Loss to spell end for re­bel­lion’s dreams

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Syria’s rebels once dreamed of over­throw­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar AlAs­sad’s gov­ern­ment and tak­ing con­trol of the coun­try, but with the im­mi­nent loss of Aleppo they now face the prospect of to­tal de­feat. Though rebels re­tain ter­ri­tory else­where in Syria, in­clud­ing al­most all of neigh­bor­ing Idlib prov­ince, a crush­ing de­feat in the coun­try’s sec­ond city would be highly sym­bolic.

It “means the end of Syria’s op­po­si­tion as a force that can plau­si­bly chal­lenge the As­sad regime or con­trol a coun­try”, said Sam Heller, a fel­low at The Cen­tury Foun­da­tion think tank. When rebels stormed Aleppo in 2012, a year af­ter the up­ris­ing against As­sad be­gan with anti-gov­ern­ment protests, the op­po­si­tion be­lieved it was on the verge of over­throw­ing his regime. With the sup­port of back­ers in­clud­ing West­ern na­tions, Gulf coun­tries and Tur­key, op­po­si­tion fight­ers ap­peared to have mo­men­tum on their side.

But in re­cent months, and par­tic­u­larly af­ter Rus­sia’s Sept 2015 in­ter­ven­tion in sup­port of Da­m­as­cus, they have suf­fered a string of de­feats capped off by their likely loss of Aleppo. “We’re now past the point where the op­po­si­tion has any hope of pulling back,” said Yezid Sayigh, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­tre. “They just no longer have the num­bers and the ge­o­graphic spread to be able to mount ma­jor of­fen­sives.”

With Aleppo out of rebel hands, the largest re­main­ing rebel bas­tion is Idlib prov­ince, which is con­trolled by an al­liance dom­i­nated by for­mer Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate Fateh al-Sham Front. Rebels also hold ter­ri­tory in south­ern Daraa prov­ince and the Ghouta re­gion around Da­m­as­cus, al­though the army has been ad­vanc­ing there.

In re­cent months, the gov­ern­ment has sealed a num­ber of “rec­on­cil­i­a­tion deals” with rebel ar­eas in Ghouta, se­cur­ing the sur­ren­der of op­po­si­tion fight­ers in re­turn for grant­ing them safe pas­sage to Idlib. The op­po­si­tion crit­i­cizes these deals as a “starve or sur­ren­der” tac­tic, with rebels forced into deals af­ter months or years of army siege and sus­tained bom­bard­ment. But As­sad has long touted such deals as the best way to re­solve a con­flict that has killed more than 310,000 peo­ple and dis­placed over half the pop­u­la­tion since it be­gan in March 2011.

“I thinks it’s very likely that the loy­al­ist forces will move quickly to im­pose ca­pit­u­la­tion deals on other rebel pock­ets,” said Aron Lund, a non-res­i­dent fel­low also at The Cen­tury Foun­da­tion. “Dis­man­tling the in­sur­gency in East­ern Ghouta will be one of the regime’s big projects in 2017,” he added. In Idlib, with ac­cess to the Turk­ish bor­der and a deep well of fight­ers - in­clud­ing new ar­rivals from sur­ren­der­ing ar­eas else­where rebels are likely to be able to hang on for longer. “You have an armed op­po­si­tion there that re­mains vi­tal and mo­ti­vated,” said Heller. — AFP

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