The city of Aleppo was the anvil on which the situation in Syria turned. When the government set out to regain control of the city in August, it still looked possible that the regime could prevail and defeat the insurgency. Its failure in Syria’s largest city means that this is no longer an option.
If the rebels complete the conquest of the north, they will then turn their attention to Damascus. The regime knows this, and is currently preparing new lines of defense. The top units of the government army are guarding the city. The 4th Armored Division of Maher Assad — brother of the president — is deployed in the capital, which now resembles a large armed camp.
Government forces are also building up their defenses in the western coastal area, the heartland of the Alawi sect to which the Assad family belongs.
The regime’s problem is manpower. It still has international support (from Russia, Iran, and China), money, and vastly superior weaponry to its opponents. But it lacks sufficient men willing to put themselves in harm’s way in its cause. As a result, it can no longer hope to reconquer the entirety of the country, and is pulling back to those areas which it must hold in order to survive.
The rebels, meanwhile, remain a deeply divided force.
There are now military councils for all the provinces of Syria. But there are also many units operating outside of this framework, including some of the most militarily effective ones. Groups such as the Salafi Jabhat al-Nusra and the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Liwa al Tawhid in Aleppo are Islamist forces which operate outside of the notional command structure of the Free Syrian Army.
The best organized, most determined, and most politically savvy groups in the rebel ranks — predictably — are the Islamists.
In late September, at a frontline position of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo City, I interviewed Yasser al-Kirz, one of the leaders of the brigade. He was the only military leader of all those I met in Aleppo who was able to articulate a clear sense of what he wanted to build after the fall of the dictator.
What he wanted: “An Islamic state — but with protection for minorities.”
He was openly dismissive about the other so-called political leaders, who remained outside of the country. And his contempt was entirely understandable.
What all this means is that the Syrian regime is losing ground to an insurgency in which the most active and dynamic elements are those representing one or another form of Sunni Islamism.
In other words, in Syria as elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world: it is the old regimes — several of which have already fallen — or the Islamists. There appears to be no third alternative.