Over the course of the last three days Syrian rebels suffered their worst defeat in four years as forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad managed to sack a third of eastern Aleppo.
In a fortnight, at least 500 people have been killed and 1,000 more wounded as Russian and Syrian warplanes pounded the city from the sky while a consortium of Syrian soldiers and Iranian-built militias stormed it on the ground.
The assault came from east and west in an apparent effort to bisect rebel territory, which is already geographically isolated from the rest of the province.
Aleppo appears to be on the brink of collapse. If it goes, the war changes character as the regime will be firmly in control of both of the country’s biggest cities. That will leave the major anti-Assad rebels only the northwestern province of Idlib and a few scattered outposts elsewhere.
The assault on Aleppo since November 15 has included at least 2,000 airstrikes and 7,000 rocket strikes, in addition to ballistic missiles, cluster munitions and yes, chemical weapons attacks. Khaleb Khatib, a spokesman for the civil defense group known as White Helmets, called the Assad regime’s actions “a genocide against the civilians” and held out little hope for a strong international response:
“Unfortunately we don’t see any movement from the international community, or the major powers who claim to be friends of the Syrian people. We try to retain a sliver of hope that the situation may improve, but if nobody moves to stop the regime and Russian bombardment of civilians, we fear the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the modern era will take place.”
Unfortunately, Khatib is right not to expect a forceful response from the international community. The catastrophe in Aleppo is the tragic but predictable result of a feckless U.S. administration whose refusal to enforce its red lines emboldened Assad and whose futile chasing of ceasefire agreements with Russia enabled the ongoing slaughter. The Obama administration’s bumbling approach to Syria has been well documented on these pages; predictably enough, Assad and Putin are looking to consolidate their gains before a new administration takes the reins in January.
Trump’s policy on Syria is the real question. The president-elect drew ire when he claimed during the final presidential debate that Aleppo “has fallen from any standpoint,” an indication that he already considered Aleppo a lost cause in mid-October. By the time he takes office, that premature observation may well be vindicated. If so, the Syria that Trump inherits will heavily favor Assad’s forces against a ragtag collection of fragmented and increasingly radicalized rebels. The fall of Aleppo could give Trump just the opening he needs to abandon U.S. support for the opposition, and give Russia a freer hand in Syria.
At this point, neither Aleppo’s fall nor Trump’s policy is preordained—but if both proceed as expected, that spells further bad news for the Syrian opposition.