The fall of Aleppo will have great resonance in Syria’s savage civil war. Apart from its symbolic value, it will mean that the regime now controls what was once the country’s largest city and commercial centre. It will broadcast the potency of Russian military power and the abject failure of Western policy in this crisis. It will mean that Bashar al-Assad has the enemy he has always wanted. But it will not mean that the bloodshed is going to end anytime soon.
As the regime’s forces continued to clear the last corners of what the opposition calls “Free Aleppo” the House of Commons in London held an emergency debate on Tuesday. Amid much hand-wringing George Osborne acknowledged “this tragedy was created by a vacuum of Western leadership, of American leadership, British leadership”.
The West does, indeed, bear a heavy responsibility for what has happened. Having encouraged the Syrian people to rise up against the Assad regime it did little to help the moderate opposition, allowing Islamist extremists of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra funded by the Gulf states, to become predominant. David Cameron with his mantra of “Assad must go” was among those who dismissed compromise deals which might, just, have helped stem the conflict.
What is unfolding in Aleppo will have an effect outside Syria. Reports of Shia militias and regime troops carrying out executions of Sunnis, whether civilian or fighters, on the streets and at homes; of assaults and mass arrests with Sunni youths and young men is likely to further fuel the violent sectarian strife in the region.
It was not surprising that the death throes of Aleppo were accompanied by brutality. This was to be expected in a conflict where there has been little pity. A conflict in which a rebel fighter some of us thought we knew well appeared in a video eating the heart of a dead soldier: where a Western backed group smiled to the cameras before murdering a 12-year-old boy; where journalists, some of them our friends, and aid workers have been beheaded by Isis. This was also the conflict where we have found the bodies of doctors who had been arrested by the regime’s security service dumped on the streets of Aleppo with their eyes gouged out and in which women activists have talked of their gang-rape in President Assad’s prisons.
The siege of Aleppo had been well documented: repeated international conferences and ceasefires being organised and then falling apart: accusations and recriminations among world powers – a ghastly danse macabre taking place in a once beautiful and civilised city being destroyed by barrel bombs and missile strikes.
The fall of Aleppo is going to be a body blow to the Frees Syrian Army (FSA) a loose coalition of groups, some backed by the West, which had been fighting the regime, Isis, against and alongside Jabhat al-Nusra at different times, as well as each other.
American aid to these groups was already under threat since the victory of Donald Trump. The president-Elect has professed his admiration for Vladimir Putin and sees Russia as an ally against Islamist terrorism. The fall of Aleppo is likely to reinforce the desire of the incoming administration in Washington to cut their losses with what remains of the moderate opposition groups.
These FSA members, angry and disillusioned, are likely to head for neighbouring Idlib where Jabhat al-Nusra, has set up base. Some of the fighters who had managed to escape from Aleppo are already there, joining a stream from others from areas where the regime has made gains.
Al-Nusra had recently sought to rebrand itself, changing the name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claiming to have cut links with al-Qaeda. But it remains designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and the Kremlin has declared that they will face the next offensive after Aleppo.
Having the bulk of what is left of the armed opposition to him fighting under the black flag of al-Nusra will suit the Assad regime’s narrative that they have been fighting terrorists all along. It is not just the Trump administration which is likely to be receptive to this but also some governments in Europe, especially if hard-right parties get to the levers of power.
But there is no guarantee of total victory for President Assad. Isis may be fighting desperately to cling on to Mosul, its remaining stronghold in Iraq and it faces an impending attack on Raqaa, the capital of its “caliphate”, in Syria, but its recapture of Palmyra showed that it retains the ability to fight and carry out counter-offensives.
Isis had overrun Palmyra in May last year after a mass retreat by regime forces and destroyed much of the priceless heritage of the historic city. It was recaptured ten months later by the regime with the help of intense Russian air-strikes. The jihadis came back and took over again this week with relative ease, demonstrating that President Assad’s army remains vulnerable in other areas while undertaking a major mission like the one in Aleppo and when it does not have immediate Russian and Iranian support.
Syria, in the course of this five-year long conflict, has become the arena for both internal and regional rivalry. The Turks have established a deep security zone’ in the north of the country with thousands of troops, armour and aircraft, backing rebel groups it supports and as part of its war against the Kurds. They are not about to give up this strategic advantage.
The Kurdish YPG and the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) a mixed Arab and Kurdish group, are seen by Washington as the most effective allies on the ground against Isis and receive American military support. They have made substantial territorial gains and they are trying to expand the area under their control.
The Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have heavily funded the Sunni rebellion against the Assad regime. They are unlikely to sit back and simply let Shia Iran spread its influence further in an Alawite run Syria. A vicious proxy war is taking place in Yemen with the Iranian backed Houthi militia fighting a Saudi led Sunni coalition. More such violence, spreading instability and misery, may well be the bitter harvest of Aleppo.