by Rolf Holmboe
The Globe and Mail
December 13, 2016
Aleppo is falling. The question is not if, but when. The rebels in East Aleppo are cut off and supplies are dwindling. Outnumbered and outgunned and under intense pressure on all sides, rebel front lines have crumbled. Thousands of civilians are fleeing as the Syrian military bombards the last pocket of resistance.
Why is Aleppo so important? Conquering Aleppo does not mean that the war will end, but it will transform it. In any case, it is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bid to end the war on his terms in the following phase.
If the offensive succeeds, Mr. Assad will firstly have straightened his front line toward a defensible one. He will be in possession of the viable Western part of Syria with all the main cities and economic infrastructure. And most importantly, the rebels will not possess a contiguous and economically viable part of Syria based on the economic centre of Syria, Aleppo.
This will in their thinking allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to present a fait accompli: the West will have to make a deal with Mr. Assad because a strategy of support to isolated rebel pockets would no longer be viable and would just be prolonging the suffering.
Secondly, it will position Mr. Assad to directly benefit from the international coalition’s offensive on Islamic State. When Raqqah falls, Mr. Assad will unimpeded be able to reclaim the central Syrian oil and gas fields and re-establish the territorial link from the coast through the central Syrian city Deir ez-Zor to Iraq and Iran. A big Iranian and Hezbollah priority. This will also strengthen the financial viability of the Assad regime and allow for oil production as well as pipelines from Iran and Iraq to the Mediterranean. A big Assad and Russian priority! Finally, a victory in Aleppo would be a huge morale boost to the regime side and Mr. Assad will be able to free up troops to eliminate the remaining rebel pockets one by one.
He will start with those close to Damascus, Homs and Hamah in the centre of the country. Staging operations for a larger offensive against the rebel forces east of Damascus have been taking place for weeks, and recently rebel supply lines were again cut off. A major offensive just needs the freed-up air power and crack troops from Aleppo to be launched.
Mr. Assad will find other ways of dealing with rebel pockets on the borders, Dara’a and Golan in the South and Idlib in the north east, because new waves of Sunni refugees would be unacceptable to neighbours Jordan and Turkey and it could off-set undesirable reactions. The Turkish de facto No Fly Zone on the northern border, controlled by moderate rebels, will be out of bounds for Mr. Assad, but he can live with that – for now.
Combined with the ongoing ethnic cleansing of non-submissive Sunnis in regime-held areas, the net effect will be nothing less than the creation of reservations for the majority Syrian Sunni population on the periphery of the country.
The Russian roulette, opting for Mr. Assad and blocking a sustainable political solution, is a fully loaded gun aimed directly at stability in the entire region.
Even if Mr. Assad prevails in Aleppo, a “solution” that leaves a majority in deep grievance will make the past five years of war just a first phase in a much longer war. It has off-set a wider regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, placing Iran as the main regional power using its military for power expansion, and unchecked this will spur further Sunni resentment and violent reaction. The lack of a political solution in Syria will entrench political and economic instability in the whole region, inevitably lead to new conflicts and deepen the refugee crisis many times over.
Adventurist policies in the Middle East may be a free ride for Russia, but it is not for Syrians or for the neighbouring states, and the West will be paying the bill for the entrenchment of the humanitarian crisis and for new massive waves of refugees.
An equitable political solution for Syria would be a big step in reversing the negative trends and in creating some minimum of joint political management and economic stability in the region. This is the model that was successfully used by the same regional adversaries – notably Iran and Saudi Arabia – to end the sectarian Lebanese civil war in 1990. For all its drawbacks, it works.