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December 20, 2016
The fall of rebel-held Aleppo to the government forces of Bashar al-Assad has not only triggered fears of atrocities against civilians trapped within the city, it has also sent countries in the region searching for a proper response. The outcome itself has not been in doubt for some time; with Russian forces bombing the city unopposed and the United States largely avoiding overt action against regime forces, it was evident that the fall of Aleppo was a question of when, not if. Now, regional observers are evaluating the implications of the fall of the city, especially for neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Israel. Some have wondered whether the fall of the city will refocus the war on battling al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Others can only mourn and hope for Aleppo to one-day be rebuilt.
In an op-ed for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, Serkan Demirtaş highlights Ankara’s possible role in preventing further atrocities in Aleppo and pushing for a broader peace deal, pointing out that, without such outside pressure, Assad will most likely press his offensive further south: “[T]here are serious concerns over the next phases of the civil war in Syria, once Bashar al-Assad has fully captured Aleppo, the country’s second [sic] largest city. In his statements to international press outlets, al-Assad hinted that his fight against the rebels would continue elsewhere until he defeats them completely....That is why Ankara is pressing for a broader ceasefire between the regime and opposition groups, and for a resumption of negotiations to reach a political agreement....Al-Assad’s [capture] of Aleppo will certainly change both the political and military balances in Syria to the advantage of the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran trio. It is rational for Turkey to press on these actors for a general cease-fire across the entire country so that political talks can take place, aiming to end years of unrest in its southern neighbor. The ball is now with Russia and Iran in order to convince al-Assad for a cease-fire and genuine political talks.”
Turkey’s role as a mediator in the Syrian conflict has received support from Arab observers like Kuwait Times’s Muna Al Fuzai, who argues that, of all the countries in the region, Turkey has been the only one to consistently confront the Assad government and its allies: “I’m not optimistic at all. I think that the war in Syria will last longer than expected in light of the U.S. approach and the world’s silence. Some Arab media tried to justify Arab impotence over Aleppo by blaming Turkey. This is not acceptable or fair, because it is not reasonable to expect Turkey alone to save Aleppo, after the U.S. complicity and disappointing role. There is no doubt Turkey has played a great humanitarian role so far....What happened in Aleppo is a crime against humanity, including forced displacement of the population by Russia, Iran and the Damascus regime, amidst international silence headed by the United Nations. The situation puts Turkey in the foreground and Gulf states must stand firmly with Turkey. Aleppo is not going to be the last scene of massacres and more evil is coming. Gulf states need to support Turkey by all means and at all cost.”
Jordan, Syria’s neightbor to the south, is likely to become more nervous as Assad pushes beyond Aleppo. Jordan Times’s Amer Al sabaileh points out that Jordan may have to commit to a similar level of engagement in the south as Turkey has in the north: “The battle over Aleppo is one of the most important developments in the efforts to reach an end to the Syrian crisis, even though it will not be the last battle in the country....Recapturing Aleppo does not give the Syrian army control over all Syrian territory, but will help refocus the conflict on the single dimension of fighting terrorism....The battle for Aleppo will push the fight down to the south of the country. While Turkey was engaged in the north of Syria because of the proximity to its borders, Jordan may be forced to take a similar level of engagement as the fight pushes towards the south. The impact this battle will have on the Jordanian border will certainly decide the level of Jordanian engagement....Jordan needs strong relationships with the Iraqi and Syrian counterparts, and has to build strong alliances with countries that can help it confront any threat.”
Commenting from the Israeli perspective, Ron Ben-Yishai writes in an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth that, while Israel’s interests are threatened by the ascendance of the Shiites in the region, Israel is not the only “loser” in the conflict: “The fact that Assad is growing stronger will allow the Iranians to strengthen their hold on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and arm Hezbollah undisturbed. And so the radical Shiite sequence will spread even more, from Tehran, through Baghdad and Damascus, all the way to Beirut. The radical Shiites and the Iranians are openly declaring that their goal is to destroy Israel....Israel is not alone on the losing side....The biggest losers are the Sunni rebel organizations, and the Arab oil states which supported them together with Turkey. While the last rebels have fled northward to Idlib in favor of the next battle, we must wait and see if they recover from the blow Assad has dealt to them.”
With Aleppo now in the hands of government forces, Assad might shift his focus to fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) and al-Qaeda affiliated rebel groups. But The National’s Hassan Hassan argues that, even if this happens, both organizations will continue to be relevant in Syria and the region: “As counterintuitive as it may sound, ISIL will still be stronger than Al Qaeda in Syria even after the former is dislodged from Mosul and Raqqa. Many counterterrorism experts have argued in recent months that it is time to turn attention towards Syria’s Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra, as it is now the more dangerous group. This is the reverse logic to countless statements in 2014 suggesting Al Qaeda had been eclipsed by the Iraqi ISIL. Yet the suggestion that ISIL will still be stronger than JFS even if it loses its major strongholds does not mean Al Qaeda is less dangerous, and that is the point – it does not have to be a choice between one group or the other. The two organizations should be viewed as two threats emanating from two fronts.”
Finally, Yasar Taskin Koc, writing for Turkey’s Yeni Safak, sees the resilience of Aleppo’s residents amid the carnage of the long civil war and hopes for a newly rebuilt city that will eventually come out of the current trauma stronger: “When did Aleppo fall?.... [W]e don't know when Aleppo actually fell. The only thing we know is that we will never forget the faces of the elderly, the women and children sitting in the bus looking outside from the misty windows waiting to go far away from Aleppo. But really, what does the sentence ‘Aleppo fell’ mean at the end of those long centuries? Didn't the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Umayyads, Abbasids, Hamdanis, Mirsadis, Ukaylis, Seljuks, Ottomans and French come and go through Aleppo after the Mesopotamia states? At the very most, like Aşık Ömer, we will be saying, 'Here I come and here I go, may you be merry Aleppo.' Tomorrow another world, another city, another Aleppo will be founded.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at email@example.com.