The fall of Aleppo and the adjusted alignment of international parties involved in the Syrian conflict have important implications for the future of that country as well as for the United States’ overall role in the Middle East.
What should be — but is not necessarily — the primary concern of all parties with respect to the Syrian conflict is to bring it and the human suffering it has produced to an end, as soon as possible. The loss of Aleppo by the various rebel groups holding out there to the combined assault of Syrian government, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian and other forces, supported by Russian as well as Syrian air attacks, was a significant development.
It was especially important to the Bashar Assad government, in political and symbolic terms as well as a military victory. Remember that in gunning down Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara, Turkey, on Dec. 19, assassin Mevlut Mert Altintas yelled, “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”
There is, in principle, still in effect a shaky cease-fire and talks with various Syrian and international parties are scheduled for later this month in Kazakhstan. In spite of the still-unclear situation in the country, including the fact that there are still many different forces, including those of the Islamic State, holding various pieces of Syria, a clearer picture of the future does seem to be emerging.
The first is that, in spite of a plethora of comments on Mr. Assad’s prospects for remaining in power, including by President Barack Obama, he seems to have held on successfully, due in no small part to Russian assistance, which dates back to Cold War support of his father, President Hafez Assad, by the Soviet Union. Syria may at some point in the future have elections, which are unlikely in any case to be free and fair.
The U.S. role in the Middle East has shown itself to be lessened considerably as the Syrian war has evolved recently. The U.S. horses in the race, primarily “moderate” Syrian rebels and the Kurds, are not big players. U.S.-backed forces were first supposed to take IS-held Mosul in Iraq, then proceed to alleged IS capital Raqqa in Syria. The “liberators” are still bogged down outside Mosul.
On the international level, what has occurred in Syria has been brokered almost entirely by Russia and Turkey with Iranian acquiescence, with America largely dealt out of the game. Whether this will change with the advent of the new government in Washington Jan. 20 remains to be seen. American Middle East policy under Mr. Obama will be under sharp review by new president Donald Trump, with respect not only to the Middle Eastern parties and expensive conflicts but also in terms of U.S. policy toward Russia, Iran and Turkey.