It had long been anticipated, but the fall of Aleppo still marks a decisive turning point in the Syrian war. It basically eliminates the opposition's ability to pose a military challenge or position itself as a political alternative. And it puts Bashar al-Assad solidly back on track. Supported by Russia and Iran, he has a new lease on political life, at least in the medium term.
But what the fall of Aleppo clearly is not, is the end of the war. It just marks the beginning of a new phase. The Syrian government will now, without a doubt, focus on securing its territorial gains but also on retaking, by force, the regions of the so-called "useful Syria" that still escape its control.
In the meantime, the Geneva peace process could well be swept away. David Petraeus told the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Manama Dialogue in Bahrein, last weekend that it was "very late in the day indeed," to find a political solution. The American general, who was in charge of pacifying northern Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, did not exclude a partitioning of Syria as a possible solution.
But the country's fragmentation won't necessarily bring peace and stability. The recapture of Palmyra by ISIS on Sunday is a timely reminder of that. It's a setback for the regime and for Russia, which had driven ISIS out of the ancient city in March, and it proves that the jihadists are resourceful. It's one of the laws of war: it is often more difficult to hold a city than to capture it.
The fall of Aleppo, coming after a long agony to which the international community — and especially Muslim countries — have turned a blind eye, could lead the rebels, sickened by this abandonment, to radicalize and join the ranks of the jihadist forces: either ISIS or the former al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch.
While the international coalition is hopeful it can recapture Mosul, ISIS' "capital city" in Iraq, it hasn't yet really attacked Raqqa, the terrorist group's Syrian stronghold, which remains both a retreat and a stepping stone — confirmation that the jihadists largely still have free rein in Syria.
Assad and Putin last year — Photo: Kremlin
Assad's ability to retake control of Syria is far from established, even with the help of his Russian and Iranian godfathers. In all wars, abuses and violent acts committed by the enemy provoke a radicalization. "Even if the regime captures the whole territory, the opposition's violence against the government and its desire for revenge will only grow," a Syrian opposition member said during the same Bahrein conference where Patraeus spoke. "Even if it wins the war, this authority will have no legitimacy to govern the people. The international community waited for Aleppo to fall, thinking they'd be rid of the problem. That won't be the case."
The coming new stage of the Syrian war will also test the fragile Russia-Turkey alliance. Having materialized in Syria with eased tensions between Damascus and Ankara, the time will eventually come to deal with the Kurdish question. "The Syrian war is made of three circles: international, regional and Syrian," a diplomat warns. "One can't solve the third circle without solving the other two first, especially the disagreements between Russia and the United States, as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia."
So far, Russia has been dictating the military scenario in the Syrian conflict. But the complexity of the crisis, the entanglement of regional interests and the multiplication of those global players involved in the conflict make finding a unilateral "solution" — like Moscow did in ending the war in Chechnya — much less likely.