A cease-fire agreement aimed at stopping the battle for Syria’s largest city long enough to evacuate civilians and rebel fighters collapsed less than one day after it was brokered in Ankara by Russian and Turkish officials.
The deal was reinstated by Wednesday night, Syrian rebels announced, but not before Iran introduced new conditions on the truce as its proxy militias resumed their attacks on the rebel-held east.
Whether the evacuation takes place or not, though, Aleppo has effectively fallen to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies.
“The fall of opposition forces is largely inevitable, whether evacuated or destroyed by military force,” said Chris Kozak, an expert on Syria at the Institute for the Study of War.
Still, as Assad said in a recent interview, the fall of Aleppo “won’t mean the end of the war.”
The fear now, analysts say, is that the violence will become increasingly sectarian as Iraqi Shiite militiamen assembled by Iran seek revenge on Sunni Arab rebels and civilians who are either trapped in, or trying to flee from, Aleppo.
- REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
A big concern is that the militiamen will “go through ruined east Aleppo with a fine-toothed comb, murdering, looting, and pillaging from one neighborhood to the next,” said Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East who served as special adviser for transition in Syria to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012.
Reports emerged on Monday that Shiite militias and Syrian army soldiers were executing injured and fleeing civilians as they cleared rebel-held areas of the city.
“Washington is pleading with Moscow to prevent the worst from happening, but it does so with no leverage and no ‘or else,'” Hof told Business Insider on Wednesday. “Those who have slaughtered civilians and who continue to do so have enjoyed, courtesy of the West, a free ride.”
The evacuation of rebels and civilians from eastern Aleppo could therefore alleviate short-term suffering. But many of those forced to leave perceive the displacement – and, in many cases, the mandatory conscription – as a form of ethnic cleansing.
- Omar Sanadiki/Reuters
“Displacing or detaining populations has become business as usual in areas retaken by the regime,” Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in The New York Times on Tuesday.
The “cleansing,” Itani said, reflect a pattern used by the Assad regime to clear areas once controlled by the opposition.
“It is sometimes called the ‘green bus’ strategyafter the vehicles used to transport the displaced,” he wrote.
‘Foreshadowing something far worse to come’
It is unlikely that the roughly 7,000 fighters inside Aleppo will give up on the revolution once they are evacuated from the city. About 40,000 fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army are still fighting the regime outside of Aleppo, along with about 30,000 in southern Syria, and several thousand in the suburbs of Damascus and Idlib.
Abdul Hadi Sari, a former air force general and commander in the Southern Front forces, told the Christian Science Monitor that his forces arepreparing for an “underground, insurgency phase – a popular resistance – against the regime, its allies, and their interests.”
In other words, while recapturing Aleppo would leave Assad with firm control over Syria’s major urban centers – including Damascus and Homs – opposition forces still control large parts of northwestern and southern Syria.
- Institute for the Study of War
From there, they could become an insurgency, as Sari suggested, or join the anti-ISIS fight led by the US, Turkey, and Jordan.
Because foreign actors such as the US, Turkey, and the Gulf states have little leverage in Idlib and around Damascus, however, the regime can operate there “with impunity,” said Syrian journalist and Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
“The areas in Syria in which the regime can operate at this point without having to face foreign countries are mostly Idlib and rural Damascus,” Hassan, coauthor of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, told Business Insider on Wednesday. “This sounds to me like the beginning of a new dynamic in the Syrian conflict, which happens to be just as a new administration comes to Washington.”
Alternatively, the rebel forces could radicalize.
“There are some individuals that are drawn to Al Qaeda because they are disappointed with the West and American policy in Syria,” Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the CS Monitor. “If they want to continue the fight, they will join Al Qaeda.”
- Thomson Reuters
Either way, the fall of Aleppo is “foreshadowing something far worse to come,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official under George W. Bush, said during a conference call with reporters hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative on Wednesday.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US-led anti-ISIS operation in Syria, said in a press conference Wednesday that he expects that most of the actors in Aleppo “probably have other ideas about what they’re going to do next,” and that the fall of Aleppo will likely be “a complicator” for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. But he said he doesn’t think it will have a huge effect on the coalition’s anti-ISIS efforts in the rest of the country.
Rubin, however, said that Aleppo’s fall has consolidated the Assad regime’s power, which is the “greatest recruiting tool that ISIS has ever had.”
Hof predicted that aerial attacks by Russia and the regime on civilian neighborhoods in Idlib will continue, and that pro-government forces could launch a ground offensive in the direction of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria.
“Attacking Raqqa would enable the Russians to say they are actually fighting ISIS,” Hof said. “They would also be able to sweep away the anti-ISIS coalition’s efforts and restore Assad rule in Raqqa: misrule that made Syria safe for ISIS in the first place.”