Bashar Assad's regime is currently in the process of realizing its greatest military achievement in its battle against Syrian rebels: the re-conquest of the eastern part of the city of Aleppo, following four years of continuous war there.
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The Syrian tyrant has focused his efforts on that northern city in the last few months, and it is now buckling under the enormous pressure it has been subjected to. Since Monday, reports have been streaming in of atrocities in the streets, as forces identified with the regime (including Hezbollah fighters, according to some sources) are executing civilians and medical personnel in the neighborhoods the forces are taking over. It’s likely that such incidents will only increase in the coming days and weeks.
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The fall of Aleppo comes as the result of a well-planned campaign based on laying siege and systematically starving its inhabitants, as well as exhausting and deliberately killing civilians among whom rebel fighters had dug in. What started with the dropping of barrel bombs containing fuel and explosives on the city's neighborhoods – carried out by outdated Syrian air force planes – was complemented by precision bombing by Russian fighter jets. And the strategy and brutal methods remained the same: Moscow also did not shrink from deliberate targeting of civilians, and according to human rights groups and Western governments, it even marked clinics, hospitals, schools and lines of people outside bakeries as targets.
The collapse of Aleppo would not have happened without massive Russian support. Russia’s military intervention, which began in September 2015, stabilized the Syrian regime’s defensive lines, subsequently enabling Assad to recover control over areas he had lost. His greatest gain so far is Aleppo, and the Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance may now turn towards Idlib, west of Aleppo. Taking complete control of this city will remove the ongoing threat to the Alawite enclave in the Western part of the country – indeed, it is particularly important for the regime and its Russian patrons, who have a naval and air base there.
This is the same Russia that Israel has been trying to getting along with, over the last year and a half, during which four meetings have taken place between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin. Israel, of course, is not responsible for the horrific massacres in Aleppo, other than by being part of the international community that has displayed total impotence in face of these brutal bombings.
Netanyahu is playing the cards he has and so far it seems he’s been doing this well. Israel has managed to avoid getting embroiled in the civil war and to a large extent has managed to stick to the red lines it has defined during this conflict (i.e., immediate responses to firing into Israel's territory, efforts to prevent the smuggling of chemical weapons and advanced fighting capabilities to Hezbollah in Lebanon). At the same time it has avoided getting into aerial battles with the Russians over Syria.
The entire international community bears a responsibility for the massacres, due to its ongoing acquiescence in the face of the regime’s brutalities. According to human rights groups, Assad's government and its allies are responsible for the murder of almost 90 percent of the civilians killed in this war, since the rebellion erupted in 2011.
It’s Syria – not the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that reflects President Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy failure. Aleppo is one more high point, not necessarily the last, in a string of continuous ethnic-cleansing operations. In 1994, during the Clinton administration, Rwanda saw even more people murdered, but that happened over a short period and in a world in which civilians were not yet documenting bombings taking place inside a besieged city, in real time, on Facebook and Twitter.
Syria’s neighbors, including Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, are concerned about the implications of Assad’s victory in Aleppo. Jordan is worried about the flow southward, toward the Syrian-Jordanian border, of waves of refugees that may include rebel fighters belonging to extremist organizations. In Lebanon there is concern over the growing feeling of a victorious Hezbollah, and the possibility that internal violence will erupt within the country after the Shi’ite organization notched up an achievement in appointing a president who is a political ally.
For its part, Israel is observing border areas on the Golan Heights, and focusing on the possibility that Assad's regime will expel rebels who control most of the Syrian parts of that region. This would allow the entrenching of Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and local militias inspired by those entities along Israel’s border, posing a significant threat. The protection of Israel’s interests on the Golan will probably be one of the first topics Netanyahu discusses in talks with President-elect Donald Trump, shortly before the latter assumes office.
However, the main game in Syria relates to the sparring between the superpowers. Trump has not yet laid out his approach to Syria in a coherent fashion. The prevailing view, based on his declarations during the campaign, is that he will avoid expanding U.S. military involvement there and will exhibit even less opposition to Putin’s moves than the Obama administration demonstrated.
The Assad regime is showing signs that it wishes to, and is capable of continuing the “liberation” of the rest of Syria from rebel hands. It seems that the Russians are more sceptical, certainly with respect to the price of such an ambitious move. Assad cannot budge without direct Russian and Iranian support. In any event, it’s doubtful that the U.S. will intervene in order to prevent future military moves by the regime and its supporters.
Trump, even more than Obama, is focusing his rhetoric on the need to attack ISIS, implicitly justifying collaboration with the Russians in that effort. In this arena, success by the U.S.-led coalition can only be limited. The campaign to retake Mosul is encountering many difficulties and there are reports that the Iraqi army, assisted and guided by the Americans, is sustaining heavy casualties and not managing to overcome ISIS resistance. At the same time, there has been a delay in launching a campaign against the city of Raqqa, the declared capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate in northeastern Syria. A few months ago some people estimated that it would be captured by the end of this year. Right now, however, it seems that a ground operation there may be postponed for a long time.