The UN Security Council adopts a resolution supporting the new ceasefire deal in Syria at UN headquarters in New York City on December 31, 2016 (XINHUA)
Developments in Syria at the end of 2016 broke new ground. On December 23, the Syrian Government announced that it had gained full control of Aleppo, the country's largest city and also the former major base of opposition forces. The retaking of Aleppo is seen as the government's greatest triumph since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. With mediation by Russia and Turkey, the Syrian Government and some opposition factions also agreed on a new nationwide ceasefire on December 30, the third such cessation of hostilities in 2016. Furthermore, they agreed to hold a new round of peace talks in late January 2017 in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan. On the last day of 2016, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the new ceasefire deal and the upcoming peace talks.
So, is the situation in Syria really on the brink of winding down after years of strife?
Actually, every observer of Middle Eastern affairs is well aware that military means always provide the key to solving the region's problems. The current developments in Syria derive from the just-concluded Aleppo battle. Once an economic hub, Aleppo in north Syria had been at the center of contention between government troops and rebel fighters since the outbreak of the civil war. From 2012 onward, the eastern part of the city was controlled by opposition forces. Beginning in July 2016, though, government troops started to gain ground with the assistance of Russian air power. After months of fierce fighting, the government army completed its encirclement of opposition forces last September and finally took full control of the city before the new year.
Tilting the balance
The military victory in Aleppo means a lot for the Syrian Government led by President Bashar al-Assad. Politically, it can help the Assad administration consolidate its rule and boost domestic support. With the retaking of Aleppo, the Syrian Government now has full control of the country's five largest cities—Damascus, Latakia, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Assad has hailed the victory as the first step in ending the civil war.
In the field of diplomacy, the military victory has helped enlarge the Syrian Government's power to take the initiative. Having gained control of Aleppo, the government army's advantage on the battlefield has grown further, and this in turn provides the government with more bargaining power in future negotiations and puts more pressure on opposition groups. In addition, during the last phase of the battle for Aleppo, the Syrian Government evacuated about 40,000 civilians from the city and even gave opposition militants a way to withdraw in an attempt to take the moral high ground.
In military terms, the fall of Aleppo to government forces is a severe blow to Syrian rebels, who viewed the city as their capital. Opposition groups based their military headquarters in the city, which, as it sits just 50 km from the Syria-Turkey border, was a key destination for aid supplied to opposition forces from outside the country. Losing control of Aleppo has completely ended opposition factions' hopes of overthrowing the Assad administration, and the balance on the battlefield has clearly tipped in favor of the Syrian Government.
The mess in Syria has become an arena for political fighting between foreign powers. Since 2015, the struggle between Russia and the United States in the Syrian civil war has become the most decisive factor in shaping the country's future. The result of the Aleppo battle shows that Russia is on the "offense," while the United States is on the "defense."
Since becoming heavily involved in the war in September 2015, Russia has alternately used diplomatic and military means to prop up the Syrian Government. While combating terrorist groups in Syria, Russia has helped the Assad administration turn the situation around on the battlefield. Working together with the United States, meanwhile, Russia has helped arrange two ceasefire deals and thereby made its voice loud and clear on the Syrian issue in the global arena.
More importantly, Russia's choice to help the Syrian Government retake Aleppo aimed to bring about the strategic achievement and make it an accomplished fact before Donald Trump's inauguration as U.S. president, forcing the United States to concede further on the Syrian issue. The international daily newspaper the Financial Times disclosed in December that Moscow was holding secret talks with Syria's opposition groups in an attempt to further exclude the West's influence in the country.
As the United States is in a power transition process, its Syrian strategy lacks certain direction. For a long time, Barack Obama's administration lacked a sound strategy on the Syrian issue, just regarding anti-terrorism as the priority, and Trump has even hinted that he would terminate U.S. assistance to Syrian rebels. While fierce fighting in Aleppo took place last November, the United States was busy assisting Syria's Kurdish militants and the Iraqi army with offensives against the Islamic State extremist group (ISIS) in Ar-Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. In connection with the Aleppo battle, the United States only made some symbolic diplomatic efforts and adopted a hands-off attitude toward the trapped opposition forces in the city.
Moreover, some of Syria's neighbors are aligning themselves with Russia. The Turkish Government responded cautiously toward the Aleppo battle. Ankara allegedly had made a deal with Moscow, under which Turkey accepted the expulsion of Syrian opposition forces from Aleppo in return for Russia's consent to it stationing troops in north Syria to guard against Turkish-Kurdish rebels. Although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not publicly declared his support to Assad, his position on the Syrian issue is close to Moscow's and he refrained from taking sides in the battle for Aleppo.
A convoy carrying opposition fighters leaves Aleppo during an evacuation operation on December 22, 2016 (XINHUA)
No end in sight
Though the Syrian battlefield has witnessed some new changes, the turmoil in the country is far from over. The civil war has lasted for about six years, and battlefields scatter across the country, so the future remains complicated. On the one hand, it is still quite difficult for government troops to take full control of the whole nation. At present, the Assad administration controls only one third of the country's territory, while the rest is held by opposition groups, ISIS and Kurdish forces. NATO estimates that the Syrian Government can now mobilize only 20,000 to 25,000 troops, so even if it has support from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, it lacks the ability to retake the entire territory.
On the other hand, opposition forces will probably continue to put up a struggle. Though they have lost Aleppo, they still control large swathes of territory including Idlib, Daraa and suburbs of Damascus. Faced with an unfavorable situation on the main battlefield, they may resort to guerrilla warfare to continually harass the government-controlled region while avoiding major confrontations. It also cannot be ruled out that opposition forces may join hands with extremist groups to launch terrorist attacks in large cities to undermine popular support for Damascus.
In addition, Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are unwilling to see the Syrian opposition groups fail. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani declared in November 2016 that his country would continue to supply Syrian opposition forces with aid and weapons.
Moreover, although ISIS encountered a major setback in Syria, its strength cannot be ignored, and it will possibly continue to create havoc in the country. On December 11, 2016, while the Aleppo battle was raging, ISIS launched a surprise attack and regained control of the city of Palmyra in central Syria.
All in all, as the struggle for power in Syria continues in its complexity and violence, it remains to be seen whether the upcoming Astana talks will herald a new dawn for the war-torn nation.
The author is a researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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