Assad’s Pyrrhic victory in Aleppo
No one really knows how many were killed or injured in East Aleppo in the recent onslaught. No one cares about the hospitals, schools and residential buildings that were leveled to the ground by heavy shelling and bombardment.
Stories about summary executions of civilians and fighters, rape, torture and mass graves are overshadowed by futile diplomatic theatrics at the UN Security Council, and news of the suspension and resumption of the quid-pro-quo evacuation in Aleppo and Idlib.
These deals would not have come through if it was not for determined Turkish negotiations with Russia, the latter now effectively the primary owner of the Syrian file. The Syrian regime and Iranian militias wanted a bloodier conclusion to the Aleppo siege, a total surrender or wipeout of insurgents. Moscow, demonized by Washington and European capitals, gave Ankara the credit, a deliberate snub to the US and the rest of the West.
Turkey’s carefully calculated pivot toward Russia underlined growing frustration with the Obama administration — and some Arab allies — which stood idly by as East Aleppo was being ravished. Turkey’s intervention emboldened its regional stature as a defender of Sunnis and also as a key player.
Since the rapprochement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Turkey has altered its game-plan in Syria, dispatching its army to the north to provide backup to Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters who had expelled Daesh from key towns including Azaz, Dabiq and Jarabulus.
The objective is not limited to overrunning Daesh positions, but to checking the advance of Syrian Kurdish fighters west of the Euphrates. By doing so, Ankara has reasserted its role and influence in the Syrian crisis, and booked a seat for itself at the table in future political arrangements.
The sidelining of the US administration in Syria represents the climax of a failed and hesitant policy that has frustrated America’s allies in the region and raised questions about Washington’s leadership.
The so-called moderate opposition has become an effete and spent force, abandoned by America and humiliated in the battlefield. Those who remain are multifarious radical groups, infiltrated by foreign jihadists, whose agenda for Syria has little to do with the discredited political opposition in exile or with the general aspirations of the Syrian people.
On that count, Syrian President Bashar Assad appears as the lesser of two evils, but his so-called victory comes at a hefty price. Now Russia is deeply entrenched in his country, while tens of thousands of Iranian mercenaries are in control of key regions.
For the time being, the fate of Syria is in the hands of Russia, Iran and Turkey. The foreign ministers of the three countries are meeting in Moscow to discuss extending the cease-fire to the rest of Syria. The trilateral meeting represents the geopolitical reality that has now emerged. Ironically, the Damascus regime is not invited to the meeting.
As primary owner of the Syrian file, Putin must now take the lead not only in military operations but also in providing a political roadmap forward. He has suggested convening fresh peace talks in Kazakhstan, rendering the Geneva and Vienna rounds irrelevant. However, he has his work cut out for him.
Without Western and regional backing and involvement, the process will be fraught with challenges. Putin cannot afford to alienate his Western foes or continue to defy international will. The Syrian opposition in exile will be divided further, and those who will be invited to attend will be handpicked by Moscow. Turkey appears to be on board, but the Moscow-Tehran-Ankara league, if it can be called that, will soon endure cracks.
Iran’s sectarian agenda in Iraq and Syria will face opposition from Moscow and Ankara. Putin will have to deliver on a peaceful and stable Syria that will allow the repatriation of the displaced and refugees, against sinister Iranian schemes to carry out ethnic and sectarian cleansings to assure the viability of the Assad regime. The apparent accord between Iran and Russia will face tests.
Turkey’s opposition to the regime notwithstanding, a pragmatic Ankara will focus its efforts on containing Syria’s Kurds and battling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at home. Assad, however, will find himself in an unenviable position as he continues to bow to pressure from Tehran and Moscow. He now serves two masters.
The spoils of war will not be enjoyed for long. Syria remains a fractured and volatile country, as the surprise taking of Palmyra from regime forces by Daesh last week has proved. The path to restoring peace and quiet is long and treacherous, as Putin will soon discover. For the Syrian regime, which hopes to reverse the clock to before March 2011, Aleppo may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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