BEIRUT – Eastern Aleppo has been a bastion for the Syrian opposition since 2012, just a year after the start of the conflict, until this week, when forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seized the rebel-held area. On Thursday, evacuations of civilians and fighters began under the terms of a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey with the armed opposition factions in Aleppo city. Some 50,000 civilians remain in Eastern Aleppo, and both civilians and fighters are still awaiting evacuation from the city.
After four years of fighting, the loss of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, to pro-government forces is a significant loss for the opposition. Assad hailed his military victory against the armed rebel factions, saying “history is being made.” But Aleppo’s fall should not come as a surprise to any party involved.
Syria Deeply spoke with Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of the book “The Syrian Jihad,” about the factors that led to the fall of Aleppo city’s opposition and the implications this will have for the whole of Syria’s anti-government factions.
Syria Deeply: Do you expect to see more of an insurgency over time – a different style and impact of fighting from opposition actors – as they lose more territory to the government?
Charles Lister: I think so, but it might take longer than we might expect. Northern Hama and Idlib will be much more of the same for some time; the opposition is still heavily armed. So we’ll still see that for quite a while. The big question is how quickly we get to that guerrilla-style warfare and where the regime is going to go next.
I suspect the regime will shift its focus to the suburbs of Damascus so that they can finally claim to have captured what they call “useful Syria.” However, if they go after Idlib, then I think we will see that guerrilla-style conflict emerge more quickly than I expect.
I was meeting with all of the leaders of armed groups in Aleppo and its countryside back in February this year and already then they were telling me that they had changed their training regimen for new recruits to more guerrilla-style tactics: the construction of IEDs, more hit-and-run tactics and assassination tactics. Almost a year ago that was already on their minds. They were setting themselves up for what they saw as an inevitability, but it’s just a question of how long it will take to get to that point.
Syria Deeply: So could we say that the armed groups in Aleppo were expecting the outcome we saw this week?
Lister: Yes, absolutely. All the way back then they saw that the writing was on the wall. They were well aware that the U.S. was already pulling itself a little bit further away from its relationship with the opposition and the fight against ISIS was overwhelmingly taking over as a strategic priority. They were also aware that by then, for the first time, Russia was just beginning to show results on the ground in terms of cooperation with the regime and Iran-backed militias. Of course they were also aware that Turkey’s strategic focus was beginning to shift.
All of that had given them the kind of signals that it looked unlikely they could put up an offensive series of victories in Aleppo city at any time in the near future. So I think what was on their minds at that point was that they were going to struggle in Aleppo and they did need to think about what would come in that next stage.
Syria Deeply: A common cry coming out of Eastern Aleppo over the past week was that the opposition was left completely alone in the face of this offensive. Was there a defining moment when foreign backers halted support to opposition forces in Aleppo city?
Lister: Yes. I think the real defining moment was when President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan decided he needed to heal the relationships with Moscow, under his less-enemies-more-friends policy, a few months after the [Turkish] downing of the [Russian] jet in northern Syria.
That was the defining moment – any support that got to Aleppo was, in a sense, strategically dependent on Turkey willing it to get there. It wasn’t so much dependent on specific border crossings but the vast majority of the opposition and armed groups are under Turkey’s iron grip. If Turkey sends support into Idlib it will give specific instructions that some of it should be going into Aleppo city. I think there came a time when it was effectively banning that from taking place.
Turkey also withdrew a bunch of vetted opposition groups out of Aleppo city and deployed them into the Euphrates Shield operation against the YPG and against ISIS. That also signaled to the opposition that Aleppo was becoming less of a focus for Turkey and that Turkey was actually finding itself involved in a much bigger geopolitical calculation with regards to its concerns about the Kurds and its desire to have a better relationship with the Russians.
From what I can see, and it is certainly agreed upon among armed opposition groups, Turkey essentially made a deal with the Russians. They were willing to see Aleppo city eventually fall out of opposition control in exchange for being allowed to establish this kind of zone of control in northern Aleppo.
Turkey’s still sending quite a lot of support to vetted opposition groups, Ahrar al-Sham and maybe Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) as well in Idlib and Northern Hama. It’s not like Turkey has given up on the opposition by any means but it’s hedging its bets in many areas of northern Syria because of this broader geopolitical calculation it’s having to make.
This upcoming December 27 meeting among Russia, Turkey and Iran purposely excludes the U.S. Russia has discovered that the U.S. has much less leverage on the ground than we all would have thought was the case. Certainly the U.S. is also less willing to impose its own leverage on the ground and as a result the U.S is being excluded from the negotiations. Who’s taking over? That’s the Turks.
Turkey is still determined to see Assad go, but its own assessment of the Kurds is at the top of the list as an existential national security threat and that will continue to define what kind of broader decisions it’s willing to make on Syria. So far, that hasn’t affected all of northern Syria, but it is possible that Idlib becomes the next point of discussion between Moscow and Ankara and the opposition will be very afraid of that and we should all be watching in the next few weeks.
Syria Deeply: What is the relationship now between armed factions in other opposition strongholds such as Idlib and those who were or are still in Eastern Aleppo? Is there a chance for increased unity between them now?
Lister: This is the really big subject right now. A lot of opposition civilians and activists are very unhappy with what happened in Aleppo. Their perspective is that the rest of the opposition basically gave up on the city and didn’t do what they could have tried to do to stop this from happening. I think that’s a bit naive and a bit idealistic, but nevertheless, what it’s produced is a demand for a broader opposition armed group unity.
We’ve seen these kinds of initiatives before, but it’s never really been pulled off.
Syria Deeply: How will this affect major factions in Idlib and Aleppo city such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham? Will one faction emerge as the dominant one in these areas?
Lister: The big question is whether Ahrar al-Sham and JFS would be willing to merge. That’s part of the reason why Ahrar al-Sham is on the verge of collapsing internally right now. For the past four days now, Ahrar al-Sham has been discussing how to fix its own internal tensions, and one of the big [questions] is whether they should pursue a closer structural relationship with JFS. At the moment the faction that is tacitly supportive of a JFS merger is very much the minority.
I don’t think we will see a lot of the more vetted opposition groups in Idlib suddenly merging into any kind of broader Islamist structure.
I expect what we will see is a lot more talk about unity, more secret meetings, a lot of talk about different mergers between different factions. But what’s more realistic is that all of that plus the pressure that they’re facing from outside might encourage more division than unity. A lot of these groups on the more Islamist end are struggling to define their identity at the moment when faced by this big pressure with the fate of the opposition hanging by a thread. They’re all having to pick where their ultimate allegiances lie.
Does Ahrar al-Sham’s allegiance lie with the global Islamic project or does it lie with the Syrian revolution? Certain factions within the group are being pulled one way and some the other. From my own internal sources within the group and very close to the group, the prospect of a split is now very much on the cards. If that happens, the prospects for broader unity in Idlib would be very low.
Syria Deeply: Would that make JFS, formerly known as al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the more dominant faction in the north?
Lister: Hard to say. They still don’t have the popular support in Idlib that they need to translate military power into sociopolitical power. There have been several protests in Idlib this week specifically against JFS over the claim that it also gave up on Aleppo. Worst-case scenario for the opposition is that they all break out into infighting – so not only that the unity deal fails, but that internal factional clashes break out. I don’t know the chances of that happening, but it’s definitely something that the regime will work hard to encourage.
Syria Deeply: How likely is it that factions will regroup and attempt to take Aleppo back?
Lister: I don’t think it’s realistic at this point. I think we will see JFS carrying out these kinds of sporadic attacks. It’s conducted two largely symbolic suicide bombings outside Aleppo recently, for example. At this point in time, these attacks are simply symbolic, and an attempt by these groups to show that they still care about it. But Aleppo city is, in my view, a lost cause.