Fight for Aleppo is almost over – but a new phase of misery begins
Analysis: Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to show mercy to those still trapped in ravaged city
Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad with the apostolic nuncio to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, in Damascus on Monday. According to media reports, Cardinal Zenari handed Mr Assad a letter from Pope Francis expressing his heartfelt sympathy for Syria and its people and asserting the Vatican’s condemnation of all forms of extremism and terrorism. Photograph: EPA/Sana
The fight for Aleppo is almost at an end. The clusters of desperate Syrians who remain huddled in the last rebel redoubt face an imminent reckoning , to yield to loyalist forces across the nearby dividing line or to stay and, almost certainly, die.
Aleppo will be cleansed of the the anti-Assad opposition and anyone who sympathised with it. Those who manage to flee, or who win the mercy of the conquerors, will face exile, likely in Idlib province, a bastion of the latest incarnation of the al-Qaeda-inspired Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is proscribed as a terrorist group by all the war’s protagonists.
Idlib will hardly be a refuge. After Aleppo , it will be the last urban stronghold – except for Islamic State-held Raqqa – outside regime control. Rebel communities from other defeated corners of Syria have already been sent there after regime victories, where they have continued to be bombed by Russian and Syrian jets.
The presence of jihadis offers the perfect pretext for the attacks to continue – their conflation with the rebels has been a constant theme of the regime narrative that it is fighting terrorist groups. Having them all mixed together serves such messaging usefully and portends poorly for the vanquished.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s claims that the fate of Aleppo will prove decisive in the war will probably be proved true. But the throes of victory obscure another, more enduring, truth – that stability will remain elusive for a long time to come. So too will a central tenant of Assad’s claim to continued leadership – sovereignty.
Assad has been helped into a winning position by Iran and Russia, who have done far more than his beleaguered military to all but defeat the opposition. Iran has had effective strategic control over how the war is run for the past three years. Militias from Lebanon and Iraq, which Tehran arms and organises, have been instrumental in overrunning eastern Aleppo, a goal that had remained well out of reach of Syrian forces since they were ousted from the city in mid-2012.
And from above, the scale and reach of Russian firepower has rained down on a city that has sheltered insurrections throughout the ages. The devastation of eastern Aleppo is staggering. Think Hama in 1982, a massacre ordered by Assad’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, which killed an estimated 20,000 people, and which took place away from the world’s gaze.
Aleppo is different; the suffering has been on regular display. It has been so long and agonising, and the international response so insipid, that many observers have been begging for it to end.
Assad has shown no sign that he will apply the mercy rule . And nor do his backers, who for different reasons appear determined to segue this win into an all-out victory across the country. This is where things will become problematic for the Syrian leader, who owes his continued presence in the presidential palace to Tehran and Moscow, both of whom will take a driving stake in what comes next. And, while both powers have had common ground until now – ensuring that Assad survives and preserving Syria’s territorial integrity – the next phase of the conflict will probably prove trickier for Assad to navigate.
Iran wants a postwar Syria that reinforces Damascus as a bridgehead for Hizbullah – an essential arm of its political military projection vis-à-vis Israel and the US. Iranian officials also claim their role in winning the war gives them more of a say in defining the national character of Syria, which they had been invested in since shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, though not on this scale.
A resurgent Russia is also sure to explore the spoils. Russia is ascendant in the region, at the expense of the US, the influence of which friend and foe alike acknowledge has waned. None of this augurs well for those in the last ravaged corner of Aleppo, or hunkering down in Idlib, where the victors will certainly come for them. The misery and uncertainty is entering a new phase. But it is not over yet.