As Aleppo falls, Russia and Iran see Mideast influence surge at US expense

Assad's key allies say the victory over rebels in Syria's second city advances their standing globally and in the region. But with no quick end to the conflict, they are likely to push for a political solution, analysts say.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
Visiting Turkish students hold bundles representing dead babies at a protest in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to show solidarity with the trapped citizens of Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 14, 2016. Hundreds of Bosnians marched in the protest.

The bombardment of rebel-held east Aleppo by Russian forces, the Syrian army, and Iran-led militias has been unprecedented in its intensity, even by the standards of Syria’s brutal six-year civil war.

The blitz has also been effective at removing rebels – some of them backed by the US, others Islamic jihadists ­– from their most significant urban stronghold in Syria.

President Bashar al-Assad is celebrating his most significant battlefield victory so far, even though Iran-Russia squabbling interrupted what was supposed to be a final cease-fire, and images showed block after block of pulverized neighborhoods – punctuated by terrified citizens' pleas on social media to “save Aleppo."

“Liberating Aleppo doesn’t end with liberating the city itself, it needs to be secured on the outside,” Mr. Assad told Russian television Wednesday. The next target, he said, “depends on which city contains the largest number of terrorists."

But the strategic reverberations of Aleppo’s fall reach far beyond Syria’s second city, analysts say, and signify a retooling of power dynamics in the Middle East.

It is here that Russia and Iran invested military power and orchestrated an outcome they desired, preserving the Assad regime and preventing a takeover by Islamists and, they say, even greater chaos. At the same time, they defeated the half-hearted effort pursued by Washington and its allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to remove Assad by backing rebel groups.

For Iran, that means expanding the influence of its “axis of resistance” against the US, Israel, and their allies. For Russia, it marks a critical step toward restoring past influence, even as American power projection and willingness to engage in the Middle East declines.

“This is what really matters to Iran and Russia, that the political, geo-strategic project of the anti-Assad and anti-Iranian position has failed, and it has been buried in the Aleppo rubble,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and author of “ISIS: A History.”

“Syria really could be a signpost for the emergence of a new international system,” says Mr. Gerges. President Obama made a decision “not to involve, not to entangle, not to invest major political and military capital” in the Middle East.

“It’s not the lack of capability, it’s the lack of will,” says Gerges, noting frequent administration statements about ending US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no desire to start new ones. “In contrast, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made a strategic investment, and so far the returns are excellent.”

Gerges and other analysts caution, however, that even after seizing all of Aleppo, Assad still controls only one-third of the country. Russia and Iran therefore see the war in Syria as continuing, and are likely to press for a political solution to the conflict.

The human cost continues to grow, with the fight for Aleppo and its years of regime barrel bombing in the city contributing heavily to the war’s death toll of some 470,000. Among reports of atrocities on both sides, the United Nations said Tuesday that 82 civilians had been killed by pro-Assad troops. Heavy shelling of the city resumed Wednesday with the collapse of a Russia-announced deal for the departure of rebel fighters.

'Unipolar world failed'

As Aleppo rebels are defeated in an asymmetric fight, and UN and Western leaders prove unable to protect civilians from what they expect to be retribution by the regime, comparisons abound to the Russian pounding of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the 1990s, and the Serbs’ slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995.

Iran has supported Assad from the start with advisers – losing numerous high-ranking officers along the way – and mobilized the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. It has also marshalled thousands of Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan to fight in Syria.

Russia dramatically stepped up its intervention in September last year, its first projection of hard power beyond former Soviet borders in decades, reportedly at Iran’s request. Soon after, Mr. Obama said “it just won’t work,” and predicted that Moscow would get stuck in a “quagmire.”

President Putin, however, has pointed to Western failures in Syria, and last week told the NTV channel that “the world balance is gradually being restored. The attempts to create a unipolar world failed."

There was a triumphant tone in Tehran, as well. “Resistance paid off; the horns of America and House of Saud broken,” ran one headline in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper.

“The liberation of Aleppo is the defeat of all political, military and arrogant powers in one spot of the Muslim world, where the flag of resistance has been hoisted,” declared Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Guerrilla fight to continue

Few predict that the departure of rebel forces from Aleppo means the end of the Syrian war, which will continue as a guerrilla fight on many other fronts. And analysts say there are limiting factors to the current ascending influence of Iran and Russia.

The brief cease-fire that fell apart Wednesday did so amid wrangling between Russia and Iran about how and whether rebel fighters – all of them considered “terrorists” by pro-Assad forces – and tens of thousands of trapped civilians could be evacuated from the remaining sliver of ground they control.

An Assad “victory” in Aleppo has also been dented by Islamic State (IS) fighters’ recent recapture of Palmyra, the ancient city held and damaged by IS earlier in the war, that was reclaimed by Assad forces with great fanfare last spring.

“There was big hope that this victory in Aleppo would shatter the morale of the Syrian opposition, and it would begin to crack, and there would be serious defections,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta in Moscow.

“For Aleppo they gathered everything they could. Hezbollah brought in two fresh brigades.… The Russians organized a Grozny-type very heavy barrage,” says Mr. Felgenhauer. “So that worked. But at the same time, the Syrian second-rate infantry was overrun in Palmyra, caches of weapons were seized, [which] intervened in the morale-crushing effect of Aleppo.”

Russia’s expanded role in Syria is yielding some benefits. Moscow is being courted by Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, and is rebuilding ties with Turkey and Egypt – all of them traditional US allies. Palestinian leaders have also requested Putin’s help in convincing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume peace talks – a role long played by Washington.

Rising costs, and risks

Yet as Russia steps up its intervention in Syria, the quagmire scenario grows, along with the risks.

“A guy from the Kremlin asked me in May, ‘Why are we not taking Aleppo?’ I said, ‘We can, but it will be a bloodbath. You have to make a serious political decision,’” recalls Felgenhauer. “And as the extent of that bloodbath sinks into the Sunni Muslim world, there can also be repercussions.”

Another limit may be the cost for Russia, which one general recently said has shipped 700,000 tons of military equipment and weaponry to Syria via the Bosporus waterway in Turkey.

“The problem is how long Russia can maintain such a policy, when it runs out of resources,” adds Felgenhauer. “That’s a lot [of materiel]. And that is a serious burden on the Russian navy and the Russian budget.… There is also the problem of Russian morale here.”

The LSE’s Gerges says Russia’s experience in other conflicts is behind its push for a political settlement.

“The Syrian army is thinly spread and dispersed in many areas. Assad can never impose his centralized control on all of Syria anymore,” he argues. “In fact, what we see today as a significant military gain for Assad, could easily mutate in two to three years into Afghanistan of the 1990s.

“Russia knows this,” he says. “Without a political settlement, Syria will remain a battlefield for many years to come.”

Iran's challenges

Iran faces its own challenges, not least because of uncertainty about how a new US administration under Donald Trump may improve ties with Russia at Iran’s expense. So it, too, is inclined to seek a political solution.

“The perception in Tehran is there is no military ending in Syria,” says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University.

“In other words, it is a good time to go for a negotiated solution, because from a position of strength it is easier to convince Assad to give concessions, rather than a position of weakness,” says Mr. Hadian-Jazy.

Though some conservative factions in Iran revel in the Aleppo victory of “resistance,” that view “is not going to be shared … universally,” he says.

“Our forces are overstretched. We know there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” says Hadian-Jazy. “Any tactical closeness of Russia and the US may hurt Iran, [so] our preference would be to quickly turn that victory into a negotiated solution.”

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