A lesson from the Aleppo battle: Assad cannot win
The Aleppo battle, poised to continue over the next few months, is yet another reminder that Assad cannot achieve military victory
Even with the support of Russia's air force, Hezbollah’s fighters and other mercenaries on the ground in Aleppo, the Assad regime was dealt last weekend its heaviest blow since 2015 (the loss of Idlib), as a new coalition of Islamist rebels regained control and broke the 30-day siege on the Eastern part of the city.
The Aleppo battle, poised to continue over the next few months, is yet another reminder that Assad cannot achieve military victory in the war ravaging since 2011. His coalition with Iran and Shiite militias, brutal police regime tactics employed from day one of the conflict, and his refusal to seek a legitimate political solution have all but doomed him in this prolonged fight. Now that he is facing a more ideological and committed insurgency, his talk of winning back “every inch” of the country is at the very least unrealistic.
A new ground dynamic
Make no mistake, the Assad regime and its allies have consistently highlighted the significance and cruciality of the Aleppo battle. Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called Aleppo last June the "grand strategic battle" not just for Syria, but also for the future Iraq and Lebanon.
Before Nasrallah, in April, Assad's Prime Minister Wael Halki laid the foundation for victory in Aleppo, pledging that Russia’s air force will help "liberate the city entirely". So, what went wrong?
It is precisely Assad's brutal war tactics such as the starvation blockades, aerial bombing of hospitals, and his dependence on Shiite militias and Iran in a Sunni majority country, that have been his Achilles heel throughout the conflict. This vulnerability was in plain sight in Aleppo, where the regime lost the support of the population in key areas, and a new rebel coalition turned the table on Assad and Hezbollah, as the Russian air force proved to be insufficient.
The Aleppo battle, poised to continue over the next few months, is yet another reminder that Assad cannot achieve military victory in the war ravaging since 2011Joyce Karam
With the rise of Assad's brutality came the rise of a more ideological opposition. The new coalition that broke the siege in East Aleppo is comprised mostly of Islamist groups under the umbrella of "Jaish Al-Fateh" or "The Conquest Army". In this alliance, former Jabhat Nusra now rebranded as "Jabhat Fateh Sham" and "Ahrar Sham" play a central role. The Aleppo offensive followed Nusra's name change and its alleged break-up with Al-Qaeda, showing once again its military prowess and political plasticity in Northern Syria.
Reports on Assad army fleeing the artillery academy against an insurgency that utilized suicide bombings, use of TOW missiles, reveal a new and more difficult military terrain for the regime. Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias who bled heavily in Aleppo, face the difficulty of fighting on foreign terrain and far away from their base (Lebanon and Iraq). A leaked tape of a Hezbollah fighter claiming to have been “abandoned” by the regime also reveals fissures in the day-to-day military coordination between the two.
There are also questions surfacing on the commitment of Russia's air force behind Assad and in absence of real readiness for political compromise from the regime. This dynamic complicates the road ahead for Assad as its enemies gain more ground, and its forces morale declines, while being stretched too thin and drained by five years of war.
The Aleppo battle coming on the eve of Turkish President Recep Tayeb Erdogan meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg today, will help Turkey exercise more leverage if the Syrian conflict were to come up in the discussions.
Not only has Turkey bet all its cards against the Assad regime, but it has according to rebel sources, directly helped in facilitating support for the new coalition of rebels and aided in unifying its ranks. This new dynamic will boost Ankara's influence in Northern Syria and in shaping the outcome of the conflict.
The battle in Aleppo is another nail in the Geneva talks coffin. By now and according to the initial timeline, a constitution and transitional elections were supposed to emerge by this fall. Instead, even a loosely defined cessation of hostilities is shattered in Aleppo, Ghouta and in the South. The political process looks no more than a window dressing to buy time as different proxies attempt to change the calculus. A social media narrative has emerged after the Aleppo developments contrasting the failure of Geneva in lifting the sieges with the success of sheer force. This is a dangerous precedent that will further undermine a futile process.
All in all, the Aleppo battle is turning the tables once again in Syria, proving that Assad’s path to a military solution is a continued delusion, while an extended war of attrition and regional jockeying shape the reality in Syria for the foreseeable future.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam