Closing of a Chapter

 
Victory in Aleppo is a big boost for the regime, but won’t bring an end to the war nearer without a political solution
 
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By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Russian defence ministry announced at the weekend that Syrian army forces had assumed control over 93% of eastern Aleppo while residents have been streaming out in their tens of thousands, armed opposition fighters belonging to several groups – principally the Fateh ash-Sham/Nusra Front , Ahrar ash-Sham, the Noureddin al-Zengi Batt the Northern front – are holed up in just three neighbourhoods, and more than 1,000 have raised white flags and laid down their arms.

If this is true, as it appears to be, it means this is the beginning of the end, if not the final end, of the five-year jihadi and armed opposition presence in Syria’s second city Aleppo – though it remains premature to foresee an end to the war as a whole.

The Syrian army can be expected to recover eastern Aleppo in full within the next few days, whether peacefully or by force: peacefully if the gunmen surrender and agree to leave after laying down their arms in accordance with the understanding reached by the US and Russia, or by force because it is futile for them to continue fighting. Airstrikes have resumed against the districts they remain in after a 24-hour pause to enable the evacuation of injured people to Turkey or other parts of Syria deemed safe.

The Geneva-based UN high commissioner for human rights had earlier reported that armed groups were preventing civilians who were trying to flee from leaving their districts, and gunmen from Fateh ash-Sham/Nusra and the Abu-Amara Brigades had killed or abducted a number of civilians who had asked them to leave their districts in order to safeguard the lives of residents.

This followed days of bloody clashes between these factions in a turf-war for control of parts of the fast-shrinking enclave. Dozens of fighters were killed or injured in this internecine warfare. The influential Saudi jihadi preacher Abdallah al-Muhaysni excoriated the factions in his weekly YouTube broadcast for warring amongst themselves even as they were being bombed by Russian warplanes. He accused them of corruption and lacking the will to fight the enemy.

These and other reports indicate that Muhaysni is right and the armed opposition groups in eastern Aleppo have indeed lost the will to fight. That is why the districts they controlled have been falling like dominoes to the Syrian army. Ample stocks of arms, ammunition, food and medial supplies were reportedly found in some of these neighborhoods, indicating that the armed groups which withdrew from them had the capacity to hold out for several more months.

 

New mood

It is not uprising that this should happen. The collapse of the armed insurgency in eastern Aleppo can be understood in the context of a fundamental fact that much of the media ignore: The people of Aleppo refused to take part in the Syrian ‘revolution’, either in its civic or armed versions, for many months after it broke out. Like the majority of Damascenes, they chose to remain neutral. As residents of a prosperous commercial hub with an ancient merchant tradition, they tended to prioritize stability.

It was the Islamists and recruits from the rural hinterland who brought the war to the city and imposed it on the population, with the incitement and support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan, who has never concealed his aspiration to annex Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq to Turkey. Maps have been published of a ‘New Turkey’ incorporating these areas.

Preparations are already being made in Damascus to celebrate the recovery of Aleppo, according to a journalist colleague who has just been there. A Russian orchestra and several well-known Syrian singers and folklore troupes are standing by to be flown to the city for a concert to mark the occasion. The Lebanese TV station al-Mayadeen, which is close to Syria’s allies, is planning to broadcast an episode of its flagship news analysis program live from Aleppo’s famous citadel to demonstrate the restoration of security, stability and of normal life to the city.

This has contributed to a new mood of optimism that is said to be palpable in Damascus. The capital’s restaurants are thronged with customers, traffic jams have returned to its main roads, and its hotels are full of Arab and foreign businessmen who have begun arriving in substantial numbers looking for deals and contracts. This was not the case even a month ago.

Nevertheless, Syrian officials do not conceal their concerns about three simultaneous developments: The advance of Islamic State (IS) forces on Palmyra, exploiting the Syrian military’s preoccupation with fighting in Aleppo; the advance of Turkish-led forces towards the town of al-Bab and their occupation of some of its northern suburbs, in violation of understandings between Ankara and Moscow; and the US Congress lifting the ban on arming Syrian groups that fight ‘terrorism’ alongside US forces.

Damascus worries at the prospect of more sophisticated American weaponry being supplied to opposition factions fighting against it, especially if that were to include shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, which could tilt the balance of power in the war. It seems to be counting on the large Russian military presence in Syria as an ‘insurance policy’, as one official put it, deterring such a development.

The recovery of Aleppo, Syria’s economic powerhouse and second largest city, would certainly constitute a turning-point in the Syrian conflict and a major military achievement and morale-booster for the government. But it will not presage the end of the war so long as there is no political solution in sight. One chapter may be closing but there remain many others, as President Bashar Asad conceded in a lengthy interview with the Syrian daily al-Watan on Thursday. It would be  wise to wait for them to unfold and avoid jumping to firm conclusions.