The stunning loss by rebels of 40% of the territory they held in Syria’s largest city in a matter of mere hours over the weekend has understandably dropped jaws around the world, and raised the inevitable question as to whether the armed rebellion is now on its last legs, not only in Aleppo, but nationwide.
That Aleppo’s remaining rebel-held neighborhoods will also fall soon is widely seen as a foregone conclusion, given the torrential bombardment showered upon them by the combined air forces of the regime and Russia, in conjunction with the suffocating ‘starve-or-surrender’ siege imposed at ground level by the regime and Iranian-backed allies like Hezbollah.
In fact, the rebel districts south of the Airport Road, which marks the new frontline, may be trickier to take, both because rebel defenses are stronger, and because they include the historic Old Town, whose priceless heritage even a regime as cold-blooded as Assad’s may be reluctant to obliterate. Nonetheless, with the rebels’ foreign backers evidently willing to tolerate the city’s loss – Turkey, most conspicuously, is pressing ahead with its Al-Bab campaign as though nothing of note is happening anywhere else in the area – a deal sooner or later to evacuate the city’s fighters to Idlib seems overwhelmingly probable.
Morale-crushing as that moment would undoubtedly be for the rebels, it’s unclear how much it would change militarily at the countrywide level. To see why, first recall that Syria’s rebels number around 150,000, according to the analyst Charles Lister’s book, The Syrian Jihad. To put that in context, the total number of fighters in eastern Aleppo was estimated by the UN last month at 8,000, or about 5% of the total. A quick glance at a map shows that the other 142,000 fighters are geographically spread throughout the country, holding almost all of Idlib Province as well as sizeable chunks of the provinces of Aleppo, Quneitra, and Daraa, with smaller enclaves in the environs of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Latakia. Indeed, as Lister documented in a recent 40-page report on Syria’s rebels, as of September 2016 there were more than 80 CIA-vetted rebel brigades still actively fighting the regime, in coordination with Turkey- and Jordan-based command centers, across Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Hama, Homs, Idlib, Latakia, Qalamoun, and Quneitra Provinces. Of the 80, only 13 (or 16%) operated exclusively in Aleppo Province.
The fight, in other words, will carry on. And while the rebels’ regional allies may have conceded Aleppo City, that’s by no means the same as them conceding the war overall. “[Our] support is going to continue, we are not going to stop it. It doesn’t mean that if Aleppo falls we will give up on the demands of the Syrian people,” said Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in an interview with Reuters Saturday. Turkey, more pointedly, resumed airstrikes around the Islamic State-held town of Al-Bab last week, in the latest phase of its ‘Euphrates Shield’ intervention in northern Syria that’s now in its fourth month. Turkey’s President Erdoğan has said several times the eventual goal of ‘Euphrates Shield’ is to remove both ISIS and Kurdish militants from a 5,000 sq. km. buffer zone extending west from the Euphrates along the Turkish border to the outskirts of the Kurdish district of Afrin – a plan that has seen Turkey enlist the help of thousands of local rebels, who presumably are intended to govern the area once the Turkish jets and tanks return home. Similarly, if and when ISIS’ Syrian capital of Raqqa gets liberated from the jihadists, one can be certain Ankara and Doha, among many other capitals, will be insisting that Syria’s non-jihadist rebels take the reins in their stead.
Which is not, of course, to say the situation is rosy for the opposition. With Aleppo wrapped up, the regime and its friends would be able to start squeezing the rebels’ Idlib stronghold from Aleppo in the east, Latakia in the west, and Hama in the south; a move that could eventually escalate into a full-blown siege. Even if it doesn’t, the total terrain held by the opposition would suffice to keep the rebellion alive, but surely not to topple the regime.
But then, that’s already where things stood before the loss of the first eastern Aleppo neighborhood on Saturday. The rebels’ misfortunes have been steadily compounding for years – from the Russian intervention in 2015, to Obama’s abandonment of the chemical weapons ‘red line’ in 2013, to Washington’s refusal to provide the opposition arms when it would have made the most difference, in 2012. Symbolic as the fall of Aleppo – if it happens – would be, for most Syrians on all sides of the conflict the next day would still very much be business as usual.