“I am waiting to die or be captured.”
That is the farewell message of one of the handful of remaining anti-Assad activists in Aleppo. As the Assad regime now triumphs a murderous, four year long victory, the question of what comes next must be asked.
Syria is a ruined country. It was a state imposed upon a land not yet a nation, and while that state had made progress in building a Syrian nation over the past 40 years under the Assad family, at the end of the day the corruption and incompetence of the regime coalesced into an uprising that almost immediately became a civil war.
As early as the summer of 2013, a year into the battle of Aleppo, Assad’s regime had concluded they would have to create a wilderness to manufacture peace. This they have done in several places, emptying out whole villages and neighborhoods and helping create the world’s largest post-war refugee crisis.
Under the barrage of relentless bombing, Russian and barrel, Aleppo, the symbol of the rebellion, has collapsed.
So now what?
Time to bury the fiction that always was the Free Syrian Army.
The Free Syrian Army was never really much: it was a motley band of former army officers, farmers, conscripts, and eventually jihadists whose public relations wing tried to brand it as a moderate, democratic force deserving of Western weapons. If they had anything like a headquarters, it was within the media wings of the warrens of Aleppo.
They had such high hopes in the early of months of 2011. It seemed, so briefly, that America might ride to their rescue in August 2013, when Obama’s infamous red line was crossed by an Assadist chemical attack. But even then they’d been infilitrated and corrupted by jihadi forces, better organized and motivated, some of whom would go on to found the Islamic State. CIA spooks knew as much: that’s why they never did get the aid they wanted, as wary Western spies worried about creating another generation of bin Ladens.
But the fall of Aleppo reveals a stark truth: never much of an army, now they are none at all. There is no democratic, moderate, would-be pro-Western faction in the Syrian civil war. They are all dead.
Which leaves the remaining combatants on the field: a horrid collection of war criminals, jihadists, caliphate apocalypse worshippers, and, of course “plucky Kurds.”
There are varying shades of bad within the hellscape of the Syria’s battlefields. The Assad regime represents a status quo ante, a return to stability and repression and doubtless a future revolt, somewhere in the distant future. The jihadists of the al-Nusra Front, amongst other factions, offer a different kind of repression, and probably confrontation and war with the West and its Arab allies. The Islamic State’s drug-induced hope to end the world is surely the worst of all, and yet their crimes do not belie the fact that the Kurds are no moderate democrats waiting to bring the 21st century to Syria.
It will be tempting, as the days now pass with Aleppo back under regime control, for some to say now is the time to choose anddevil and make a deal with it. And yet if the land is filled with geopolitical demons all fighting one another, doesn’t it serve to let them continue to thin their own herds? The international community, led by the United States, had a chance to sort this mess years ago: instead, Russia surged in, restored some of its lost glory, and had now made removing Assad, once a prerequisite of peace, tantamount to declaring war on Moscow.
There are no good guys in Syria. That was true early on. But now there are no useful bad guys either. To back even the Kurds is to potentially weaken a NATO ally, Turkey, who besides will wage relentless war to keep a free Kurdistan from becoming a thing on the map. To do much of anything is to strengthen a force that will weaken a more important ally.
And what of the Arabs, who must live with this?
For the Saudis, Qataris, and other Gulf Arabs who hoped to roll back an Iranian ally and spread their influence on the far side of Iraq, that dream is almost as dead as the hopes of the West. The West, especially the Obama administration, wanted the best nature of people to overcome the worst, replace a tinpot dictatorship with a fledging democracy, and naturally align with the West. Instead, they got a refugee crisis, the Islamic State, and a Russian campaign that proved Moscow could return to once lost frontiers.
Much as Turkey has slowed back off from trying to oust Assad, the Gulf Arabs too will have to come to terms with Assad – and, by extension, Iran. This could shift competition to Iraq, where the Saudi-Iranian conflict is more political than military, or it could heat up Yemen, where Iranian allies battle the Saudi army. But it proves that the Saudis are a geopolitical paper tiger, unable to save friends or stave off disasters. In February, the Saudis sent jets to Turkey – and then promptly did nothing. If Aleppo did not hammer in the point hard enough, the reality that Saudi had jets nearby and did nothing should surely do the job.
For the House of Saud, such truth stings worst than most: the self-congratulating propaganda of the Saudi media can tout the fiction of the 2030 economic reform vision for another 14 years, but it cannot deny that Aleppo fell to a hated enemy even when Saudi tried to help. That will give heart to the monarchy’s many enemies: should they challenge its hard power, perhaps a topple won’t be as hard as they think. But that should scare just about everyone else, because those most likely to bring down the monarchy have a penchant for crucification and streaming when they immolate people alive.
So Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran must surely be cheering. Right?
And so they can, for now. But the war is far from over. The Islamic State took the opportunity to recapture Palmyra, despite furious Russian bombing, proving that even under siege they have fight left in them. Many of the jihadist rebels of Aleppo have withdrawn into the countryside, where they can wage a more traditional guerrilla war against Russians troops, Hezbollah militia, and Assadist irregulars. If they find someone to supply them with weapons, they could continue to bleed Assad as Iraq’s rebels once bled the Americans.
And while Iran and Russia can surely pat one another on the back for having won a brutal and difficult battle, they must now also be coming to grips with how hollow and brittle the remnants of the Assad regime are. From a once might army of 320,000 troops and a relatively well-supplied fighting force, the Assad regime relies upon the poorly-equipped National Defense Forces militia to do the bulk of occupation; their quality was revealed when they fled the recent IS assault on Palmyra.
If the Syrian regular army barely exists, it goes without saying that the Assad regime’s ability to deliver effective services, let alone rebuild captured territory, is just as bad. Referring to it as a “statelet” is about right: warlord fief may be more accurate in nature, as Assad’s cronies suck up precious resources and terrorize the population with brute force and stories of how their enemies are even worse.
This is now Iran’s and Russia’s problem. It has been expensive for America to prop up the Iraqi government, but the only thing more expensive than keeping a man in Baghdad is to have no man at all. For years, Russia and Iran could enjoy watching America fritter power away in Iraq; now, they’re in the same situation, except they have less power and a much tougher job ahead of them.
To completely reconquer Syria will mean subduing the still-capable Islamic State, ejecting the Turks and their allies, and reconquering the Kurdish militias so beloved by Western media. Once the Assadists could hope to drain the swamp of Syria’s rebellion by provoking a mass exodus, but Europe’s gates are closed, and Turkey, the main route for refugees, has a dog in this fight now. So while bombing Aleppo to dust worked, to replicate it nationwide is to invite either an international response or the waste of such power that Iran and Russia don’t get what they want in more vital areas, like Ukraine for Russia or Iraq for Iran.
Their butcher’s bill is yet to be paid. Tehran and Moscow can self-congratulate on a tough job done, but neither has the power of the United States, their chief rival, and so both must be more parsimonious with what power they do have.
The war is obviously not over; neither are its consequences.
The fall of Aleppo brings to an end merely a phase in this war. Now comes the time for battle against the remaining jihadists, coupled with Turkey’s war against the Kurds. As one faction vanishes beneath the smoke, others must too be vanquished. Those who are part of that process have a steep bill yet to pay.