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[The ongoing full-scale assault by the Syrian military, Russian air force and allied militias on eastern Aleppo, which forms the most significant remaining opposition stronghold in the country, appears to portend a strategic turning point in the Syrian conflict. Jadaliyya turned to Co-Editor Mouin Rabbani, former head of political affairs for the office of the UN special envoy for Syria, to examine the various ramifications of these developments]
Jadaliyya (J): What are the prospects for the Syrian opposition if it is defeated in Aleppo?
Mouin Rabbani (MR): If the Syrian government successfully retakes eastern Aleppo, which seems increasingly likely, this will represent a strategic defeat of major proportions for the Syrian opposition as a whole and leave it in a very unenviable and many would add untenable position.
One reason the opposition appears to be on the verge of losing Aleppo is that it has effectively been abandoned by Turkey. It has recently also been getting less energetic support from Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, as the latter is increasingly pre-occupied with its Yemeni quagmire and domestic crises.
As the outlook for the Syrian opposition diminishes further post-Aleppo, it is likely to lose additional sources of foreign as well as domestic support and sponsorship. An already divided and fragmented opposition will fragment even further, and I would additionally expect it to become more localized as it switches to low-level insurgency while other elements try to pursue negotiations or some form of accommodation with Damascus.
Many observers and analysts have also noted that the failure of the mainstream political and armed opposition groups to achieve regime change is likely to further strengthen the position of more extreme groups within what will remain of the insurgency.
(J): Will Syrian President Bashar al-Asad face further challenges if he succeeds in Aleppo?
(MR): I think it likely that however dominant the government emerges from the current conflict it will not succeed in quickly or easily re-establishing the status quo. This is because it is in the nature of such regimes that once they lose full control over their citizenry, it is virtually impossible to regain it. That I think forms the most important challenge over the longer term. Particularly so because the government is incapable of offering the basic services and amenities it provided before 2011, which were in any case already substantially reduced relative to previous decades. Furthermore, the Syrian economy can be expected to become even more dominated by well-connected cronies and similar figures than it was before.
Secondly, I think it is important to note that Damascus and its allies, although comprising a significantly more unified and coherent coalition than the one that is to varying degrees opposing the regime, also has internal differences of its own. The main one is that Russia would like to achieve a political resolution of the conflict, in which the concept of a political transition is replaced with that of an expanded government. In this formulation, elements of the political and armed opposition would be integrated into the regime to enhance its stability and re-legitimize key institutions such as the military. Needless to say, this outcome can only be achieved through a political process and negotiations. Damascus by contrast is opposed to any political process that entails meaningful negotiations and concessions to the opposition, including the limited agenda being promoted by Moscow–others would argue that it opposes any political process as a matter of principle and believes it can turn the clock back to early 2011. If Iran, which thus far appears to broadly share Assad's stance on the resolution of this conflict, were for any number of potential reasons to come round to Russia's position, this would represent a serious problem for Damascus.
Third, while the Syrian state has survived intact, it has also fractured and disintegrated to a significant degree. Re-establishing central authority over regime loyalists, including various new power centers such as the warlords and local militias that have emerged during this conflict, is also a challenge. Putting them out of business could pose serious risks.
The above notwithstanding, I suspect it is somewhat premature to begin discussing post-conflict challenges. Although an opposition defeat in Aleppo represents a major and indeed strategic turning point, this horrific bloodbath is unfortunately not yet over.
(J): How do you expect the international community to respond to current developments?
(MR): This is a difficult question because the situation appears to be in even greater flux than in previous phases of this conflict.
My sense is that, its protestations notwithstanding, Washington has effectively ceded the Syrian file to Moscow. By “Washington” I mean the Obama administration, though I would add that Trump is unlikely to reverse course and would in any case find it difficult to do so.
Turkey also seems to be gradually disengaging from the conflict, on account of the combined costs of Russian hostility and domestic instability represented by the failed 2016 coup and its aftermath.
Egypt by contrast may be getting more involved in Syria, or at least aligning its views more closely with those of Damascus as relations with its Gulf patrons deteriorate and those with Russia, and potentially with Iran, improve.
The Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, will be very interesting to watch during the next twelve months. They have convinced themselves that their problem with US policy towards Syria is Obama personally and his limited interventionist agenda in particular, and that his departure will signal a resumption of business as usual in the Middle East. Yet his successor has heaped more praise on Damascus than any US president since the Ba’thists seized power in 1963. Will the Gulf states fall into line once they realize the US position is essentially unchanged under Trump, or begin to pursue a more independent agenda? I suspect it will be the former, particularly given that their main gateway to Syria, Turkey, appears to be disengaging.
I presume that Moscow will want some kind of international endorsement of the endgame if and when this is achieved, whether through a UN process or other multilateral forum it can more easily control. But against this, Damascus will probably prefer a situation in which the international community is simply removed from the equation.
More broadly, it is important to recognize that this is not so much a Syrian conflict as it is a conflict in Syria, with all manner of local, regional, transnational and international parties pursuing competing agendas and proxy conflicts on Syrian soil. These parties and agendas are not going to vanish just because the insurgency appears to be absorbing a strategic defeat in Aleppo that may amount to a mortal blow.
But hovering over all these regional and international actors stands Russia, which together with Iran and militias recruited by the latter have been prepared to make the investments and sustain the losses required to promote their objectives. I think it is important to recognize that within Syria, Russia continues to retain escalation dominance.
(J): Would the fall of Aleppo mean that Asad has won the war? Can he win the peace?
(MR): The Russian intervention that began in late 2015 has removed regime change, and for that matter “political transition”, from the agenda for Syria's foreseeable future. If in addition to this the armed opposition groups lose control of eastern Aleppo, and later perhaps Idlib and areas around Dera’a and near the Jordanian border in the far south as well, that strikes me as a pretty fair description of Asad having won the war or at least this phase of it which formed the greatest threat to his political survival.
Yet this “victory” will have come at such enormous cost in terms of blood, treasure, displacement, sovereignty, communal relations and all the rest of it that – combined with the thoroughly inflexible nature of such regimes when it comes to issues such as political compromise, power-sharing and national reconciliation – it is difficult to envision how Damascus can additionally win the peace.
I would also add to this the enormous if not existential challenges of reconstruction. Syria has experienced infrastructure destruction on an industrial scale, the economy is in ruins, the fabric of Syrian society has been shredded several times over, and the massive displacement, brain drain and capital flight will not be easily reversed with Asad still in power. Nor will significant Arab or international assistance be forthcoming.
This said, I do not expect to see a partition of Syria, particularly now that the Islamic State movement appears to be losing its territorial base, and that Moscow, Damascus and Ankara appear to have reached an informal understanding to prevent Kurdish self-government in northern Syria.
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