Ad­van­tage As­sad - Aleppo cap­ture key mo­ment

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s ex­pected re­cap­ture of Aleppo af­ter a pro­longed and pun­ish­ing air as­sault is a defin­ing mo­ment in the coun­try’s devastating civil war: it leaves Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad in con­trol of al­most all ma­jor ur­ban ar­eas - and poised to pe­ti­tion for a role in the world com­mu­nity’s broader war against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants cling­ing to parts of Syria’s north­east. The prospect of such co­op­er­a­tion would once have been con­sid­ered highly im­prob­a­ble. As­sad be­came anath­ema in the West and much of the re­gion af­ter the bru­tal means he em­ployed dur­ing six years of car­nage that killed hundreds of thou­sands, dis­placed half his pop­u­la­tion and sent mil­lions of refugees to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and Europe.

But much has changed. Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia is fully en­gaged on As­sad’s side, with no world play­ers ea­ger to take it on. The as­sort­ment of rebel groups now clings to a hand­ful of pock­ets around the coun­try, lack­ing mo­men­tum and likely to re­turn to a low-grade in­sur­gency at best. Most crit­i­cally, the in­com­ing US pres­i­dent projects a sort of flex­i­bil­ity lack­ing un­der Barack Obama. Promis­ing to scale up the war on the Is­lamic State group, Don­ald Trump has hinted he would be ready to work with As­sad and Rus­sia. “I don’t like As­sad at all,” Trump said dur­ing the sec­ond presidential de­bate in October. “But As­sad is killing ISIS. Rus­sia is killing ISIS,” he said, us­ing an al­ter­na­tive acro­nym for the group.

And his se­lec­tion of Exxon Mo­bil CEO Rex Tiller­son, who has ex­ten­sive business deal­ings with Rus­sia and ties to Putin, has only fu­eled spec­u­la­tion that Trump would pur­sue closer ties with Moscow. If such a shift oc­curs, it would re­solve an awk­ward­ness that has be­dev­iled the two-year, US-led military effort to up­root IS mil­i­tants from the swaths of Iraq and Syria they seized in 2014. In these ar­eas, the group es­tab­lished an ex­traor­di­nar­ily ruth­less “caliphate” with mass killings and en­slave­ment, im­posed their bru­tal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of re­li­gion and fo­mented re­gional in­sur­gen­cies and global ter­ror­ism.

That helped pull to­gether a broad coali­tion of West­ern and Mid­dle East­ern na­tions that seems near vic­tory in Iraq, where the Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment has been a crit­i­cal ally lead­ing the fight on the ground and where a ma­jor bat­tle for the key city of Mo­sul is now un­der­way. But in Syria, the fight was com­pli­cated by As­sad’s pariah sta­tus. Lack­ing a lo­cal military ally, the US-led coali­tion has part­nered with ir­reg­u­lars and re­lied on air power and some spe­cial forces’ oper­a­tions. That ap­proach, which has had mod­est success, may well erode if As­sad is widely deemed to have sur­vived the war.

Aleppo is key to ce­ment­ing that per­cep­tion - its loss is a crush­ing blow to the rebels, leav­ing them lit­tle chance of re­cov­er­ing mo­men­tum. Syria’s largest city was once the coun­try’s com­mer­cial pow­er­house, hold­ing sym­bolic and strate­gic im­por­tance as an an­cient trad­ing post and long­time gate­way to Tur­key and the West. The rebels’ hold on the east­ern sec­tor of the city has been crum­bling this week, re­duced to a few neigh­bor­hoods, and the gov­ern­ment seems on the verge of re-es­tab­lish­ing au­thor­ity over the city.

As­sad also con­trols the capital, Da­m­as­cus, the ma­jor cities of Homs and Hama, as well as most of the Le­banese bor­der and the Mediterranean coast, where his mi­nor­ity Alaw­ite sect holds sway. As­sad has vowed to carry on with the war un­til all of Syria is re­taken, but has ex­pressed con­fi­dence that op­po­si­tion to him is on the de­cline. “Even if we fin­ish in Aleppo, we will carry on with the war against them,” he told a lo­cal news­pa­per last week.

Now he can free up some of his troops and thou­sands of al­lied mili­ti­a­men to turn to re­main­ing pock­ets held by rebels else­where in Syria, as well as the Is­lamic State ji­hadis. These rebel ar­eas in­clude some stretches around Da­m­as­cus and near the Jor­da­nian bor­der, as well as in north­ern Idlib prov­ince, a strong­hold of Syria’s Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate. “The re­cap­ture of Aleppo will po­si­tion As­sad to claim that he is Syria’s le­git­i­mate sovereign ruler and lobby the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to pro­vide him with sup­port,” said Jen­nifer Ca­farella of the Wash­ing­ton-based In­sti­tute for the Study of War.

He seems more likely to achieve that if he is ac­tively en­gaged in fight­ing the Is­lamic State group, which has not been a top pri­or­ity de­spite the fact that its ma­jor strong­hold is the mid-sized Syr­ian city of Raqqa. On Sun­day, IS ex­trem­ists re-oc­cu­pied the cen­tral town of Palmyra, which they had been ex­pelled from ear­lier this year - a surprise at­tack that clearly took ad­van­tage of the Russian and Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Aleppo.

It’s un­clear whether As­sad will pri­or­i­tize re­tak­ing Palmyra, with what’s left of its ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures af­ter the first Is­lamic State oc­cu­pa­tion. He may pre­fer to wait a few months in hopes of en­gi­neer­ing a new sit­u­a­tion with the new team in Wash­ing­ton. Ei­ther way, Syria’s fu­ture will likely be messy for a while, given the ar­ray of armed fac­tions, the like­li­hood of continued for­eign med­dling through por­ous borders and the trauma and rage felt by much of the pop­u­la­tion. Many ex­pect a continued in­sur­gency - which in turn would help As­sad ar­gue that he should be viewed as a part­ner in the in­ter­na­tional fight against “ter­ror­ism”.

In the bat­tle for lo­cal hearts and minds, it looms large that As­sad re­lied so heav­ily not only on Rus­sia and long­time ally Iran to re­take Aleppo, but was also aided by Le­banon’s powerful Hezbol­lah mili­tia and vol­un­teers from Iraq and Afghanistan. This stands in stark con­trast to the out­side pow­ers sup­port­ing the op­po­si­tion. No one sent in troops other than Tur­key, an in­ter­ven­tion mostly bent on down­siz­ing Kur­dish fight­ers it deemed a threat to its own se­cu­rity. The Syr­ian rebels were armed only lightly, and the United States re­frained from at­tack­ing As­sad even af­ter the 2013 use of chem­i­cal weapons. Even the no­tion of a no-fly zone over north­ern Syria was re­jected.

Ca­farella said this en­vi­ron­ment le­git­imizes an emerg­ing nar­ra­tive among ji­hadi groups that says the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity al­lowed Iran and Rus­sia to dom­i­nate Syria, and as a pup­pet As­sad must be op­posed. Rad­i­cals’ “abil­ity to re­cruit will grow rather than di­min­ish af­ter Aleppo’s fall,” she said. “The ter­ror threat em­a­nat­ing from Syria will in­crease rather than de­crease.”

A big ques­tion now is the po­si­tion of As­sad’s re­gional en­e­mies, from Saudi Ara­bia and other gulf na­tions to Tur­key. As­sad may lobby for res­tart­ing peace talks, bet­ting on the op­po­si­tion’s weak­ness to force con­ces­sions - chiefly that he should re­main in power at the head of a more in­clu­sive gov­ern­ment. But given the epic dev­as­ta­tion he has over­seen, a gen­uine rap­proche­ment seems un­likely in the extreme. — AP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.