With reports continuously appearing in the international media indicating the imminent fall of Aleppo to the Syrian forces, the significance of its impact on the Syrian conflict has grown.
The situation has once again pushed the US and Russia to re-start the dialogue process, but has also caused divisions and clashes among the various groups resisting the Syrian regime’s forces. The fall of Aleppo, therefore, means much more than the fall of just one city; it may trigger significant policy changes and determine the final outcome of the war.
The start of infighting among the “rebel” groups, resulting from their inability to hold Aleppo, has done a lot of damage to their capability to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The opposition has never been so weak, says Faiz Farah, one of the prominent leaders of National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It remains deeply divided both politically and ideologically, which in turn affects its capability to fight battles effectively, Faiz added. Now that it has started losing foreign support, the opposition is getting even weaker. If it keeps going that way, it will face an inevitable, slow and agonizing death.
As a result, a number of opposition groups seem to have already started to shift their allegiance and status from “moderate rebels” to “Islamist” by showing their willingness to join the Al-Qaeda affiliate group, Ahrar al-Sham, previously called Al-Nusra front.
This choice has, in part, been conditioned by the territory these “rebels” will be left with after the fall of Aleppo. That is to say, while the fall of Aleppo will not altogether strip the “rebels” of the whole of the territory currently under their control, the fact of the matter is that the remaining territory would not be under their sole control or domination.
Even if they controlled most of Aleppo and only a part of the city was ruled by Ahrar al-Sham/Al-Nusra front, the remaining territories, such as the province of Idlib and large parts of Hama province, would remain dominated by Ahrar al-Sham, which has previously crushed many Western-backed rebel factions during the conflict.
The weakened opposition faces a tricky situation. If it falls back to Idlib and Hama, it might have to work in close proximity with the Ahrar al-Sham, or even join it. In either case, the presence of jihadist influence is likely to discourage the US from supplying arms, particularly heavy weaponry, to the “rebels.”
President-elect Donald Trump has already hinted that he will stop funding the opposition altogether, which would render it even more powerless and could force it to choose between fizzling out or joining Al-Qaeda.
A third alternative is that the opposition might start direct negotiations with the Syrian regime and Russia. Anticipating a possible shift in the policy under the new US president, some reports indicate that “rebel” groups are already secretly negotiating with Russia to put an end to hostilities in Aleppo.
While this is certainly not the first time such meetings have taken place, what is different today is the large number of groups involved and the fact that Turkey is reportedly facilitating these talks, creating a policy conundrum for the US.
As such, some rebel groups are showing their willingness to join the still-powerful al-Qaeda affiliate group, while others are talking directly to Russia. Both of these developments indicate that the US is being left out of the whole scenario.
Whereas the first scenario could see the concept of a “moderate opposition” failing to retain its character and eroding whatever justification the US had for supporting them, the second could see the US pushed out of the equation in Syria—something the US cannot afford under the current circumstances. Both courses demand a corrective policy, the hallmark of which is to re-engage with Russia.
In this context, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s new proposal to discuss the routes and timing for a total rebel withdrawal from eastern Aleppo with Russia marks an important response to these two developments.
“As soon as these routes and time frames are agreed on, a ceasefire can come into effect,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said. The discussions would be based on proposals Kerry made in Rome last Friday, he said.
While a concrete agreement is yet to take place between the US and Russia, within the larger Western block, some countries seem to have finally recognized their inability to create an ‘Assad free’ Syria, leading them to shift their focus from blatantly accusing Russia of “war crimes” to putting Russia under the undue pressure of footing the bill for Syria’s reconstruction after the fall of Aleppo and other “rebel” held areas.
While Russia or any other country alone might not be able to afford the US$180 billion reconstruction bill, the emphasis now being put on this aspect appears to be a tactic to put pressure on Russia in the talks with the US due to begin from Thursday.
As the Washington Post notes, this is perhaps the only opportunity for the Obama Administration to strike a deal with Russia and preempt Trump allowing Russia to dominate the region.
Together, all of these different jigsaw pieces point to major developments in the Syrian conflict’s resolution.
Notwithstanding the importance of all this for the future of Syria, the ‘known unknown’ remains the role the Arab states will play in the future. Will the US-Russia deal be able to reconcile the Arab states’ differences and interests? Will Trump be able to prevent the flow of weapons and fighters from these states into Syria?
Different statements from EU diplomats have tended to ‘warn’ that even if Aleppo fell, the Syrian rebellion would turn, in essence, into a guerrilla war conducted with arms supplied by Gulf-sponsored rebels, sponsorship that one Qatari minister said would not stop even if the US were to end its role.
While such statements pop up every time the US and Russia agree to negotiate, they appear to be a Gulf tactic to secure a place at the negotiating table.
Given that “rebel” groups have been beset by infighting and are fast losing, such a situation wouldn’t suffice for the Gulf States to continue to support an overthrow of Assad, whatever local support they have.