Snow in Aleppo on Dec. 21
Isabelle Lasserre

PARIS — The victory of the Russians, Iranians and of the Syrian regime in Aleppo is a strategic turning point in the organization of international relations. It marks the West's fading out and the return of power politics in the Middle East. But it doesn't necessarily mean the end of the war. Here are four key questions to better understand why there's no going back after Aleppo.

Who are the main winners?

There are three: the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran. The Russian military intervention has saved Bashar al-Assad's grip on power and fulfilled all of the Kremlin's primary goals, i.e. the preservation of its military bases and influence in the Levant region that marks its spectacular return as a big player on the international stage.

By marginalizing the Syrian rebellion, the Kremlin also sent a message to opponents in the region as well as in the former Soviet area: Russia is ready to confront with force those who want regime changes. After it won the war in Syria, Moscow takes advantage of its position of strength to re-launch peace negotiations and force its Syrian ally and its opponents to accept a political transition.

On the strategical level, it's been a flawless script so far, executed in a record time in the vacuum that always comes with U.S. presidential elections. In the span of one year, Russia has managed to present itself as the world's dominating power, filling up the void left in the region by the Obama administration's "withdrawal" policy, and capable of investing in peace after having waged war.

Iran is another great victor of the battle of Aleppo. Since the crisis began, the Islamic Republic has been providing financial, political and military assistance to Damascus. Its armed wing in Lebanon, Hezbollah, is also very much engaged alongside the Syrian forces. In just a few years, Iran has built a Shia axis that includes Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Also benefiting from the facing U.S. role, Tehran became the region's dominating power.

In Aleppo on Dec. 19 — Photo: Basem Ayoubi/ImagesLive/ZUMA

The Iran-Russia duo that now has the future of Syria in its hands was recently joined by Turkey. To put a brake on Tehran's ambitions and open a negotiation channel with the rebels, the Kremlin offered Ankara a part in the Syrian roadmap. Probably in exchange for a Russian promise to limit Kurdish ambitions in Syria, Turkey has accepted to set aside its opposition to Assad's staying in power.

Is the United Nations finished?

Since the war in Syria began, Russia and China have used their veto at the Security Council six and five times respectively to block resolutions aimed at promoting a ceasefire and bringing humanitarian aid to the civilian populations. The principles that made the pillars of the United Nations — including the respect of international law and human rights, the non-interference and the peaceful resolution of conflicts between countries — were swept away, voided of their meaning by the return of pure power politics. Values now count less than interests. "The UN has become an empty shell," comments Joseph Bahout, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Foundation. "It's now brutal force, brought back in fashion by Vladimir Putin, that prevails," he adds.

In Crimea first and then in Syria, Russia has contributed to the death of post-War ideals. "It's the end of the hope for a self-limitation on the part of the powers theoretically responsible for the order of the world," strategy specialist Nicolas Tenzer commented in a recent analysis for the Huffington Post France. "We're witnessing the war waged by a great power for the domination of a region. It's unprecedented since World War II. It's the return of open war."

This new order could sound the final death knell of what we used to call the balance of power. To end the paralysis, France has been suggesting a reform that would limit the veto power in case of "mass crimes." But so far the initiative has remained largely answered by France's partners.

Is this the end of the road for the West?

The fall of Aleppo is a strategic turning point in international relations. It reveals a new organization of the world based more on power and in which the West finds it increasingly difficult to keep its leading role. When he organized a summit with Iran and Turkey in late December to announce new peace negotiations for Syria in Kazakhstan, and not in Geneva, Vladimir Putin invited neither the United States, Europe, nor the United Nations. "All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure," Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said. "None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground."

A Syrian girl in Aleppo on Dec. 20 — Photo: Ammar Safarjalani/Xinhua/ZUMA

For the first time since the war started, the West is without any coherent diplomatic initiative on Syria. But the fall of Aleppo only materialized a change that's long been coming. "The new world order was implicitly in the making," Bahout explains. "Aleppo wouldn't have been possible without the combination of the West's losing its bearings and Russia's arrogance. The fall of Aleppo only formalized a change that's been perceptible for several years." In Syria, the new international order that's emerging pushed aside Obama's policy, marked by hesitations and backpedallings.

Without a doubt, the American president understood before others that the hegemony of Western powers, which lack cards to play in the Middle East, no longer worked. Still, his policy brought forward the West's fading power and the defeat of a certain form of international might. "After the bipolar world of the Cold War, the reign of the American superpower and the apolar world, we are entering the era of the domination of an aggressive power by way of the abstention of all others," according to Tenzer. Syria may very well mark the end of Western military interventions in the Middle East, the principle of which was destroyed by the successive failures of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Bahout notes that the West's retreat leads to the return of authoritarian and brutal regimes in the Middle East. Little by little, it also provokes "a great switch in Europe, where more and more states are accepting the cynicism and the fait accompli policy" he adds.

It is an analysis shared by Nicolas Tenzer: "By contagion, the disorder of norms and this insecurity linked to the rise of forces opposed to freedom could become the fate of countries that, today, are democratic."

What future for the Middle East?

The future of Syria might appear a bit clearer now, but dark new clouds are on the horizon. If he succeeds in imposing a peace supervised by Russia and Iran, Putin will be able to pride himself on bringing back some stability for the leadership of Bashar al-Assad. But the question of knowing who will take care of eastern Syria, the "Sunnistan" of ISIS jihadists, remains to be resolved. It will depend on one big unknown: Donald Trump's foreign policy.

The announced entente between Putin and the new American president will shape the advent of the new world. But will this entente survive the two countries' diverging interests? What's more, the war could restart in a different form. A radicalization on the part of the rebels could lead to an "Afghanization" of the conflict. The opposition to the Iranian Shiite hegemony in the region could also grow.

"The Shia-Sunni conflict in the region risks getting bigger," warns Joseph Bahout. "The feeling of injustice and humiliation of the Sunnis is exacerbating. This could foster the emergence of new movements, and we can fear that, by comparison, ISIS will look like just a first round." The Middle East scholar sees big stakes' "The old world order died in Aleppo. But the new one hasn't been built yet."

Of course, there's no way to tell whether the new order will be better than the old one, especially if Western democracies no longer hold the necessary levers to promote the values of democracy and political liberalism.

In the meantime, Syrian civilians and Western powers are not the only losers of the Russian-Iranian victory in Aleppo. Defeated in Syria, let down or even betrayed by their American ally, the Gulf countries now fear it will be their turn to face instability at home.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!