The Syrian government’s recapture of Aleppo after a prolonged and punishing air assault is a defining moment in the country’s devastating civil war: it leaves President Bashar Assad in control of almost all major urban areas – and poised to petition for a role in the world community’s broader war against Islamic State militants clinging to parts of Syria’s northeast.
The prospect of such cooperation would once have been considered highly improbable. Assad became anathema in the West and much of the region after the brutal means he employed during six years of carnage that killed hundreds of thousands, displaced half his population and sent millions of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe.
But much has changed. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is fully engaged on Assad’s side, with no world players eager to take it on. The assortment of rebel groups now clings to a handful of pockets around the country, lacking momentum and likely to return to a low-grade insurgency at best.
Most critically, the incoming U.S. president projects a sort of flexibility lacking under Barack Obama. Promising to scale up the war on the Islamic State group, Donald Trump has hinted he would be ready to work with Assad and Russia. “I don’t like Assad at all,” Trump said during the second presidential debate in October. “But Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS,” he said, using an alternative acronym for the group. And his selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has extensive business dealings with Russia and ties to Putin, has only fueled speculation that Trump would pursue closer ties with Moscow.
If such a shift occurs, it would resolve an awkwardness that has bedeviled the two-year, U.S.-led military effort to uproot IS militants from the swaths of Iraq and Syria they seized in 2014. In these areas, the group established an extraordinarily ruthless “caliphate” with mass killings and enslavement, imposed their brutal interpretation of Islam and fomented regional insurgencies and global terrorism.
That helped pull together a broad coalition of Western and Middle Eastern nations that seems near victory in Iraq, where the Baghdad government has been a critical ally leading the fight on the ground and where a major battle for the key city of Mosul is now underway.
But in Syria, the fight was complicated by Assad’s pariah status. Lacking a local military ally, the U.S.-led coalition has partnered with irregulars and relied on air power and some special forces’ operations. That approach, which has had modest success, may well erode if Assad is widely deemed to have survived the war.
Aleppo is key to cementing that perception – its loss is a crushing blow to the rebels, leaving them little chance of recovering momentum. Syria’s largest city was once the country’s commercial powerhouse, holding symbolic and strategic importance as an ancient trading post and longtime gateway to Turkey and the West. Assad also controls the capital, Damascus, the major cities of Homs and Hama, as well as most of the Lebanese border and the Mediterranean coast, where his minority Alawite sect holds sway.
Assad has vowed to carry on with the war until all of Syria is retaken, but has expressed confidence that opposition to him is on the decline. “Even if we finish in Aleppo, we will carry on with the war against them,” he told a local newspaper last week.
Now he can free up some of his troops and thousands of allied militiamen to turn to remaining pockets held by rebels elsewhere in Syria, as well as the Islamic State jihadis. These rebel areas include some stretches around Damascus and near the Jordanian border, as well as in northern Idlib province, a stronghold of Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate.
“The recapture of Aleppo will position Assad to claim that he is Syria’s legitimate sovereign ruler and lobby the international community to provide him with support,” said Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
He seems more likely to achieve that if he is actively engaged in fighting the Islamic State group, which has not been a top priority despite the fact that its major stronghold is the mid-sized Syrian city of Raqqa. On Sunday, IS extremists re-occupied the central town of Palmyra, which they had been expelled from earlier this year – a surprise attack that clearly took advantage of the Russian and Syrian government’s preoccupation with Aleppo.
It’s unclear whether Assad will prioritize retaking Palmyra, with what’s left of its archaeological treasures after the first Islamic State occupation. He may prefer to wait a few months in hopes of engineering a new situation with the new team in Washington.
Either way, Syria’s future will likely be messy for a while, given the array of armed factions, the likelihood of continued foreign meddling through porous borders and the trauma and rage felt by much of the population. Many expect a continued insurgency – which in turn would help Assad argue that he should be viewed as a partner in the international fight against “terrorism.”
In the battle for local hearts and minds, it looms large that Assad relied so heavily not only on Russia and longtime ally Iran to retake Aleppo, but was also aided by Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia and volunteers from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This stands in stark contrast to the outside powers supporting the opposition. No one sent in troops other than Turkey, an intervention mostly bent on downsizing Kurdish fighters it deemed a threat to its own security. The Syrian rebels were armed only lightly, and the United States refrained from attacking Assad even after the 2013 use of chemical weapons. Even the notion of a no-fly zone over northern Syria was rejected.
Cafarella said this environment legitimizes an emerging al-Qaida narrative that the international community allowed Iran and Russia to dominate Syria, and as a puppet Assad must be opposed.
“Al-Qaida’s ability to recruit will grow rather than diminish after Aleppo’s fall,” she said. “The terror threat emanating from Syria will increase rather than decrease.”
A big question now is the position of Assad’s regional enemies, from Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations to Turkey. Assad may lobby for restarting peace talks, betting on the opposition’s weakness to force concessions – chiefly that he should remain in power at the head of a more inclusive government. But given the epic devastation he has overseen, a genuine rapprochement seems unlikely in the extreme.