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The regional implications of the fall of Aleppo

The lesson Arab autocrats are likely to learn from Syria is simple: under the current international climate the use of severe repression is effective.

Uncredited/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Frame grab from a Dec. 13, 2016 video, shows people walking among damaged buildings on a street filled with debris near the ancient Umayyad Mosque, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria. Uncredited/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The recent offensive of Assad and Russian forces in the city of Aleppo have led to the worst setback for the opposition since the start of the war, not to mention the human tragedy. This offensive has lead to the loss of the largest urban center under opposition control, the eastern part of Aleppo.

This is the strongest indication yet that the tide of the civil war has shifted decisively in favor of Assad and his allies. The possibility of the opposition in the north of the country taking Damascus has now been greatly diminished.

As argued by Aaron Lund, the so-called southern front, which is more palpable to western powers, has been restrained in its operations by international pressure, thus any chance to take Damascus from the south is highly unlikely.

On the other hand, the Idlib based opposition is highly unlikely to garner international western support due to its strong Salafi Jihadi affiliations; while the position of the opposition in Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus, is highly precarious after years of constant siege and bombardment.

The Syrian tragedy, and the expected fall of Aleppo, does not only have significant effects on Syria, it also signals a significant change in the Arab world and the positions the various powers in it hold.

The lesson Arab autocrats are likely to learn from the Syrian civil war is simple: under the current international climate the use of severe repression is effective as long as the coercive arm of the state remains intact and the regime in question has the correct set of international allies.

One only needs to take record of the muted international response to atrocities being committed by the Assad forces and their allies in Aleppo, which involve summary executions of civilians, including women and children.  

Repression: a tool for regime maintenance?

Indeed after speculations about the Syrian regime collapsing – including the Egyptian strongman Sisi – the Syrian regime, with decisive Russian intervention, was not only able to survive but turned the tide of the war - albeit at the cost of massive human and material destruction and considerable decentralization.

Assad was not only able to survive; he has also slowly started to rehabilitate himself within the international community as the presumed lesser of two evils in the fight against IS.

The traditional fear of Arab autocrats from international intervention due to the use of severe repression has faded. On the contrary, fear of refugees, civil wars and the rise of Jihadi groups has become a tool by which Arab autocrats blackmail western powers into silence or tacit support.

During Sisi’s visit to Portugal, for example, he stressed the “suffering” that would take place if a civil war were to erupt in Egypt, and the regional destabilization this would lead to; not a very subtle threat to European powers.

This was followed by him highlighting his support for “national” armies in Syria and Libya in their fight against radical groups.

Thus, a victory of Assad in Syria will only serve to reinforce the use of repression as a tool for regime maintenance across the region.

Russia rising

Another important impact is the affirmation of Russia’s rising role in the region, and most importantly as a reliable ally to regional autocrats in their time of need. Unlike the US and EU, which have shown themselves as unreliable allies in the case of deep revolutionary crisis, Russia has shown no hesitation to actively intervene in support.

In Egypt for example, one of the US’ strongest allies in the region, Mubarak was abandoned once it appeared that the crisis would not subside with moderate levels of repression. Now, this would make an alliance with Russia very attractive for embattled regimes who fear imminent mass uprisings against their rule.

This, combined with the presidency of Trump and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, can potentially usher in increased Russian influence in the region. The recent nomination of Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon who has close connections to Russia, is a strong indication of this trend.

The repressive behavior of Arab autocrats will be reinforced, as they now know they have a proven and reliable ally they can call upon when in need.

Saudi Arabia and Iran

Another important shift is in the position of Saudi Arabia, one of the strongest opponents of the Assad regime that has continuously insisted on his departure from power.

In its conflict with Iran, the Kingdom has been steadily losing ground, and this is abundantly clear in the case of Syria where Iran, as one of the primary backers of the Syrian regime, has been on the winning side.

The current trend of the Syrian civil war, the souring of relations between the Kingdom and Egypt as well as Saudi entanglement in the war in Yemen, all spell a series of blows to the strategic objective of containing Iran and limiting its regional role.

In essence, the fall of Aleppo will only serve to cement Iranian hegemony in Syria as well as strengthen its position in Lebanon through its ally Hezbollah. The increased clout of Hezbollah has manifested itself in the election of Michelle Aoun, one of their close allies, as the President of Lebanon.

As such, Saudi attempts to contain Iranian penetration of the Levant have failed, weakening their position as a regional power and restricting it more to its core region of influence, namely the Gulf.

This, combined with a souring of relations with Egypt, partly driven by Egyptian misgivings over Saudi positions over Syria and Yemen, has considerably weakened the position of the Kingdom, as it could have potentially relied on Egypt and its military as a counter balance to Iran. 

Turkey

Turkey seems to have made losing foreign policy bets over the past five years. From the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the armed opposition in Syria’s north, Turkey has lost on many fronts.

In terms of the dynamic in Syria, Turkey seems to have tacitly accepted the fall of Aleppo and the defeat of the rebels as it shifts its focus towards the Kurds, creating a border buffer against IS, its relations with the EU, and consolidation of Erdogan’s power base after the attempted coup.

It also appears that the warming of Turkish-Russian relations combined with its lack of response regarding the current onslaught in Aleppo, has shown a tacit acceptance of Russian hegemony over Syria and the outcome of the conflict.

As such, the nature of the Syrian civil war, partly a proxy war, has significant impact on the region. The outcome of the struggle over Aleppo will shape the future of the region for years to come.       

About the author

Maged Mandour graduated from Cambridge with a Masters in International Relations. He is a political analyst and the columnist of “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” on openDemocracy. He is also a writer for Sada, the online journal for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him @MagedMandour


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