The Beginning of the End of the Syrian Civil War

4 MINS READDec 13, 2016 | 17:45 GMT
The Beginning of the End of the Syrian Civil War
Aleppo's Old City is pictured on Dec. 9. It is only a matter of time until loyalist troops retake the city.

After nearly five years of bloody urban warfare, the battle for Aleppo is coming to an end. Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, backed by an array of foreign militias, have steadily chipped away at the remnants of rebel-held territory in the city over the past few weeks. As of this writing, there are only a few neighborhoods left under the rebels' control.

The loss of the city comes as little surprise. Aleppo's fate was sealed when the last rebel attempt to break the loyalist siege on the city, launched Oct. 28, failed miserably. In the weeks since, it has become increasingly clear that it is only a matter of time until the city falls. 

The capture of Aleppo will mark the biggest victory for the al Assad administration since the Syrian civil war began — and the heaviest blow it has dealt its rebel opponents. Having lost the critical city, the rebels' hopes of military triumph over Damascus will become a distant dream, and their position at the negotiating table will be severely compromised. Loyalist troops, meanwhile, will hold the vast majority of Syria's urban centers. Their success in Aleppo will embolden the government to redouble its efforts to end the war by military means.

In the coming year, the loyalists will no doubt capitalize on their gains by forging ahead with offensives to reclaim more rebel-held territory elsewhere in the country. Aside from Aleppo, government troops have made notable progress in the region around the Syrian capital. Several besieged cities, districts and suburbs near Damascus that have long been under rebel control were forced to surrender this year in the face of intense bombardment and starvation tactics. Once Damascus is secure and Aleppo has been retaken, the Syrian rebels will no longer pose an existential threat to the al Assad government. Instead, their attention will shift to keeping the rebellion alive amid relentless attacks by loyalist troops.

Waning Support

The civil war is nearing the beginning of its end stage, but it is still far from over. A military victory would take the Syrian government years to achieve, if such a victory is even possible. The loyalists lack manpower: While most of their best units were busy conducting operations in Damascus and Aleppo, the Islamic State overran a poorly trained garrison in Palmyra on Dec. 11. The jihadist group then attacked the strategic T4 air base west of the historical town. Loyalists have tried to fill out their ranks by teaming up with foreign militias, but even the influx of fighters from abroad has not adequately compensated for years of casualties, desertions and defections. Simply put, overstretched government forces will have trouble not only seizing new ground but also finding the troops to hold it.

Damascus may also start to see its foreign allies lose interest in the fight. The intensive support al Assad has received from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah is largely what has given his troops the upper hand against the rebels, who have had far less foreign aid to work with. Once the Syrian government has regained its grip on power, some of Damascus' partners abroad — particularly Russia — will be keen to look for the nearest exit from the conflict. Though the Kremlin wants to maintain its leverage in Syria to protect its bargaining power with the United States, Moscow will not be eager to continue funneling resources to the battlefield while loyalist troops work to reclaim every corner of the country. In fact, differences of opinion between Russia and Iran were already becoming apparent in the operation to reclaim Aleppo.

A Costly Fight

Syria's economy, meanwhile, is in dire straits. Government-held territories have offered economic stability relative to most bombed-out rebel positions, a powerful draw to Syrian citizens to support the al Assad administration. But as the conflict has worn on, the economic conditions and living standards in these havens have deteriorated. The Islamic State operation to retake Palmyra, for instance, also led to the capture of most of the loyalists' remaining energy fields. The costs of financing military forces and repairing damage from the war will only increase Damascus' dependence on foreign sponsors, especially Iran. The potential weakening of this financial lifeline will continue to be an ever-present risk that could curtail al Assad's reach throughout the country.

Reinvigorated by the fall of Aleppo, the Syrian government will press on with the war, though a military resolution to the conflict remains a remote prospect. The rebels, too, are no more inclined to accept a peace deal that allows al Assad to stay in power, regardless of the setback the city's loss represents. So, although the capture of Aleppo will be a decisive moment in the Syrian civil war, by no means will it be the tipping point that brings the conflict to a swift end.

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