The worst in Syria is yet to come

Emboldened by major recent victories, the Damascus regime may go on the offensive in the Idlib province.

As he emptied the contents of his handgun into the Russian ambassador in Ankara in a shocking, cold-blooded murder captured in high definition, the off-duty Turkish cop reminded the world once again of the city that has been in the news for at least four years: Aleppo. The gunman’s fury was directed at Russia, without whose relentless aerial bombardment, the regime of Bashar Al Assad would not have been able to retake the city from the rebels. As things stand, the regime definitely has the upperhand in Syria’s brutal civil war, which has now gone on for almost six years and cost the lives of about 4,70,000 people, according to some estimates.

For the Syrian opposition, the writing was on the wall for a while, given that the US was gradually stepping back; Russia was aligning more closely on the ground with regime troops/militias and their Iranian and Lebanese allies; and Turkey’s attention was focussed more on Kurdish separatist violence and the security situation within its own borders. The fall of Aleppo has been seen by the regime, Iran and Russia as a ‘historic victory’. And US president-elect Donald Trump seems much more concerned about annihilating Islamic State (IS) along with Vladimir Putin than helping rebels topple Al Assad.

However, the Syrian civil war is far from over. Both sides acknowledge this fact, the regime claims of impending total victory notwithstanding. Foreseeing the fall of Aleppo, George Sabra, chief negotiator for rebel forces, told the BBC in November: “Aleppo is an important place for the revolution, but it’s not the last.” Meanwhile, in an interview with the pro-government Al Watan newspaper on December 8, Al Assad noted: “Aleppo will be a gain, but to be realistic, it doesn’t mean the end of the war.”

After the victory in Aleppo, it can be said that Al Assad controls more than 40% of the country’s land mass and about 70-75% of the Syrian population. The most important territories not under his control include the huge swathes to the east held by IS, the northern Kurdish enclave, and Idlib province controlled by extremist rebels from Ahrar Al Sham and Jabhat Fateh Al Sham.

Besides, there are many smaller areas – chief among them the Damascus countryside – that are still held by ‘moderate’ rebel factions, despite unremitting attacks by the regime. There are estimated to be about 1,50,000 armed rebels, both nationalists and Islamists, in Syria today, including thousands of foreigners. It is difficult to see how they will just give up arms and disappear. They know they are cornered but are digging in for the fight. Given the reputation of the regime for brutality, many of the rebels seem to have come to the conclusion that this is a fight to the death.
 
Washington’s often haphazard backing for the rebels was aimed at creating a situation on the ground that would be conducive to a negotiated removal of the Al Assad regime. That strategy has failed miserably. But if the US now decides to pull back all support to rebel groups, it might lead to greater chaos, with the most extreme factions emerging victorious. In fact, this is already happening, with the Jabhat Fateh Al Sham piling on the pressure on smaller rebel groups in Idlib. Also, rebel infighting was one of the reasons the regime managed to take back Aleppo.

Negotiations table
Emboldened by major recent victories, the Damascus regime may go on the offensive in other areas of the country, especially Idlib province. But victory for the regime there will depend on how much support it gets from its two main patrons, Iran and Russia. Will Tehran and Moscow temper Al Assad’s ambitions, and push him to the negotiations table? Or will Putin’s fighter bombers again be at the service of his Syrian ally?

One key factor that makes Idlib province different from Aleppo city is that it borders Turkey. As of now, Ankara continues to back the rebellion against Al Assad, and the rebels can reasonably hope to see the border as a lifeline – for arms supply, and medical evacuations. Turkey has been on the losing side in this war, so far. Since the failed coup attempt in July this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to bury the hatchet with Putin’s Russia, and Moscow has responded in kind. The new dynamics between these two historical adversaries was on display after the ambassador’s killing.

Both countries went out of their way to indicate that the murder was aimed at sabotaging their growing understanding. In fact, even as the assassination took place, foreign ministers from Russia, Turkey and Iran were meeting in Moscow to try to find an end to the war in Syria. The war in Syria appears to have become a zero sum game for regional and international powers. It is a winner-takes-all conflict that has displaced about 11 million people. Unfortunately, the worst fighting of the Syrian war may be yet to come.

(The writer is an editor at The Delma Institute, a foreign affairs research house based in the UAE)

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