A cease-fire agreement aimed at stopping the battle for Syria’s largest city long enough to evacuate civilians and rebel fighters has already collapsed, less than one full day after it was brokered in Ankara by Russian and Turkish officials.
It is unclear who broke the truce first, but it reportedly broke down after pro-Syrian government, Iran-backed Shiite militias operating a checkpoint inside Aleppo would not let civilians evacuate according to the terms of the deal. Iran then introduced new conditions on the cease-fire deal as its proxies resumed their attacks on the rebel-held east.
While the collapse of the agreement may be a nuisance for Syria and Russia, which apparently agreed to the deal without consulting Iran, it does not represent a significant setback.
“The pro-regime coalition retains the dominant edge in Aleppo city,” said Chris Kozak, an expert on Syria at the Institute for the Study of War. “The fall of opposition forces is largely inevitable, whether evacuated or destroyed by military force, and Syria, Russia, and Iran can collectively afford to hold out for even greater concessions for the time being.”
But, as Assad himself said in a recent interview, the fall of Aleppo “won’t mean the end of the war.”
A major concern in the West is that the violence will become increasingly sectarian as
Iraqi Shia militiamen assembled by Iran “go through ruined east Aleppo with a fine-toothed comb, murdering, looting, and pillaging from one neighbourhood to the next,” said Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East who
served as special adviser for transition in Syria to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012.
“Washington is pleading with Moscow to prevent the worst from happening, but it does so with no leverage and no ‘or else,'” Hof told Business Insider on Wednesday.
The evacuation of rebels and civilians from eastern Aleppo could therefore alleviate short-term suffering. But experts perceive the forced displacement — and, in many cases, the mandatory conscription — as a form of ethnic cleansing.
“Displacing or detaining populations has become business as usual in areas retaken by the regime,” Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in The New York Times on Tuesday.
The “cleansing,” Itani said, reflect a pattern used by the Assad regime to clear areas once controlled by the opposition. “It is sometimes called the ‘green bus’ strategy after the vehicles used to transport the displaced,” he wrote.
It is unlikely that the roughly 7,000 fighters inside Aleppo will give up on the revolution once they are evacuated from the city. Approximately 40,000 fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army are still fighting the regime outside of Aleppo, along with about 30,000 in southern Syria, and several thousand in the suburbs of Damascus and Idlib.
Abdul Hadi Sari, a former air force general and commander in the Southern Front forces, told the Christian Science Monitor that his forces are preparing for an “underground, insurgency phase — a popular resistance — against the regime, its allies, and their interests.”
In other words, while recapturing Aleppo would leave Assad with firm control over Syria’s major urban centres — including Damascus and Homs — opposition forces still control large parts of northwestern and southern Syria.
From there, they could either become an insurgency, as Sari suggested; join the anti-ISIS fight led by the US, Turkey, and Jordan. Or, they could radicalize.
“There are some individuals that are drawn to Al Qaeda because they are disappointed with the West and American policy in Syria,” Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the CS Monitor. “If they want to continue the fight, they will join Al Qaeda.”
If they do, the fighting will likely get extremely bloody: Because foreign actors such as the US, Turkey, and the Gulf states have little leverage in those areas, the regime can operate there “with impunity,” said Syrian journalist and analyst Hassan Hassan.
“The areas in Syria in which the regime can operate at this point without having to face foreign countries are mostly Idlib and rural Damascus,” Hassan told Business Insider on Wednesday. “This sounds to me like the beginning of a new dynamic in the Syrian conflict, which happens to be just as a new administration comes to Washington.”
Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US-led anti-ISIS operation in Syria, said in a press conference Wednesday that he expects that most of the actors in Aleppo “probably have other ideas about what they’re going to do next,” and that the fall of Aleppo will likely be “a complicator” for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. But he said he doesn’t think it will have a huge effect on the coalition’s anti-ISIS efforts in the rest of the country.
Hof, however, predicted that aerial attacks by Russia and the regime on civilian neighbourhoods in Idlib will continue, and that pro-government forces could launch a ground offensive in the direction of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria.
“Attacking Raqqa would enable the Russians to say they are actually fighting ISIS,” Hof said. “They would also be able to sweep away the anti-ISIS coalition’s efforts and restore Assad rule in Raqqa: misrule that made Syria safe for ISIS in the first place.”
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