Aleppo Post-Mortem: The Urban Battle of the Decade

The victory in Aleppo is a significant moment for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his bloody and prolonged war against the opposition to his regime. What will become of Syria now, and what are the implications with regard to Israel?

Eastern Aleppo, Syria (Photo: AP)

We are currently witnessing one of the most dramatic moments of the bloody war in Syria: the victory of the forces of President Bashar al-Assad's regime over the rebel forces. For this victory, after six years of fighting, Assad should be grateful to his supporters – Iran, Hezbollah, the Shi'ite militia forces and mainly Russia. They were responsible for defeating the rebel forces that had been encircled in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo for several months, without any assistance from the outside, subject – along with the civilian population – to the murderous air strikes by the fighter aircraft of Syria and Russia.

Indeed, the territory has been captured and the ruins are reminiscent of images from the days of World War II, but the President who butchers his own people declared a historic accomplishment. The Syrian regime will no doubt set a date to commemorate the glorious victory over Aleppo and its inhabitants. Celebrations – either voluntary or coerced – are already under way in the parts of the country where the population supports the regime, and so is a new wave of refugees made up of the inhabitants of the eastern parts of Aleppo.

At the same time, it would seem that the spirit that motivates the opposition elements in Syria has not been broken yet, and they are still willing to continue fighting. Some of them have even pledged to return to Aleppo over the dead bodies of their enemies – the men loyal to the Assad regime. Assad and his supporters still face battles throughout Syria – in the Idlib governorate as well as in the south (in Daraa, the Syrian Golan Heights), dominated by the various Sunni opposition forces. The Syrian "revolution" is not over yet, and may not be over until it has accomplished its goals, first and foremost of which is the ousting of the much-hated regime.

In the midst of all the excitement, the Islamic State (ISIS) organization has been forgotten to some extent. ISIS has managed to survive thus far, despite the defeats it sustained on the battlefield both in Iraq (Mosul) and in Syria (al-Raqqah). ISIS even attempted to signal that it is still as powerful as it once was by staging a brief attack in the direction of the town of Tadmur (Palmyra), out of which it was driven away very quickly.

The Syrian regime alone, with its steadily weakening military, is unable to conduct on its own the subsequent combat operations required in order to liberate additional territories currently held by opposition forces. The Syrian military will continue to rely on the assistance of Assad's supporters – mainly the assistance provided by Russia, which staked out a claim in Syria for her own needs, for an indefinite period of time. This move brought about the reversal on the ground, and apparently will continue to influence the balance of power between the opposing forces. It would seem, however, that the challenges the Syrian regime still faces could compel it and its supporters to invest considerable efforts in 2017 so as to achieve additional victories on the ground.

From an Israeli perspective, this victory – and others that are likely to follow it – could project to the Israeli border with Syria on the Golan Heights, when the Syrian Army and its supporters from Hezbollah and the various Shi'ite militia forces have once again dominated the territories bordering with Israel. The question that comes to mind is who will accept the responsibility for this area, which is highly sensitive and volatile. Will the Syrian regime maintain the state of tranquility along this border, as it had done since the end of the war of attrition in 1974, or will this area evolve into a no-man's land, dominated by forces supported and controlled by Iran?

This also raises the question of Russia's position. Will Russia focus on the northern parts of Syria that are important to its interests and local status, leaving the south, which is less important to the Russians, to the whims of the regime in Damascus, or will Moscow wish to maintain the regional stability and prevent the outbreak of a new war, as this time it faces Israel rather than Sunni rebel forces?

Assad, too, will have to consider and reconsider whether he should assign the territory facing Israel to Hezbollah and Iran as a "reward" for the assistance they provided to him. In the present situation, his armed forces had weakened and declined dramatically after years of fighting, and he will have to continue focusing on the Sunni-dominated areas in the north, rather than on the Golan Heights, so as to prevent the outbreak of a new rebellion.

Such a decision could lead very quickly to a regional flare-up. Without Russian military support, the Syrian regime and the Shi'ite organizations could sustain a serious damage, and Damascus and its suburbs could be reduced to heaps of rubble like Damascus' northern sister – Aleppo, this time as a result of Israeli air strikes.

The question that arises is whether Russia will back Assad in this context, too, or will it attempt to prevent him from making moves that are dangerous to him and that would place the Russians, too, in a position where they are compelled to make some difficult decisions. A wrong decision may cause Assad's Russian patrons to become disillusioned with him and be rid of him at the earliest opportunity, thereby proving to the world that Syria may be managed without him.

Hopefully, the Syrian President will make his decisions carefully and thoughtfully, while listening to his Russian advisors rather than to his Iranian and Shi'ite supporters, including Hezbollah. He should keep the border with Israel quiet for another 40-year period. He will be well-advised not to be lured into thinking that the victory in Aleppo and any additional future victories his regime may achieve over the rebels could be repeated opposite Israel.

Assad should learn the lessons of Saddam Hussein, who thought, back in 1991, that the great victory over Iran, after eight years of war, would enable his illustrious military to achieve victory opposite the USA, which he had regarded as a "paper tiger".

It is reasonable to assume that Assad understands that this is not the situation in the case of Israel. Even Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, knows that Israel is not the "cobwebs" he had described in the past, and that Israel's bite could be very painful indeed. If Bashar al-Assad and his regime make the right decision – they could only benefit from it.


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