After Aleppo’s Fall, What’s Next in Syria’s War: QuickTake Q&A

The Syrian Catastrophe Explained

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, assisted by Russia and Iran, saw his forces retake Aleppo in the biggest victory against rebels in almost six years of civil war. Assad says he’ll turn his attention to the remaining opposition strongholds. His opponents vow to keep fighting in the absence of a political solution. There could be a surge in guerrilla conflict in areas reclaimed by Assad’s troops, while jihadists look to exploit any weaknesses. The world’s reaction to all this may depend on the emerging relationship between Russia and the incoming U.S. president, Donald Trump.

1. What’s been the humanitarian cost?

Much of eastern Aleppo, a symbolic center for the anti-Assad insurgency, is in ruins, leveled by Syrian and Russian bombing that led European and U.S. officials to speak of possible war crimes. French ambassador to the United Nations, Francois Delattre, called events unfolding in the city “the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st-century.”

2. Is an end to fighting in Syria any closer?

The opposition isn’t ready to give up. “Aleppo is an important place for the revolution, but it’s not the last,” George Sabra, chief negotiator for rebel forces, told the BBC in November. Assad agrees. “Aleppo will be a gain, but to be realistic, it doesn’t mean the end of the war,” he said in an interview with pro-government al-Watan newspaper published on Dec. 8.

3. Where will Assad focus next?

Assad said in October Aleppo would serve as “the springboard” for other offensives, singling out Idlib. His regime lost almost all of this region -- about 60 kilometers (35 miles) southwest of Aleppo near the Syrian-Turkish border -- in mid-2015. Idlib borders Latakia, the heartland of the Assad regime, and is close to the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

4. What would that battle look like?

Russian and Syrian bombing in Idlib has already started. The rebellion there “is strong and well implanted,” says Aron Lund, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. It’s dominated by hardline Islamists such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra that has links to Al-Qaeda. This will make it hard for western allies to support rebels such as the Free Syrian Army as part of an anti-Assad strategy.

5. How much of Syria is now in Assad’s hands?

Taking Aleppo, whose eastern neighborhoods had been held by rebels since 2012, gives Assad control over Syria’s biggest cities, representing more than 40 percent of the country’s territory and about 60 percent of its people. But Syria has distinct areas outside Assad’s base in the west, including Kurdish-held enclaves in the north, Islamic State controlling much of the east, and other groups left with shrinking pockets of influence.

6. How will the nature of the conflict change?

Some 150,000 rebels, including jihadists, are fighting Assad, and they’ll be assuming a more prominent role, according to Charles Lister, a senior scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The biggest losers from Aleppo’s collapse are Syria’s moderate opposition groups, which had remained the city’s primary actors ever since conflict first erupted there in early 2012,” he wrote. In northern Syria, the mainstream opposition looks set to “transform itself into a guerrilla-style insurgency in 2017,” he added.

7. What does all this mean for Assad?

He’ll have a hard time keeping local and foreign militias in check and administering cities he controls. That’s been the case in Homs and most recently the historic city of Palmyra, where Islamic State took advantage of the focus on Aleppo to attack a city it had held until March. “Aleppo will be even more difficult to police and stabilize,” said Raphael Lefevre, author of “Ashes of Hama: the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.” Insecurity has persisted in areas liberated from rebel control, he said, with civilians threatened by outbreaks of criminality and revenge attacks.

8. Will other nations intervene?

The big unknown hanging over the future of the conflict is the shifting agendas of global and regional powers. Will Russia and Iran stand by Assad if he continues to insist on reconquering the entire country? With their support, Assad is in a better shape than he was before Russia’s intervention more than a year ago. What will Turkey do? Its forces in neighboring Syria are combating both Islamic State and Kurdish fighters linked to the PKK, a group that has been considered Turkey’s main terrorist threat since the 1980s.

9. How might Trump change things?

The U.S. president-elect has said he’s open to a more cooperative relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and has vowed to concentrate on defeating Islamic State rather than helping rebels defeat Assad. That could give Russia a freer hand to press for a military victory in Syria that boosts its status as a great power in the Middle East.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer on Syria’s civil war.
  • Russia holds the key in Syria, says U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
  • The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, reports casualties on both sides of the conflict.
  • The Syrian Accountability Project’s website has interactive battle maps.
  • A blog on Syria from the Institute for the Study of War.

— With assistance by Donna Abu-Nasr

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