Syrian government forces say they have retaken control of the rest of Aleppo, but there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. Only a widely accepted political settlement can end the fighting and stitch the country back together.
The recent Syrian regime offensive — supported by Russian and Iranian-backed forces — to capture the rest of the eastern side of the city has led to the complete fall of the besieged area.
However the Syrian regime’s recent victories have raised many questions about the impact of these gains on the conflict in Syria and the fate of the country.
The internal divisions among rebel groups, their poor military performance and the lack of support channeled to them has led to speculation about the possibility of a military solution to the conflict in favor of the Syrian regime. These assumptions are likely jumping the gun: the regime controls less than a third of the country’s territories. In restoring its grip on the rest of Syria, the regime faces huge challenges, both internally and externally.
No end in sight
Despite the significance of Aleppo, the fate of the city alone is not a decisive factor in the Syrian conflict. Rebel fighters and civilians who left Aleppo, as part of the recent evacuation deal, will continue to resist the Syrian regime in the new areas they moved to.
The number of Syrian rebels estimated to still be fighting in the country is around 150,000. In addition, the regional powers, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, are still invested in opposing Assad and remain actively against any solution that allows him to restore his power over the country.
With the Syrian regime in control of so little of the country’s territories, there is a long and a bloody road before it can claim any kind of victory. As a result, the armed conflict will last for a long time, even if it takes different formats.
Ruling the country?
Even if Assad is able to control Syria militarily, after a long struggle the regime will still not be able to efficiently run the country. The Syrian regime has been depending for a long time on the manpower and support from its allies, namely Russia and Iran, in order not to collapse. Restoring and maintaining the rest of the country would also heavily depend on the support the regime receives from these allies.
Keeping in check the local and foreign militias — sponsored by Iran — that helped in recapturing the country will be a security challenge and will likely create a weak government. The inability of the weak Iraqi and Lebanese governments to control the armed groups in their countries, the Popular Mobilization Units and Hezbollah armed wing, give a glimpse as to what could happen in Syria.
The state institutions are weak and do not provide quality services for the majority of the country. There has been a catastrophic decline in the quantity and quality of services
in the small percentage of regime-held areas due to a growing deterioration in the infrastructure and manpower resources on all services sectors such as health, education, industry.
Many regional and international countries will also oppose donating money to the Syrian regime to reconstruct the country and provide better services, which will lead to the marginalization of a big percentage of the country and negatively impact the regime’s ability to rule them.
What about refugees?
The fragile security situation and lack of services and opportunities will likely discourage Syrian refugees from going back home. The fear of detention and pursuit by the security services and militias loyal to Assad for leaving the country or for opposing Assad, will continue to prevent many refugees from returning, which will not help in solving the Syrian refugee crisis. The Syrian regime, similar to what happened in the 1980s after the armed confrontation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood party, will likely imprison or exploit thousands of those who actively opposed Assad and will continue to push more Syrians out of the country in search of protection and a better future.
This situation would play into the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which will continue to use opposition to an Assad-led regime as a recruiting tool.
The Syrian regime will continue to ignore the political, economic, social and cultural issues that led to the peaceful revolution. These conditions, which helped pave the way for the rise of radical groups in the first place in Syria, have only been exacerbated. As a result, local divisions, grievances, chaos and a weak state will allow radical groups to gain power again, which is exactly what happened in Iraq with ISIS.
A permanent failed state?
For years, experts working on Syria have been advising — even when the Syrian regime was collapsing — against ending the Syrian conflict militarily.
This advice is still valid, now more than ever, because the country could only be stitched back together through a widely accepted political solution that allows different Syrian actors to share power.
Only a solution like this can give people the incentive to coexist and to actively work together in rebuilding the country. Any other solution will only deal with symptoms and ignore the illness until it is too late for it to be treated, and turn Syria into a failed state permanently.
Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher focusing on security and conflict resolution. He is an associate fellow at Chatham House, working on the Middle East and North Africa Programme. The opinions in this article belong to the author. This article has been updated from a previous version to reflect Syrian forces’ retaking Aleppo.