The Syrian government forces recaptured a vast majority of rebel-held Aleppo marking a major turning point in the six-year-old crisis faced by the country and emboldening President Basher Al Assad’s position. This translates into the biggest defeat of the multifarious Syrian groups including ISIS and their equally diverse backers.
Despite Al Assad’s troops’ victory with the support of his Russian and Iranian allies it may not spell the end of the Syrian revolt as large swathes of territory remain under the control of the rebels and these may be very hard to retrieve, Middle East observers say.
Islamic state still holds much of eastern Syria and re-entered Palmyra recently. Kurds control a large part of the north-east. Hardline Islamists dominate Idlib province on the Turkish border while rebels have held in several areas in the south.
The real victors in Aleppo, strategically important city and an economic and trading centre, are Al Assad’s Iranian and Russian backers as much of the fighting has been spearheaded by Iranian-backed forces like Hezbollah from Lebanon and various other Shiite militias, while the Russian air force has provided vital support to them.
For the rebels, it appears difficult to reverse their losses as their backers show no sign of even maintaining support at current levels. Russian airstrikes, the west’s decision not to respond militarily, Turkey and others’ decision to not support Al Assad’s ouster indicate that opposition will lose their campaign in the long run.
While the US and European leaders insist that the outcome will not end the Syrian crisis and that a political solution remains the only plausible path forward, it looks difficult, if not impossible, for intermediaries to bring together the opposition and the regime to discuss a political roadmap.
It is also an open question if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to get stuck in Syria for years; American President-elect Donald Trump will continue US backing for the opposition and how much Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wants to build a Shiite-friendly arc across the Levant (the term is occasionally used to refer to modern events, peoples, states or parts of states in the same region, namely Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey are sometimes considered Levant countries).
Russia’s bloody actions—the bombing of civilian neighbourhoods, the destruction of hospitals and the refusal to allow non-combatants to receive food, fuel, and medical supplies in Aleppo during the action against the rebels violated the international law.
US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power recently said that Al-Assad, Russia and Iran had put a “noose” around Aleppo’s civilians and “it should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you.”
“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women, and children, the destruction—and we are nowhere near the end of the cruel conflict,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussain said in a statement.
Thousands of people are trapped in increasingly desperate conditions and need to be evacuated. Reports coming form the besieged area spoke of people sleeping on streets in freezing conditions with little or no food. Plans to evacuate the civilians and fighters from Aleppo as part of a ceasefire deal could not proceed due to renewed airstrikes and shelling last Wednesday.
Al Hussain said while the reasons for the breakdown in the ceasefire were disputed, the resumption of massive bombardment by the Syrian government forces and their allies in an area packed with civilians is almost certainly a violation of international law and most likely constituted war crimes.
UN humanitarian advisor for Syria Jan Egeland said thousands of people are in need of evacuation, but the first, and the most urgent thing is to take out wounded, sick and children including orphans.
Turkey accused the Syrian government forces of breaking the truce. Syrian state TV blamed the rebels of breaking the ceasefire and said six people were killed.
A new deal was reached to complete the evacuation, which was halted Friday over demands from pro-government forces that people also be moved out of two Shi’ite villages besieged by rebels, the evacuation of wounded people from two towns besieged by government troops near the Lebanese border and the full evacuation from Aleppo.
As part of the latest deal, a total of 4,000 people will evacuate the Shia-majority towns of Fua and Kefraya in Idlib province, which are currently besieged by opposition fighters. More than 400,000 Syrians including women and children have been killed since the war in Syria began in 2011 with anti-government protests.
According to UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights over 90,000 of them are civilians. The toll includes more than 53,000 rebels and nearly 110,000 pro-regime fighters, among them over 60,000 Syrian soldiers. Millions more have fled across regional borders and to Europe.
(M Shakeel Ahmed isformer Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are personal.)