Aleppo falls but Syrian conflict will persist and continue to destablise the Middle East
A lot now depends on how the new Trump administration will direct US policy
The fall of Aleppo is a major turning point in the Syrian civil war and a horrifying humanitarian spectacle played out on world media. From now on the Assad regime has the upper hand in that war, along with its Russian and Iranian allies. It controls most of Syria’s remaining population, nearly half of whom have been displaced, exiled or died over the past five years – perhaps 10 million people in all. But the war is not yet over, since many areas remain in rebel hands. International efforts should now turn to bringing it to an end.
Aleppo was the seat of the first protests against the regime in 2011, uniting many strands of material and ethnic dissatisfaction with Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The city’s role in the civil war tracks the conflict’s internationalisation to involve competing regional and world powers. Surrounding areas remain strongholds of government, rebel, Islamic and Kurdish forces. Refugees fleeing eastern Aleppo amid great danger and the real risk of summary execution are being bussed to Idlib province which is still in rebel hands. The involvement of Russian air power and ground forces have been indispensable in securing victory for Assad.
Their involvement symbolises the complex geopolitical reality of these harrowing events. Compared to the vacillating roles of the United States and European powers – Britain included – Russia has steadfastly supported the Assad regime for its own strategic and interest-based reasons to do with its role in the Middle East, its fear of Islamist spillover from there and, most recently, its stepped up assertiveness in world politics under president Vladimir Putin.
A lot now depends on how the new Trump administration will direct US policy in the New Year. He favours better relations with Putin’s Russia yet strongly opposes its ally Iran. His attitude towards Saudi Arabia, the other significant regional power involved in Syria’s proxy wars, is as yet unclear.
Some reconciliation of these competing global and regional interests will be needed before any further efforts are made to bring the fighting to an end. The sheer scale of its destructiveness makes it unlikely the country can be reassembled as it was five years ago. Too many lives have been lost and people scattered for that to be possible, especially under Assad. Nor is it clear yet whether his opponents are sufficiently demoralised by this defeat or exhausted with the conflict to see it end soon.
All this will play out in the year to come. Among the more realistic options is a far looser political structure reflecting current political and ethnic divisions. An alternative complete reorganisation of the regional order carved out of competing empires a century ago would certainly prolong the wars for decades to come.