Syrian leader may be near capturing Aleppo, but the war is far from over, analysts say
ISIS' attack on Palmyra is a reminder of just how fluid the battlefield remains in parts of Syria
The Syrian regime’s near capture of eastern Aleppo changes the face of the country’s horrendous civil war; the fortunes of the many rebel groups arrayed against it have rarely seemed so bleak. But few observers expect them to sue for peace or lay down their arms.
A new phase of the conflict beckons, one in which the government led by Bashar al-Assad tries to consolidate its gains, as ruthlessly as it wishes, while its ever-more radicalized opponents revert to insurgent tactics.
All the while, any prospect of repairing the country or allowing its millions of displaced and expelled to return home remains distant. Assad will reign over a wasteland. To the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, Alex Younger, “In Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace.”
Rebel victory impossible
Rebels surged into much of Aleppo in 2012. As recently as the summer of 2015 they still imagined they could defeat Assad. No longer: So long as he has Russian and Iranian backing, victory for any rebel alliance is impossible. Militarily, Assad has the wind in his sails and has repeatedly said his ultimate goal is to free every inch of Syria from “terrorists.”
Assad knows that’s a long way off. He told the state newspaper al Watan this month that victory in Aleppo would transform the course of the conflict: “But let’s be realistic,” he said, “it won’t mean the end of the war in Syria.”
A reminder of that came as the last bastions of resistance in Aleppo began to crumble. Some 280 kilometers to the south, ISIS launched an attack on the town of Palmyra surprising in its scale and intensity. Over the weekend, Syrian troops fell back from the town, despite intense Russian airstrikes in their support. Their humiliation came just nine months after the regime celebrated retaking Palmyra and its fabled Roman theater.
Intelligence analysts Flashpoint Partners say ISIS’ attack on Palmyra is a reminder of just how fluid the battlefield remains in parts of Syria. “It affords ISIS further opportunities to advance in Homs province. The group has already seized several gas and oil fields in the city, further underscoring ISIS’ pursuit of energy resources.”
Assad may soon control Syria’s major urban centers – or their ruins – but vast areas of north and eastern Syria remain beyond his grasp. His armed forces have been degraded by incessant fighting, and debilitated by desertion. He must rely on irregular militia known as the National Defense Forces. More significantly, he continues to need Russian airpower and largely Shia paramilitary units from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pacifying the Aleppo area will consume already-stretched resources. Jihadist rebel groups, principally the former al Qaeda affiliate now known as Fatah al Sham, still dominate the northwestern province of Idlib. ISIS still holds Raqqa and much of Deir Ezzour near the Iraqi border. The Kurdish YPG militia controls much of the border with Turkey and the sizable towns of Qamishli and Hasakah. And the hinterland around the capital Damascus is a checkerboard.
The conditions for a political solution simply don’t apply. Even in its direst moments – in mid-2015 – the regime did not contemplate concessions. Now with the upper hand, it has no incentive to make a deal. And the international environment is arguably more favorable to the regime than it has been since 2011.
A US administration that repeatedly said peace in Syria was impossible while Assad remained in power is about to give way to one that wants to cooperate with Russia against terrorism in Syria. US support for the Syrian Kurds as an effective ally against ISIS may diminish. Iran has more money to spend thanks to the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions. Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitaries have said that once they are finished with ISIS in their own country, they will help rid Syria of terrorists (for which read Sunni groups).
Moscow is already comparing the Obama administration to what it hopes for under a Trump administration. Speaking about the loss of Palmyra, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “Cooperation would have probably allowed us to more effectively avoid such attacks from terrorists.”
The merciless battle for Aleppo has only concentrated the sectarian toxin that has steadily seeped into the Syrian civil war. It has deepened the despair of rebel groups – and tens of thousands of trapped civilians – of ever getting any support from the international community. But so deep is their hatred of the regime for its targeting of hospitals and indiscriminate use of barrel bombs that many have said they prefer death to surrender.