assad has just decreed an amnesty for rebels who hand in their guns within three months. It’s probably in the hope of triggering defections, and also to show Syrians and foreigners alike that he can in fact reintegrate former enemies and would therefore be able to reunify Syria. But given the lawless way in which his security forces have always acted, I suspect many will think twice before taking him on his word.
Perhaps most importantly, if Assad cements his hold on Aleppo through a siege or even by retaking it in part or in full, that could be the moment when certain foreign backers of the rebellion decide to call it a day. No one is going to rush to embrace Assad after all of this and nations that have developed strong proxy forces in Syria will be reluctant to abandon their investments. But it does change the political horizon for the rebels’ backers. In my view, it is not realistic to expect countries like Turkey or Saudi Arabia – never mind the United States – to first let the rebels lose Aleppo and then rally the force needed for them to take it back. They’re not going to start from scratch again. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and the only thing that can change that is if the government itself has an internal meltdown. So without Aleppo, it is a different war and probably one in which some of his enemies will think differently about Assad’s role. Not all, but some of them, and that might be enough to alter the terms of the conflict.
(The text above was first written in response to a question from Associated Press, which quotes parts of it in this story on the encirclement of Aleppo.)
The Loss of Aleppo – A Pyrrhic Victory
By Ammar Abdulhamid – He was a fellow at Brookings and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He was the first Syrian to testify to congress against what he viewed as crimes by the Syrian president.
The loss of Aleppo will constitute a major blow to rebels in Syria, but it will neither end the rebellion nor the civil war. In fact, feeling betrayed and let down by their allies, many rebels, in Aleppo and elsewhere, will be radicalized, far more than they are today. This means that the ranks of the Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups, even as they face their own existential challenges, will swell, and other fronts will heat up.
Damascus in particular can expect serious escalations, as attacks against the civilian population, and on vital infrastructure, such the all too vulnerable water supply sources and routes, are bound to increase. Aleppo itself will not be completely pacified, and some reversals should be expected. In some instance, the besiegers could find themselves besieged, at least by terror. Few will stay not to mention return. Most of the city will be a deserted wasteland, and its ethnic makeup will be drastically altered.
On the political level, opposition groups will have another thing to cry foul about. But their cries, as usual will continue to fall on deaf ears.
Irrespective of popular impressions and populist agitation, Syrian refugees in neighboring countries as well as Europe have actually been well-behaved, and have so far refrained from taking part in any criminal or terrorist activities. The fall of Aleppo could change that as desperation sets in. And the tragic Syrian saga of letting worst case scenarios become self-fulfilling prophecies will continue, aided by continued reliance on short-sighted policies that fail to even tackle the symptoms not to mention fight the disease.
In short, the loss of Aleppo will constitute a pyrrhic victory than a decisive blow, and could heat things up rather than calm them down. The Syrian conflict will not end in accordance with any existing vision or plan, even one backed by Russia and the United States. After all, regional forces have been the main drivers of the conflict, and they are not ready to end it yet.
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