Analysis

What Happens After Aleppo Falls

After Assad routs the rebels, the U.S. will be left with no ally in Syria in fight against Islamic State. Considering Trump's desire to steer clear of Mideast conflict, we may see U.S. and Russia dividing the fight between them.

Syrian pro-government forces maneuver a tank in the newly retaken areas of Sahat al-Melh and Qasr al-Adly in Aleppo's Old City, Syria, December 8, 2016.
George Ourfalian, AFP

The picture of the week from Aleppo was of a crippled woman lying lifeless in a decrepit wheelchair after her husband had wheeled her desperately from place in place in search of a doctor. In the background are destroyed houses. Aside from the grieving husband and his dead wife, the street is deserted.

The battle for Aleppo has supplied many chilling pictures: children whose bodies were torn apart, women who lost their husbands and children, a wounded child asking his parents whether he’ll live. But this picture seems most apt for the Halab al-Youm website, which uses the hashtag #Aleppoholocaust. Syria’s second largest city, with buildings dating from the 12th century, has become a bleeding ghost town that is gradually returning to the bosom of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Having already recaptured about 80 percent of the part of Aleppo once controlled by the rebels, Assad has no reason to agree to a truce or diplomatic negotiations. This week, he told the rebels that if they didn’t leave the city, they’d be “annihilated.” Some did leave, but neither they nor the tens of thousands of civilians in eastern Aleppo have anywhere to go.

First they fled to a neighborhood controlled by Syrian Kurds, until it couldn’t hold any more people. Then they tried to get to Idlib, until the rebel militias’ joint command in Aleppo warned that fleeing to that city was “dangerous because of the Russian bombing,” and that Idlib also has no space left.

But staying in neighborhoods conquered by the Syrian army isn’t an option. Those areas have been taken over by gangs and Shi’ite militias that fought alongside the Syrian army, including Afghani, Pakistani and Iranian fighters. According to reports from those neighborhoods, looting is rampant. The militias have seized some 3,000 houses, and trucks stand in the street awaiting stolen property.

Residents fleeing the violence in the rebel-held parts of Aleppo evacuate through the Bab al-Hadid district, Aleppo, Syria December 7, 2016.
George Ourfalian, AFP

The rebels have been left without international support. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that Washington has no intention of participating in talks over Aleppo’s future, much less a diplomatic solution for Syria as a whole, because there’s no point: Assad isn’t interested in an agreement. Nevertheless, Kerry will still be meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Hamburg and Lavrov said on Thursday they were on the verge of unspecified new agreements about Aleppo.

The U.S. Air Force doesn’t operate in Aleppo, and the rebels there aren’t getting outside funding. Nor did the European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini offer the rebels any hope in a panel discussion on Syria a few days ago.

“Whenever I am asked what are you doing on Aleppo ... well, you should ask who else is doing,” she said. “The European Union is based on principled pragmatism ... for us principles and also a certain degree of pragmatism is what guides us in the region. ... We cannot make the political track hostage to the military dynamics on the ground.”

She didn’t explain what her “principled pragmatism” entailed or how it could save Aleppo’s residents and bring Assad to the negotiating table. The EU has already imposed more than 230 sanctions on Syria, to no avail, she noted. So what can it do? “From the European Union’s side, you will always hear the voice calling for a stop of the airstrikes on Aleppo and the protection of civilians,” she said.

As for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, he has said Washington should abandon the policy of regime change and focus on fighting terrorist organizations like Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The implication is clear: He views Assad as a partner in the war on terror; if the rebels want to topple Assad, they’ll have to find another partner. But no such partner currently exists.

Trump, who rightly fears Syria becoming a state run by Islamist gangs, is playing into the hands of Iran and Russia by opposing Assad’s ouster. But President Barack Obama, who ostensibly supported Assad’s ouster, also didn’t do much to further that goal or bolster the rebels.

Trump may have a diplomatic problem explaining to, say, Saudi Arabia why he’s giving Iran a free pass to control Syria after Riyadh worked so hard to support the rebels in order to thwart Iran’s influence. But he could counter by asking Saudi Arabia why it hasn’t formed a Sunni coalition to join the war against Assad.

The immediate question is what will happen after Aleppo falls completely to Assad. The city controls major roads leading to Turkey in the north and areas controlled by ISIS in the east. Even more important, capturing it will give Assad a major morale boost. The rebels have turned Aleppo into an existential battle, and its fall may cause the militias’ joint command to splinter and the militias themselves to scatter to the four winds, leaving the Levant Conquest Front (formerly Nusra Front) the only force still capable of fighting the Syrian army.

Yet Aleppo’s fall will still leave pockets of resistance elsewhere in the country. The rebel forces in other areas are relatively weak; they can at best constitute a nuisance. But to bolster his legitimacy, Assad will have to cleanse those areas, which will force him to divide his forces and may take a long time. That worries his Russian and Iranian backers, which want to see him regain complete control of Syria.

Thus, Russia will have to exert all its influence over both Assad and the rebels to reach some kind of diplomatic solution. It already has experience brokering local deals in various parts of the country and is considered the only power capable of forging such deals.

Aleppo’s conquest also won’t solve the problem of the war against ISIS in Syria. In that battle, America has no partner than can take the lead the way the Iraqi government has in the fight against ISIS in Iraq; it relies mainly on Syrian Kurds and Turkish forces, which are also fighting each other for control of northern Syria. And its dependence on Turkey is problematic, since neither Assad nor Russia wants Turkey to control Syrian territory.

One possibility is that Moscow and Washington could divide the labor, such that Russia will lead the fight against ISIS in Syria, while America does the same in Iraq. That could also mesh with Trump’s desire to reduce American involvement in Mideast conflicts.