December 13, 2016

After the fall of Aleppo, what next?

The graphic above is a Reuters photograph with a caption from the Arab-language al-Jazeera network. The caption reads:

Truce agreement and the evacuation of civilians and fighters from Aleppo. Syrian opposition sources confirmed that they had reached an agreement with the regime for a cease fire and the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo. It will take effect beginning Tuesday evening.

So this is how the battle of Aleppo ends. The struggle for control of what was Syria's largest city began in earnest in the summer of 2012. My assessment at that time (See Syria--the battle for Aleppo - July 30, 2012):

The battle of Aleppo will be a harbinger of things to come. If the opposition is defeated by overwhelming military force, which it might be since the Bashar al-Asad regime seems to have no reticence about turning its military - the armed forces built to fight the superior Israel Defense Forces - on its civilian population, it may well portend the end of the uprising. The opposition cannot afford to lose in Aleppo - for them it is do or die.

The opposition - a term that includes not only the Free Syrian Army, but a variety of Islamic militias as well as the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria, formerly the jabhat al-nusrah (Victory Front), now calling itself the jabhat al-fatah al-sham (Levant Conquest Front) - fought the battle for over four years.

Several times in the years of fighting, the opposition held the upper hand, even to the point of advancing south while pushing back the Syrian Army almost completely out of Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Despite the coordinated - and significant - intervention of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah fighters, the opposition was still able to continue to put pressure on the Syrian regime.

In 2015, when it appeared that the regime was again faltering, especially in Aleppo and Idlib, the Russians intervened with massive amounts of airpower, the likes of which the opposition had never experienced at the hands of the Syrian Arab Air Force.

The introduction of effective airpower into the fighting was able to not only stop the Syrian withdrawal and rebel advance, it precipitated a major reversal of fortune that has led us to the fall of Aleppo today.

I was not alone in my predictions - virtually every military analyst warned that the city would be retaken by the regime and its backers. There was too much firepower arrayed against the rebels - with Russian airpower and advice, the forces encircled the city and slowly but deliberately began to crush the resistance.

Repeated American attempts at ceasefires failed. The regime appeared to have the upper hand - I am sure Russian military analysts had come to the same conclusions that I had - it was only a matter of time, so why agree to any ceasefire except on the most favorable terms? American diplomacy had failed - I summed up my thoughts in October with an article, Aleppo--the impotence of American diplomacy.

That impotence characterized by chronically ineffective Secretary of State John Kerry continues. A ceasefire agreement that will go into effect on December 14 allowing civilians as well as rebel fighters to leave the city was reached - the agreement was hammered out between the Turkish national intelligence organization and the Russian military. Kerry has been trying for weeks to reach some agreement with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with no results.

The recriminations will consume the news for the next week. As government forces and their allies begin their bloody retribution in the former rebel stronghold, the question is - what happens now? This is the fall of Aleppo, not the end of the war.

I believe the Syrian alliance will now focus its military efforts to the south and southwest of Aleppo. The alliance now consists of what remains of the Syrian Army - now less than half its pre-war strength due to losses and defections - IRGC forces, Iranian Army troops, Hizballah fighters, Iraqi Shi'a militias, Afghan Shi'a volunteers, as well as Russian special forces and advisers. The Syrian Army contribution to effort comprises only half of the total ground forces.

The ground components are supported by Russian Navy missiles, Russian Army field and rocket artillery, and a large contingent of Russian Air Force fighters, fighter-bombers and attack aircraft, including helicopter gunships. These aircraft are based near Latakia at Humaymim air base, normally used by the Syrian Navy antisubmarine warfare helicopter squadron.

The Russian expeditionary presence in Syria, protected by state-of-the-art air defenses and electronic warfare systems, is a potent military force. Without the presence of the Russians and other foreign forces, the Syrian armed forces would be hard-pressed to conduct successful offensive operations.

I should also mention the Syria deployment of the Russian Navy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its complement of fighters and fighter-bombers, but the carrier has had numerous maintenance issues - its catapults are now inoperative, forcing the Russians to relocate the aircraft to Humaymim.

The first military objective after the Syrian alliance has fully secured Aleppo will be the re-opening of the main north-south highway - officially called the M5 or International Highway, but more commonly known as the Aleppo Highway. The highway is a good four-lane road that runs from the border with Jordan in the south, north through Damascus, Homs and Hamah, then ending in Aleppo. It is the main line of communication for the western part of Syria, home to the country's major population centers.

Referring to the map, the area in the red oval - coincidentally the primary target area for the Russian Air Force - is currently under opposition control and includes that main highway. The regime has been forced to rely on a two-lane desert road out to the east to maintain its line of communication between its strongholds in Hamah and Homs with its forces in the Aleppo area.

That desert road has at times been cut by rebel attacks - the regime needs to secure the main highway before they will be able to mount a major offensive to defeat the opposition in Idlib Governorate. That attack will be south on that highway from Aleppo and north on the highway from Hamah - obviously supported heavily by Russian airpower.

There is still fight left in the rebels, but they have just been handed a serious military defeat and major symbolic setback. As with the Syrian regime and its allies' assault on Aleppo, the massive amount of firepower and complete domination of the airspace over the battlefield will almost certainly overwhelm the fractured opposition. Unless there is a change of the situation on the ground - which I do not foresee - the revolution and the civil war may well be lost.

It gets worse for the opposition. On January 20, Donald Trump becomes the new American president. Given his pronouncements that the United States is not going to support the overthrow of dictators around the world or engage in nation building, we may see the development of an actual coherent policy on Syria.

Current American policy appears to be bifurcated between the removal of Bashar al-Asad and the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS. The two are almost impossible to achieve together - I believe the new president may opt to drop the former and keep the latter.

The situation for the various components of the Syrian opposition worsened with the loss of Aleppo - I fear they will get no help from a Trump Administration.