This is the first of two articles. The second is available here – Aleppo has Fallen: Armed Opposition Seeks to Redefine Itself.
The fall of Aleppo represents the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s most significant victory in five-and-a-half years of war. However, the greatest victor is not Syria or its people, but the governments of Russia and Iran, whose differing strategic and geopolitical objectives have been won through a campaign of ruthless violence and diplomatic manipulation. Governments in the United States and Europe have appeared largely disinterested by the indiscriminate violence being meted out to east Aleppo’s 200,000 civilians and when prompted by evidence of war crimes, they have been unwilling or simply incapable of stopping it.
Brutality and criminality won and the much lauded values of human rights and freedom were left smoldering in Aleppo’s ruins. Dictators across the world watched and learned. Syria does not exist in a vacuum, after all.
For Russia, the methodical undermining of American credibility, political influence and humanitarian values has now been achieved. Despite it having taken nearly a year for its September 2015 intervention to show discernible results on the ground, and despite the pinnacle of its effort – the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, labeled by state-owned media as “a quantum jump in Russian military capabilities” – having become a subject of international ridicule and a hazard to its own MiG jets, the collective ‘West’ chose to stand aside and continue its feckless ‘statements of concern.’ Russia now gratefully welcomes diplomatic and economic embraces from traditional U.S. allies in the region, including Qatar, which just invested $11 billion in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer – thus acquiring a 19.5% share of a company currently under U.S. and EU sanction. And the Kremlin surely looks forward to an incoming administration in Washington that appears determined to develop close Russian ties.
For Iran, the conquering of Aleppo is of even greater strategic significance. While international attention has focused heavily on Russia’s role in Syria, it is Iran and its IRGC that predominate in influence over Bashar al-Assad’s ‘militiarized’ ground forces. An unpublished NATO study has estimated that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) commands no more than 20,000 offensively deployable forces in all of Syria, while internal Russian assessments suggested no more than 25,000 are offensively deployable and loyal enough to work in coordination with the Russian military. In contrast to that meager force, Iran enjoys a position of influence over Syria’s 100,000-man paramilitary National Defense Force (NDF) and more than 60 Shia militias, which in total likely number more than 30,000 men. Aleppo was a victory won primarily by Iranian proxies.
An inconvenient fact for an Obama administration determined to retain the Iran deal’s implementation has been that wherever the Assad regime has gained in Syria, the Iranians have invariably been leading the charge. And with Assad now firmly in place in Damascus, Tehran enjoys overwhelming influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with substantial sway in parts of Yemen and the Palestinian Territories. This wave of regional power change - which Russia is riding along with - is now a seemingly irreversible reality. While many regional government actors will eventually adapt to it, the drivers of extremism and terrorism have received a seismic boost, the consequence of which will be felt for many years to come. The killing of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey on Monday portends poorly for post-Aleppo stability.
Contrary to many recent inaccurate, misinformed, or purposely misleading claims, eastern Aleppo had not been a jihadi safe-haven. In fact, the city had for some time been one of an increasingly small number of areas in northern Syria where the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) was dominant. According to UN estimates, the de facto Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) constituted no more than 900 of the roughly 8,000-10,000 fighters in the city, or 11%. Moreover, French and other Western government officials familiar with the makeup of armed groups in Aleppo have assessed JFS’ presence in the city to have been “much less” than that, standing at 100-200 men, amounting to only 1-2%. Diplomatic and intelligence officials in the U.S. and the UK cited similarly low numbers personally to this author in November-December 2016.
The loss of Aleppo was therefore a serious defeat to Syria’s moderate opposition. Though now an inconvenient fact for those in government, both the U.S. military’s Joint Staff and the CIA had assessed back in October that the fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime would substantially “undermine America’s counter-terrorism goals in Syria.” Yet nothing at all was done to stop it.
“For us, this revealed America’s hypocrisy for all to see,” the commander of one U.S.-vetted group based across Aleppo told this author. With his fighters also engaged in counter-ISIS operations alongside Turkey’s military and the occasional unit of U.S. Special Operations Forces, the commander did nothing to hide his anger at Washington: “Is this what Obama calls justice and human rights? To use us as tools in his fight against Da’ish, while leaving us to the slaughter on another front… this is shameful. To us, Obama is no different to al-Assad now.”
More broadly, it is by no means a coincidence that Al-Qaeda’s core center of power in Syria, in neighboring Idlib province, went virtually untouched by the Assad regime during its assault on Aleppo.
Having lost Aleppo, Syria’s moderate armed and political opposition have been dealt a major blow. When faced with an imminent defeat in the besieged city, moderate FSA groups had pushed heavily in Turkish-brokered negotiations with Russia to be given the right to withdraw to the relative safety of Aleppo’s northern countryside, to join and operate under Turkey’s anti-ISIS and anti-Kurdish YPG ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation. At Iran’s pushing however, that option was removed from the evacuation deal at the last minute, leaving Aleppo’s civilians and moderate fighters to move westwards to the largely Islamist-ruled Idlib, where they will surely become the target of further sieges and bombing in 2017. “We know our fate has probably already been determined,” said one activist who fled Aleppo and is now in eastern Idlib, “but we survived Aleppo and we hope to survive what comes next. Only God knows.”
Turkey’s role in recent events is crucially important. Having been a stalwart supporter of the armed opposition since 2011, the Turkish government has more recently switched to a strategy of ‘hedging’ in Syria. Following its downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 and a steadily increasing terrorist threat from both ISIS and the Kurdish PKK throughout 2016, Turkish President Erdogan has sought to position himself more sustainably as a flexible and powerful regional player. After pursuing and achieving a rapprochement with Moscow, a secret agreement was made that granted Turkey the right to intervene in Aleppo’s northern countryside to combat ISIS and the expanding Kurdish YPG – the operation now known as Euphrates Shield. In return, Turkey effectively ceded Aleppo city to Russia, ceasing direct military assistance to the city’s opposition groups, a portion of which were withdrawn to Turkey in mid-2016, to be deployed into Euphrates Shield.
Turkey’s abandonment of Aleppo to the Assad regime is a fact not lost by Syria’s opposition. However, they remain intrinsically dependent on Ankara’s continued support elsewhere across northern Syria, especially in Idlib. With a heavy dose of irony, opposition groups currently lamenting their betrayal by Turkey in Aleppo must now implore it for further support next door in Idlib.
This swinging pendulum has placed other regional states supportive of the opposition in a troubling bind. Saudi Arabia appears to have dramatically reduced its support for armed opposition groups, at least while its limited bandwidth is focused on the conflict in Yemen. The United Arab Emirates ceased its support to Syria’s northern opposition over a year ago, and has recently cut its backing to groups in the south. Only Qatar remains determinedly supportive of a military opposition to Assad, but is entirely reliant on Turkey being a cooperative partner in that effort.
Since the assault on Aleppo began several weeks ago, there has already been a notable reduction in the use of American-made BGM-71 anti-tank missiles, provided externally and exclusively to vetted FSA groups. Opposition offensive operations have declined markedly across northwestern Syria, with most activity now limited to stand-off artillery attacks and sporadic exchanges of fire across battle lines. After Aleppo, it remains unclear whether Turkey’s policy of ‘hedging’ will create further opposition obstacles.
Conflict Far From Over
Notwithstanding the evolving geopolitical complexities, the conflict in Syria is far from over. The loss of Aleppo was not a complete surprise to the opposition, who as far back as February 2016 had talked to this author about its inevitability. By then, groups based in Aleppo’s western and southern countryside had already amended their training regimen for new recruits towards something more befitting a guerrilla-style conflict – including the manufacture of homemade explosives and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as well as hit-and-run and assassination tactics. Strategically, many of these groups described how they had already begun to operate in smaller cells, in order to prepare structurally for a more covert and challenging environment in the future. As a Jaish al-Islam commander active in Idlib and Latakia proclaimed: “This is our land. When the time comes, we will be like ghosts. The regime will not know where to turn for safety.”
Such strategy and tactics are already in play in several opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, where siege conditions and a consistent intensity of combat have made guerrilla warfare the norm. Indeed, after Aleppo it seems most likely that pro-regime forces will switch their focus to the country’s capital, especially to Eastern Ghouta, where a determined opposition led primarily by Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman has posed a consistent challenge to some of Syria’s most elite military units but has more recently suffered the effects and siege and inter-factional squabbling. Were the Assad regime to eventually neutralize its opposition in Ghouta, it would for the first time be in a position to declare itself in control of ‘useful Syria’ – described as the primarily urban territories stretching from Damascus, through Homs, Hama and into Aleppo, and encompassing the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia.
In such a scenario, the regime would then be well positioned to call upon certain members of the international community – including potentially a Trump administration – to join a counter-terrorism focused mission to take back Idlib. That is, a campaign on an Idlib province in which civilians and moderate armed opposition groups have been forcibly displaced to for over a year, after leaving crippling sieges across many parts of Syria.
In a general sense, this exemplifies the ultimate objective of Bashar al-Assad’s ‘cleansing’ modus operandi – to force people into submission through a ‘kneel or starve’ strategy, while altering the country’s demographic design by offering them evacuations to the one province widely considered as a safe-haven for non-ISIS extremists: Idlib. In addition to vast population displacement and the creation of more than five million refugees, the consequence of this brutally effective policy has been to systematically undermine the mainstream opposition; to gradually embolden Islamist actors; and thus to force the international community at some future point to buy into its ‘counter-terrorism’ narrative and commit to what would inevitably be a catastrophically destructive campaign, akin to killing 100 sheep in order to neutralize the one wolf in their midst.
Syria cannot and should not be divided into an ‘Assad or the terrorists’ binary description. To do so would be to betray those whom our governments have supported and whose political representatives we have labelled Syria’s legitimate representatives.
Moreover, the fall of Aleppo does not in any way represent a ‘military solution’ to the conflict in Syria. The armed opposition in its various shapes and sizes is not simply going to disappear. Already today, armed groups are in talks regarding a possible collective offensive against the strategically important Hama military airport and Hama city.
Meanwhile, and more importantly, the Assad regime has nowhere near the sufficient scale of force to recapture and hold the rest of the country. The capture of Aleppo underlined that manpower reality especially clearly, as the resource spent taking the city precipitated a major series of opportunistic ISIS victories in central Homs province, including the loss of Palmyra and a swathe of oil and gas fields. Remarkably, Russian forces in the Palmyra area evacuated several days before the town’s fall, leaving primarily Iranian-led militias to lead a last gasp defense. ISIS took control of several operational air defense systems in those victories, as well as several dozen tanks, armored vehicles, artillery systems and truckloads of ammunition. The Assad regime may have won one victory in Aleppo, but it came at the cost of defeats elsewhere. That doesn’t look like the achievements of a victor.
Charles Lister is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, where is work focuses on the conflict in Syria and on assessing and combating terrorism across the region. He is on Twitter, here: Charles_Lister
This is the first of two articles. The second is available here – Aleppo has Fallen: Armed Opposition Seeks to Redefine Itself.