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After Aleppo, Syria's Assad still far from regaining his state

  • Published at 11:10 pm December 11th, 2016
After Aleppo, Syria's Assad still far from regaining his state
When President Bashar al-Assad turns from the wreckage of Aleppo to assert his authority across a fractured Syria, it will be as a figure who is virtually unassailable by rebels, but still faces great challenges in restoring the power of his state. The expected fall of Aleppo would mean rebels have almost no chance of ousting Assad, but their revolt has left him in hock to foreign allies, resigned to the loss of swathes of his country for the time being and with tough pockets of resistance still to crush. "Certainly it is not the end of the war, but when you take Aleppo, you control 90% of the fertile areas of Syria, the regions that hold the cities and markets, the populated regions," said a senior pro-Damascus official in the region. However, the battlefield victories that seem - for now - to have secured Assad's rule have been won in large part not by his own depleted military, but by Russian warplanes and a shock force of foreign Shi'ite militias backed by Iran. In rebuilding, Assad will also have to contend with Western sanctions on much of his government and with isolation from some of his main previous trading partners - the EU, Turkey, Gulf monarchies and Jordan. The Gulf states in particular may also continue to fund insurgents.

IS retakes Palmyra

The Islamic State terrorist group recaptured Palmyra on Sunday after Syrian armed forces pulled out of the desert city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. “Despite the ongoing air raids, IS retook all of Palmyra after the Syrian army withdrew south of the city,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. The jihadists made a lightning-fast advance across the city after overrunning a northern neighbourhood and capturing the famed citadel to Palmyra’s west. The IS-linked Amaq news agency also reported that IS regained “full control” of the city on Sunday after taking the citadel, which overlooks Palmyra from a strategic hilltop. IS launched an offensive last week near Palmyra, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site.

Raqqa written off for now

The president and his allies have focused their campaign on the populous, fertile, west of his country and few people expect him to lavish limited military resources on quickly retaking the eastern deserts or Euphrates valley area from IS. The senior pro-Damascus official said that Assad had for now written off Raqqa, which has become the de facto Syrian capital of IS, often referred to by the Arabic term Daesh, regarding the jihadist group as Washington's problem to fix. "The regime forgot about Raqqa a long time ago and made it the responsibility of the Americans. Let those alarmed by Daesh go and remove it," the official said. Still, Assad himself signalled in a December television interview that in the end he intended to restore Damascus' sway across the country. Asked about a "federalist" system that Kurds have implemented in parts of north Syria from which the central state has retreated, he dismissed their local councils as "temporary structures".

Secularism

One consequence of the fall of Aleppo could be that nationalist rebel groups - the ones that Western countries feel able to support - will be weakened while militant jihadist ones come to dominate the insurgency even more. In making that argument, Assad has always emphasised the secular nature of his ruling Baath party, a socialist, pan-Arab movement embraced by his father, who seized power in a coup and first built Syria's alliances with Moscow and Tehran. But critics say that while Assad has contrasted the secular nature of his party's ideology with the Islamist beliefs shared by his own domestic opponents and militants who threaten other countries, his actual policies have been highly sectarian.
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