After Aleppo, Syria’s rebels prepare for all-out war in north

With war shifting towards Idlib, geopolitical consequences could be game-changing, with Iran making significant gains.

It is clear that multi­sided conflict is far from over

2016/12/18 Issue: 86 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
James Bruce

Beirut - Syrian rebels have surren­dered eastern Aleppo, their last key urban stronghold, after a brutal 6-month siege in which much of the his­toric city was reduced to rubble. Syr­ian President Bashar Assad is now expected to unleash a new offensive against opposition forces in northern Syria.

The fall of eastern Aleppo, which rebel groups had held since mid- 2012, marked a decisive moment in the nearly 6-year-old Syrian war as Assad’s forces reportedly rampaged through the streets summarily ex­ecuting dozens of suspected rebels.

It capped a 15-month blitz spear­headed by Russian air power and Iranian-led ground forces in which Assad seized control of central and western Syria, territory known as “useful Syria” that may define the post-war state.

This has given the regime, which in mid-2015 was facing defeat, an immense boost while delivering the heaviest blow the rebels have suf­fered since 2012, critically under­mining their position at the negotiat­ing table.

It is, however, clear that the multi­sided conflict that has killed an esti­mated 400,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes is far from over.

There are still 150,000 rebels of various stripes in Idlib province, which neighbours Aleppo in north-western Syria, and thousands more, including the Islamic State (ISIS), in the east and south.

Analyst Charles Lister of the Mid­dle East Institute in Washington, who has spent years in the region, said the mainstream opposition in the north was about to “transform itself into a guerrilla-type insurgency in 2017”.

The rebel factions are riven by eth­nic and ideological rivalries but they can still give Assad a bloody nose.

Witness ISIS’s lightning and op­portunistic seizure of the historic city of Palmyra, 200km east of Alep­po, on December 11th while Assad’s forces were concentrated on Aleppo. The army reportedly put up little re­sistance in a city it took from ISIS in March.

Assad controls all of Syria’s major cities and their environs — about 40% of Syrian territory — and he has grandiosely vowed to regain “every inch” of the country, even though his army has been seriously reduced by combat losses, desertions and mas­sive draft-dodging.

Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, do not endorse this objective. They have their own strategic imperatives in Syria and are reluctant to step up the increasingly costly military oper­ations there, which would escalate a conflict that could drag in more out­side powers.

With the rebels reeling after Alep­po, what Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar — their biggest backers — do in the next few weeks could be critical.

With the war shifting towards Idlib, the geopolitical consequences could be game-changing, with Iran, in particular, making significant gains.

This means, observed Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma in the United States, “that a new security architecture is being laid down in the northern Middle East… in which pro-Iranian govern­ments are consolidating their grip…

“This has caused great grief and consternation in Saudi Arabia and among many of the United States’ allies,” he told the PBS public televi­sion network.

James Bruce has written extensively on Middle Eastern security issues for many years for such publications as Jane’s Intelligence Review and Jane’s Defence Weekly.

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