Fall of Aleppo will be piv­otal mo­ment

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The fall of Aleppo will be a piv­otal mo­ment in Syria’s war, boost­ing regime hopes of re­gain­ing con­trol over the en­tire coun­try and deal­ing a prob­a­ble knock­out blow to rebels. An­a­lysts say the vir­tu­ally in­evitable regime vic­tory in Syria’s sec­ond city will give the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad a com­fort­able up­per hand. “Aleppo is the real turn­ing point of the war. It’s the equiv­a­lent of Stal­in­grad,” Syria ex­pert Fabrice Balanche said, re­fer­ring to the Soviet Union’s bloody vic­tory in the Rus­sian city that changed the course of World War II.

“With­out Aleppo, (As­sad) was a half-pres­i­dent,” said Balanche, an an­a­lyst at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy. But “with this vic­tory, he can present him­self as the pres­i­dent of the whole of Syria”. Rebels seized eastern Aleppo in mid-2012, just over a year af­ter anti-govern­ment protests broke out na­tion­wide. East Aleppo be­came a pow­er­ful sym­bol of re­sis­tance for Syria’s op­po­si­tion, with a lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion that en­dured years of fierce bom­bard­ment and a suf­fo­cat­ing govern­ment siege that be­gan in July this year. But when the govern­ment launched an all-out as­sault in mid-Novem­ber, backed by in­tense ar­tillery fire, the war­weary eastern dis­tricts all but col­lapsed. Regime troops and al­lied mili­tia now con­trol at least 85 per­cent of the one-time rebel strong­hold. “The myth of a mod­er­ate re­bel­lion in Aleppo ca­pa­ble of rep­re­sent­ing a po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary al­ter­na­tive to the regime - it’s over,” Balanche said.

‘Break op­po­si­tion’s back’

Yezid Sayigh, a se­nior as­so­ciate at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter in Beirut, told AFP a regime vic­tory in Aleppo would “tip the bal­ance” in its fa­vor. “We’re now past the point where the op­po­si­tion has any hope of pulling things back,” he said. Re­cap­tur­ing Aleppo holds tremen­dous po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance for the govern­ment, which saw the ri­val op­po­si­tion-run au­thor­i­ties in the city’s east as a ma­jor chal­lenge to its le­git­i­macy. It would also ring the death knell for the armed up­ris­ing. As­sad “will have in ef­fect bro­ken the back of the armed op­po­si­tion... and the idea that the regime can be over­come mil­i­tar­ily will be fi­nally put to rest”, Sayigh said.

Af­ter los­ing Aleppo, rebels will be largely con­fined to north­west Idlib and scat­tered pock­ets in Da­m­as­cus and Daraa prov­inces, with lit­tle hope for sup­port from their Turk­ish, Western or Gulf back­ers. Kur­dish forces will hold parts of north­ern and north­east Syria, and the Is­lamic State ji­hadist group will have to de­fend ter­ri­tory in the north and east. In turn, As­sad’s regime will fully con­trol Syria’s three main cities - Aleppo, Da­m­as­cus and Homs.

It will hold al­most all of the coun­try’s main pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, many of its air­ports and the bor­der with Le­banon. But an­a­lysts say the govern­ment will not stop there. “The end of the re­bel­lion in Aleppo will free up around 30,000 troops to launch new of­fen­sives,” Balanche said.

‘Snow­ball ef­fect’

One likely tar­get is Eastern Ghouta, a key rebel en­clave east of Da­m­as­cus. Douma, the largest town there, “does not want to meet the same fate as east Aleppo”, Balanche said. The regime may also move to seize Al-Bab, an IS-held town on a key route be­tween Aleppo and the bor­der with Turkey. Turk­ish forces and their rebel al­lies have ad­vanced to­wards the town, but Da­m­as­cus can­not af­ford to lose that race. “It’s too close to Aleppo and it would open the way for rebels to head to­wards Raqqa,” Balanche said.

Sayigh said the regime may now work on se­cur­ing the en­tire western length of the coun­try from the north­ern bor­der with Turkey to Jor­dan in the south. Beyond that there are two pos­si­bil­i­ties, he said. “One is (that) the regime turns east and starts push­ing to­wards Raqqa to demon­strate its use­ful­ness to the West and Rus­sia as a key part­ner against IS.” Oth­er­wise it could fo­cus on se­cur­ing Aleppo, “bot­tling the op­po­si­tion up in Idlib prov­ince and then chip­ping away at the edges”, Sayigh said.

Joshua Lan­dis, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter of Mid­dle East Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa, said a vic­tory in Aleppo would “likely have a snow­ball ef­fect and build regime ca­pa­bil­i­ties and morale”. “Once Syr­ian mili­tias be­lieve that the re­bel­lion’s days are counted, they will likely be more in­clined to ne­go­ti­ate ways to sur­ren­der that pro­vide pro­tec­tion to their fight­ers and de­pen­dents.” — AFP

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