What next for the rebels if they are defeated in Aleppo?
BEIRUT // Syria’s rebels have all but lost east Aleppo.
In a matter of days, they ceded roughly a third of the territory in their most prized bastion – their resistance crumbling in the face of a government ground offensive, ceaseless aerial bombardment and the growling stomachs of a siege.
Defeat now appears to be a matter of when, not if. And when may be coming soon.
There is a feeling that if the rebels lose Aleppo – Syria’s largest city before the war and formerly the country’s main commercial hub – then they will lose the war. But while their chances of winning the Syrian conflict plummet with a defeat in Aleppo, the war remains far from over.
The rebels still control significant chunks of territory, notably in Idlib province and along Syria’s border with Turkey, as well as in the south, along Syria’s borders with Jordan and the Golan Heights.
Once Aleppo falls, the fronts in Idlib and the neighbouring Aleppo countryside are likely to become the most relevant. If rebels in Aleppo are able to cut a deal to retreat – as they have been offered before by the government – this is where they will be headed, adding a boost in manpower to groups already there.
Nearly all of Idlib has been under firm rebel control since the spring of 2015 and the province represents the largest geographic area currently held by opposition groups.
But if the Idlib fronts become more relevant this would likely only add to the already outsized influence of extremist group Jabhat Fatah Al Sham – formerly Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate – and other hardliners that dominate the region. Jabhat Fatah Al Sham’s long-term strategy has been to make other rebel groups dependent on its fighters and boost their rebel credentials. Leading an assault to break the siege of Aleppo in August helped this strategy greatly, as did the group’s separation from Al Qaeda in July.
A number of rebel groups ideologically oppose Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, but have previously worked with the group against the Syrian government. Now, with the importance of the Idlib fronts to increase, Jabhat Fatah Al Sham’s influence over other factions is poised to swell and the different forces in Idlib – both extremists and those more moderate – will likely become more entwined. And the more sway Jabhat Fatah Al Sham has, the more remote the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict becomes. International actors will not accept Jabhat Fatah Al Sham’s role in the opposition – and even friends of the rebels could reduce their criticism of Russian and Syrian strikes when raids are intensified on areas where the extremist group is active and dominant.
The rebels’ most promising chance for long-term survival could now be the Turkish-backed militias along the border north of Aleppo. Turkey entered Syria’s war in August, allowing rebel units to pass through Turkish territory to attack ISIL in Jarablus. With Ankara’s active participation in the war, the militias have now carved out a sizeable enclave. The border, and Turkey’s participation, allows a free flow of weapons, ammunition and supplies.
The problem for the rebels, however, is that Turkey seems to have become disinterested in fighting the Syrian government. Its intervention is aimed at fighting ISIL and the Kurdish YPG, a US-allied group that Ankara considers to be a terrorist organisation. Rebels fighting with Turkey’s support have grumbled that they should be fighting against the Syrian government, but so far they have kept following Ankara’s orders – the Turkish assistance has allowed them to make gains that they could not have made on their own.
But Turkey’s stance may be changing. In a speech on Tuesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country had intervened militarily in Syria to “to end the rule of the tyrant Al Assad” according to the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News. And even if Turkey does not change its battle plan in Syria, government forces will likely eventually turn to the rebel enclave in the north if they continue to advance, forcing Turkey to choose between doubling down on its rebel proxies or abandoning them.
The rebels are not Damascus’s only opponents, however. Even if Syrian government forces are finally able to quell the rebellion and clear out its last remaining enclaves, they will still have to wrestle with Kurdish forces who have already started ruling autonomous areas, ISIL and perhaps even powerful pro-government warlords who have seen their stars rise amid the bloodshed.
The war in Syria is not going anywhere just yet.