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.
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."
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.