Beirut — Syrian regime forces are steadily overwhelming rebel-held strongpoints in besieged eastern Aleppo in fierce fighting backed by a pulverising Russian air campaign that is shaping up to be Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most important victory of the war.
The fall of the rebels’ last major urban stronghold will not mean the end of the war, however.
“What’s happening in Aleppo will only fuel chaos and terrorism,” France’s UN Ambassador François Delattre warned during an emergency Security Council session on November 30.
The objective of the Syrian regime and its main backers — Russia and Iran — appears to be to reconquer the sector of the northern city held by rebels since mid-2012 before Donald Trump is sworn in as president of the United States on January 20.
With all of Aleppo in regime hands, Assad and his two key allies should be able to absorb any change in US policy on Syria and hold the high cards in any US-backed peace initiative aimed at halting the conflict.
The rebel forces in Aleppo, about 8,000 strong, are heavily outnumbered and outgunned, cut off from any relief after being hammered for months by the relentless Russian-led aerial blitz and shelling by regime artillery.
The rebels, who have been losing ground since Russia intervened in September 2015 to save Assad from what looked like certain defeat, were reported to have recently lost 40% of the territory they held as the regime tightened the noose around the opposition bastion.
Eastern Aleppo is becoming “one giant graveyard”, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien warned on November 30th as regime forces spearheaded by Hezbollah’s elite Radwan regiment advanced in fierce street fighting.
With much of eastern Aleppo in ruins and its streets strewn with bodies from day-and-night bombardment, about 50,000 of the estimated 250,000 shell-shocked inhabitants who have survived months of the regime’s starvation tactics have been seeking to flee the city.
The exodus is likely to swell as regime forces close in for the kill, with the United Nations and the United States unable to prevent the final bloodbath.
The seemingly inevitable rebel collapse in a historic city that was once the heart of Syria’s economy will greatly bolster Assad’s position and his allies in any negotiations to end the war. Some 400,000 people have died and half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million has been driven from their homes in nearly six years of conflict.
UN-mandated and US-backed efforts have failed. Russia, its power in the Middle East restored by the 2015 intervention to save Assad, now seems to be in the driver’s seat and able to negotiate from a position of strength.
In what appears to be a fresh diplomatic effort, opposition sources reported that at least four rebel groups linked to the Syrian National Coalition are having secret negotiations in Ankara with the Russians, brokered by Turkey, with the immediate purpose of ending the bloodletting in eastern Aleppo.
These talks, the first to involve a large number of key opposition groups, have reportedly made little progress.
The gathering underlines Russia’s growing importance in the Middle East and possibly signals a new phase in the quest for a political settlement to end the war with Russian power in the ascendant while US influence in the Middle East wanes.
Moscow is reported to have been seeking to arrange a meeting in Damascus of key rebel leaders, possibly as early as January, to discuss having a national dialogue that would later be attended by Assad’s government.
The objective, according to political sources, is to achieve a political agreement that would lead to parliamentary and presidential elections in which Assad would run for a fourth term while overseeing the transition of what has been essentially a one-party state to a power-sharing arrangement with Assad remaining as president.
Amid Moscow’s efforts to secure a ceasefire, however, Russian warplanes continued their blistering day-and-night bombardment of eastern Aleppo, where whole neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble.
A political settlement to the conflict remains a distant prospect even though the impetus for getting rid of Assad by Western and Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey has grown as the war drags on with no end in sight.
The seemingly inevitable regime victory in Aleppo could unleash new dangers, not least of which would be providing motivation to the jihadist forces that have become the core of the resistance to the minority Alawite Assad regime’s sectarian policies which have tormented Syria’s Sunni majority for decades.
Nor is there any sign of a lessening of largely covert US support for rebel forces outside Aleppo where the Islamic State (ISIS) is the prime target, particularly in northern Syria where anti-regime Kurdish groups are strong.
According to British analyst Charles Lister, who has interacted with most rebel factions, they have about 150,000 fighters in the field, with only 5% of that total in Aleppo.
Rebel forces, including ISIS, still hold Idlib province in the north along with much of neighbouring Aleppo province. It is likely to be the regime’s next objective. The rebels also hold sizeable territory in southern Syria.
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
Copyright ©2016 The Arab Weekly — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 05 December 2016
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