Authors – Gabriele Fangi, Wissam Wahbeh (CC)

After 5 years of war, the city of Aleppo has been recaptured by the Syrian Government forces. Since the civil war began, this marks the biggest victory for the government of President Bashar-al-Assad. With the fall of Aleppo, the hopes of anti-Assad forces of militarily capturing Damascus and overthrowing the Assad regime has been dashed. Their position on the negotiating table also stands diminished. While the Assad regime holds most of the urban centres of Syria, it still controls only 1/3rd of the country’s territory. The success of Aleppo is likely to embolden the Syrian army to redouble its effort to end the war with military means. Whether this is the best way to end the civil war in Syria is another matter. Let’s discuss if the liberation of Aleppo marks the beginning of the end of civil war in Syria. Could it represent a new opportunity for peace talks and could the recapture of Aleppo usher in a new geopolitics in the West Asia.

After the liberation of Aleppo, President Bashar-al-Assad said, “History is not the same before and after … I think after liberating Aleppo we will say that not only the Syrian situation, but also the regional and international situation, is different,”. This statement makes it evident that the victory in Aleppo is monumental. But why is it monumental? There are two reasons for it -:

  • Firstly, during the two years of uprising against the Syrian regime, there was no demonstration in Aleppo whatsoever.
  • Secondly, this is a geopolitical gain for Syrian regime and its allies. Aleppo is the commercial capital of Syria.

There are few arguments that with the fall of Aleppo, the political and geostrategic project of anti-Assad forces has been buried in the rubble of Aleppo. This argument has a merit because it is unforeseeable for now that how the foreign powers who launched a project for regime change would overthrow President Bashar-al-Assad, after the liberation of Aleppo. Secondly, it is slightly visible now that the war in Syria is actually a war against Syria, and not a civil war. It is an open secret that this war against Syria was launched by the United States along with the allies like United Kingdom, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It can be argued that this situation would not have arisen if these countries would not have orchestrated the war against Syrian regime.

Is that a road to peace in Syria?
A clear answer to that question is ‘NO’ because the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Turkey are still committed to bringing disturbances in Syria through manufacturing political turmoil in the region. Hence, what you see in Syria is actually a multinational proxy war. The original objective of ‘balkanisation’ of Syria has hit a brick wall after the liberation of Aleppo. In this game of conflict escalation, President Bashar-al-Assad needs strong support from his allies like Russia and Iran, otherwise, he would not be able to survive. It should be noted that Russia and Iran are fighting this war because it is under their belly and they know that if Syria falls, next would be Iran and after Iran, it would be none other than President Putin himself.

It is possible that the new battlefronts would open in Idlib and Homs. The war in Syria is also presented as a war against terrorism by President Bashar-al-Assad supporters. Therefore, if the war has to come to its logical end, it is important to root out the terrorists from the rest of country. But the victory in Aleppo is dented a bit by the fact that Palmyra has fallen under the captivity of Islamic State terrorists. Russian Foreign Ministry has alleged that the United States has deliberately moved the Islamic State in Palmyra to distract the attention of the Syrian armed forces. The desert region from where the 5,000 Islamic State militants came to attack Palmyra was being patrolled by the United States and other coalition aircrafts. How could they have missed such a big movement in a desert? But if the recent advancement of the Syrian army is to be seen, this fall of Palmyra is temporary and the Russian and Syrian forces would be able to recapture Palmyra soon.

Can Syria replicate the strategy to recapture Aleppo in other parts of Syria?
It can be replicated in Palmyra with slight modifications. But it seems unlikely at the moment that the Syrian Government would be able to recapture whole of Syria and liberate it from the rebels and terrorists. It is a well-known fact that the paradox in Syrian political game is that everybody wants to fight ISIS but everybody wants to use the ISIS against the Syrians. Idlib (west of Aleppo) is a rebels controlled territory and all the anti-Assad forces are allowed to gather there with a possible support from their well-wishers already in line for them. Hence, the country might remain divided for quite some time now.

Even if we assume a hypothetical situation where the Syrian forces have recaptured Palmyra and Idlib, the forces of President Assad would not be controlling the entire country. The Syrian forces would be thinly spread over the region. Given that the war is likely to continue and the Syrian forces are thinly spread, hence, the Russians and the Iranians would press for peace negotiations. Although the negotiations are still undergoing under the ‘Security Council Resolution 2254’, it is still an off and on affair.

What role could President Trump play after he assumes office in January 2017?
United States under President-elect Donald Trump might understand the criticality of the situation in Syria. He has himself conveyed that he wants to partner with Russia in the fight to root out the Islamic State out of Syria and he has also legitimised the Assad regime by saying that regime change in Syria is not a good idea because Assad forces are most effective in fighting against the jihadi groups. Therefore, the election of Donald Trump is actually a good news for Syria. But it is to be seen if the American establishment or their intelligence system would permit him to roll back the earlier policies. Moreover, President Trump’s position on Iran nuclear deal is the only disconcerting chord in this whole scenario, therefore, it is also to be seen if it would be modified to suit the larger objective of a perpetual peace in Syria.

Syria might become the new Afghanistan (of 1990s i.e. post-Cold war battleground) in the next two years if there is no reconciliation of Syria, because it has its own ‘Pakistan’ in its neighbourhood in the form of ‘Turkey’. But President Erdogan is trying to mend its relationship with Russia and it is quite possible that it would fall in line.

Is this the perfect time for negotiations?
Presently, President Assad has a strong hand over the Syrian situation and it would be advisable for him to come at the negotiating table to get a good deal. Counter pressures on him would be built through Palmyra on him to weaken his hand but it is definite that the regime change objective is out of the question now.

Syria desires a Syrian solution for the Syrians and it hopes that the upcoming year 2017 would see a reconciliatory and transitional momentum towards the peace process in Syria. It is not a home of Salafists or Wahhabists and the recent efforts indicate that the Syrian regime is wiping out this fanaticism from its land. But the realpolitik says that the fate of Syria would not be decided in Geneva on the negotiating table but it would be decided on the battlefield. The anti-Assad foreign powers have not yet given up on their objective of regime change of Bashar-al-Assad. It is possible that these foreign powers having their boots on the ground might work towards establishing a ‘Sunni’ state in Raqqa, independent of Syria. It is to be seen if the Kremlin would let it happen. The pull and push for the establishment of a Sunni state next to Syria would invite more bloodshed and future war. We’ll have to see who would win this tug of war in the next few years.