Aleppo’s fall marks new, uncertain phase of Syr­ian war

U.S. role hinges on Trump pol­icy

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ

The rout of Syr­ian rebels by the Rus­sian-backed forces of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad in the city of Aleppo likely marks the be­gin­ning of the end of the civil war that has rav­aged the coun­try for more than 5½ years and led to the un­prece­dented slaugh­ter of hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians trapped by the fight­ing.

But the fall of rebel-held parts of Aleppo — once the coun­try’s largest city and a ma­jor trad­ing and eco­nomic hub — also will usher in a new, un­pre­dictable phase.

Mr. As­sad’s forces, backed by Rus­sian air power, Ira­nian mili­tias and Hezbol­lah fight­ers, aim to crush the re­main­ing re­sis­tance across the coun­try while chal­leng­ing the base of ter­ror­ist groups such as the Is­lamic State and Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham, which re­cently cut ties with al Qaeda and changed its name from the Nusra Front.

That un­pre­dictabil­ity will be fur­ther ex­ac­er­bated with Don­ald Trump in the White House. The pres­i­dent-elect has said he plans to aban­don Pres­i­dent Obama’s

pol­icy for regime change, end sup­port for lead­ing rebel groups and back Moscow’s ef­forts to prop up the As­sad regime.

The Trump tran­si­tion team re­mained quiet Tues­day re­gard­ing the on­go­ing car­nage in Aleppo. How­ever, the pres­i­den­t­elect has made clear that he plans to rein in the U.S. role in the Syr­ian civil war and fo­cus ef­forts on driv­ing the Is­lamic State group, also known as ISIS, from its self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal in Raqqa.

Mr. Trump said re­peat­edly dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign that he would push to re­work the over­all U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tion­ship, par­tic­u­larly on how to han­dle the war in Syria.

“My at­ti­tude was, you’re fight­ing Syria, Syria is fight­ing ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Rus­sia is now to­tally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is be­com­ing pow­er­ful, be­cause of us, is aligned with Syria,” Mr. Trump said in an in­ter­view with The Wall Street Jour­nal.

Mr. As­sad said this fall that the Syr­ian army’s next tar­get would be the north­west­ern city of Idlib, about 35 miles from Aleppo. Con­trol of Idlib would give the gov­ern­ment con­trol of the main land trans­porta­tion links be­tween Da­m­as­cus and Aleppo.

With the rebels’ lat­est de­feat, the com­po­si­tion of Mr. As­sad’s ad­ver­sary is likely to change too, with ji­hadi fight­ers tak­ing a more prom­i­nent role with sec­u­lar pro-Western rebel forces badly mauled in Aleppo’s fall.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has tried for months to ne­go­ti­ate a cease-fire in the city, widely seen as a key to end­ing hos­til­i­ties in the coun­try. But Wash­ing­ton re­mained largely on the side­lines as Rus­sia and Turkey took the lead in talks.

But Syria pol­icy un­der Mr. Trump may not nec­es­sar­ily be that dif­fer­ent from the one drafted by the out­go­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion, said Michael O’Han­lon, a se­nior de­fense and for­eign pol­icy fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“Well, at one level, we shouldn’t over­state the im­por­tance of the change in the White House. It was un­der Obama, af­ter all, that Rus­sia in­ter­vened and As­sad re­gained mo­men­tum,” Mr. O’Han­lon said.

“Per­haps the first-or­der dif­fer­ence be­tween Obama and Trump is that Trump’s rhetoric will be more con­sis­tent with ac­tual Syria pol­icy than has been the case the last five years,” he said.

Aside from a more straight­for­ward U.S. pol­icy in Syria, Mr. O’Han­lon said, re­vamped ties be­tween Rus­sia and a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could pave the way for a soft par­ti­tion of the coun­try.

Un­der this plan, Mr. As­sad’s regime would con­sol­i­date into a sec­tor with his fel­low mi­nor­ity Alaw­ites along the coun­try’s western bor­ders, while “lo­cal au­ton­o­mous zones” else­where would con­sist of var­i­ous eth­nic and sec­tar­ian groups.

“We could pur­sue a con­fed­er­a­tion in Syria. … And there may still be op­tions even af­ter Aleppo has fallen, even un­der Trump,” he said. “But it’ll take some do­ing to cre­ate the con­di­tions to make even that pos­si­ble.”

‘Melt­down of hu­man­ity’

On Tues­day, rebel forces agreed to with­draw from their en­claves in the east­ern half of Aleppo as part of a cease-fire deal bro­kered by Rus­sian and Turk­ish en­voys. The cease-fire was reached af­ter Mr. As­sad’s forces se­cured vir­tu­ally all of the once evenly di­vided city.

But news of the cease-fire deal was marred by re­ports that squads of gov­ern­ment troops and As­sad loy­al­ists were mov­ing house by house in for­merly rebel-held ar­eas in Aleppo and killing civil­ians by the dozens as they tried to flee.

The United Na­tions ver­i­fied that gov­ern­ment and paramil­i­tary troops loyal to the As­sad regime had ex­e­cuted 82 Syr­ian civil­ians over 48 hours, Ru­pert Colville, a spokesman for the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, told The New York Times.

In­dis­crim­i­nate bom­bard­ments of clear civil­ian tar­gets in east­ern Aleppo have re­sulted in the deaths of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans since Rus­sia restarted its air cam­paign against the city last month, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights groups.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the United Na­tions, told re­porters Tues­day that the sit­u­a­tion on the ground rep­re­sented “a com­plete melt­down of hu­man­ity.”

But Syria’s am­bas­sador to the U.N., Bashar Jaa­fari, praised what he called “the lib­er­a­tion of Aleppo” from “ter­ror­ists” and de­nied any re­venge at­tacks or mass killings. Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said rebel lead­ers in the city fab­ri­cated such re­ports.

“All of the state­ments by high­ranked Western of­fi­cials, which cite so-called ‘re­ports by the ac­tivists,’ [re­port­ing] al­leged ‘Rus­sian bom­bard­ments,’ ‘ex­e­cu­tions’ and other stuff are staged videos, pro­duced by spe­cial film crews formed by mil­i­tants,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry spokesman, said in a state­ment.

“It re­mains a ques­tion, why some me­dia out­lets were so ea­ger to use them with­out check­ing,” Gen. Konashenkov said.

Re­gional an­a­lysts and hu­man rights ob­servers say the un­yield­ing Rus­sian on­slaught was the key to break­ing the re­sis­tance in east­ern Aleppo, which had been un­der rebel con­trol for most of the war.

Rus­sian jets and war­ships based on the Ad­mi­ral Kuznetsov strike group an­chored off the Syr­ian coast restarted their bom­bard­ment of Aleppo in mid-Novem­ber af­ter a three­week lull in op­er­a­tions against the city.

The bom­bard­ment al­lowed gov­ern­ment troops to cut off the east­ern part of the city from other rebel strongholds in western Aleppo, mak­ing it only a mat­ter of time be­fore the city fell back un­der Mr. As­sad’s con­trol.

The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported that cel­e­bra­tions broke out in the gov­ern­ment-con­trolled western half of Aleppo, with peo­ple in cars honk­ing horns and wav­ing Syr­ian flags.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion warned that the fall of Aleppo by no means meant the end of the Syr­ian civil war. State Depart­ment spokesman John Kirby told re­porters that vi­o­lence would con­tinue to en­gulf the coun­try.

“Even if it is the end of the siege in Aleppo, it is not the end of the war in Syria. It will go on. The op­po­si­tion will con­tinue to fight,” Mr. Kirby said.

“The blood­shed in Aleppo needs to stop. That the bru­tal­ity of the regime and sup­port that’s get­ting from Rus­sia and Iran has got to stop,” Mr. Kirby said.


AROUND THE COR­NER: Af­ter the fall of Aleppo, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad in­tends to tar­get the north­west­ern city of Idlib and re­gain con­trol of main land trans­porta­tion links.


A Syr­ian sol­dier places a na­tional flag on the front line with rebel fight­ers east of Aleppo. De­spite the city’s fall, the bloody civil war will rage on.

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