With the fall of Aleppo, heavy losses yet little to gain

As the Syrian city falls this week, former Canadian diplomat Bruce Mabley explains why Assad’s victory will be short-lived and what the takeover means for the conflict.

By: /
December 13, 2016
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stand atop a damaged tank near Umayyad mosque, in the government-controlled area of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

For those of us who have supported the moderate Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the Arab Spring, it is with a heavy heart we are witnessing the fall of Aleppo to Syrian government forces. 

For the last year, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its rebel affiliates have been fighting a losing battle against an impressive array of enemy forces. The balance has clearly been tipped in Assad's favour by the presence of foreign forces backing him. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards combined with Russian air strikes and sea power were just too much to prevent the fall of Aleppo, which, from the desperate reports coming out of the city, is expected Tuesday.

For Assad, the fall of Aleppo has two main consequences. A major city has been retaken by his regime, thereby illustrating its military power and ability to take territory. The territorial gain will also bolster the international legitimacy of Assad's claim that his is the only true Syrian government more solidly in place than before. It will not change the lack of political or moral legitimacy, but this fact does not seem to bother Western powers or Russia very much. From time to time, the former will lament the plight of those on the ground and of the refugees, even accepting some of them rather than address any lack of political or moral will on their part. Western powers must share part of the blame for the Syrian fiasco for their inaction when faced with such a cynical and bloodthirsty regime. 

But what happens next? By taking Aleppo, the Syrian governmental forces have shown that they can take ground, but can they control it? Russian air strikes will not be able to assist them very much in accomplishing this task.

For the FSA and rebels, the loss of Aleppo is an important one. However, for Assad, it may also be lost. Aleppo is now in ruins and it will take huge amounts of cash to rebuild it and make it into Syria's major commercial city again. The lack of goodwill created by the Damascus regime will make it difficult to envisage such a task. The Russians and Iranians have played a large role in destroying Aleppo. Bankrolling its reconstruction may, however, be beyond their means.

The parallel between Aleppo and World War Two’s Battle of Stalingrad, when Russian forces successfully defended the city and stopped the advance of the German army into the Soviet Union, is striking. Like Stalingrad, Aleppo’s defeat will likely come at little gain for its victors; instead leaving nothing but a city in ruin. Aleppo has been reduced to a heap of rubble and is experiencing a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. The factories are gone, the commercial bazars are destroyed, and there has been an exodus of refugees. Who will want to return to live in the rubble under the boot of the dictator bent on killing and torturing any rebel he can get his hands on?

There are several ominous consequences to the fall of Aleppo that can give some hope to the opposition and ensure that Assad’s victory will be short lived. First, the fall of Aleppo will not conclude the uprising. Instead it will produce a greater determination on the part of the rebels to continue the fight. Assad’s intransigence and lack of flexibility also means that the revolt will continue. The lack of assistance from the West coupled with the nature of the Syrian dictatorial regime creates a perfect storm; the fall of Aleppo will polarize the Syrian opposition further and rule out any attempts by the international community to obtain a diplomatic solution.

What will be the nature of this polarization born out of despair and a lack of hope? The rebels will multiply and seek out allies who are attacking the regime, like the so-called Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front. By destroying the city, Assad has only created more resolute enemies to deal with. In the words of Ammar Abdulhamid, Syrian opposition activist and former fellow at Brookings and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the fall of Aleppo represents, at best, a Pyrrhic victory for the regime. It now owns a dysfunctional city of deserted ruins while having created an even more dangerous and determined enemy.

The cowardly support of the Russians and Iranians, combined with the wistful ignorance and leading-from-behind philosophy of the West, is resulting in the fall of Aleppo. However, the victory likely comes at too great a cost to be worthwhile for the Assad regime. More worrisome is that the objectives of the Arab Spring in Syria, to create a moderate, democratic society of laws and freedoms, are now further out of reach than ever.