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Mona Alami

After Aleppo

Heart-wrenching videos and images streaming on social media showed starving elderly and maimed children [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 December, 2016

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Comment: The battle for the northern capital and its ultimate capture consecrated the routinisation of violence in a country, plagued by a five-year war.

Much of the world has silently watched the tragedy unfold in Aleppo, where forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continuously pounded opposition areas home to a 250,000 population.

Heart-wrenching videos streaming on social media showed starving elderly and maimed children.

The battle for the northern capital - and its ultimate capture - consecrated the routinisation of violence in a country, plagued by a five-year war.

Yet besides the humanitarian toll that has marked the collective imagination this December, the fall of Aleppo will redefine the military landscape in Syria.

Yet besides the humanitarian toll that has marked the collective imagination this December, the fall of Aleppo will redefine the military landscape in Syria

Already the battle's ripple effects are bursting the seams of a fragile military opposition. In recent weeks, discord reigned over the salafi jihadi scene, dividing the ranks of Syria's largest salafi organisation Ahrar Sham (AS), as well as the Jihadi group of Jabhat Fateh Sham (JFS), the former Nusra al-Qaeda affiliate.

Hardline figures within AS announced the creation of a new faction within the movement, labelled Jaysh al-Ahrar, under the leadership of AS' former leader, Abu Jaber Sheikh. The split was not recognised by the group's new leader, Ali Omar, aka Abou Ammar Omar Al-Taftanazi.

Similarly, Jordanian hardliners within JFS who opposed the organisation's split from al-Qaeda central are believed to be joining forces and forming a new entity, although the information was denied by Jordanian salafi sources who spoke with The New Arab.

This wave of break ups appears to be leading to a reconfiguration of the northern rebel scene.

Under pressure from an angry Syrian street, rebels are discussing two consolidation projects.

JFS has been pushing for months for a merger of groups at the behest of its leader Abou Mohamad Joulani, which would include AS (whose members appear to be divided on the issue), Jund Sham, the Islamic Turkistan Party and the Ansar Dine Front.

Another bloc would be formed by the merger of Jaysh Islam, Faylak Sham, ahl Sham, Jabha Shamiya and Jaysh Moujahedeen.

"JFS will probably prevail by absorbing mainstream factions into the Fateh Army as the moderate opposition finds itself isolated in northern Syria," says Sinan Hatahet, a Syria expert at the Turkey-based Omran Dirasat think-tank.

The migration of mainstream fighters towards the Euphrates Shield will possibly accelerate, if pressure mounts between rebel factions in the Idlib area.

The participation of rebels in the Turkey-backed Operation Euphrates Shield has diverted pressure in recent months from the Aleppo front towards the IS-held city of al-Bab.

Turkey seeks control of al-Bab to curtail Kurdish ambitions of connecting Kurdish regions in northeast Syria. Russia appears to have blessed Ankara's plan, but it remains unclear how far to the East and South it will allow the Euphrates Shield to advance into Islamic State gruoup territory.

The weakening of the group in the East could allow rebels to position themselves on the Eastern flank of Aleppo, and thus put pressure on the regime forces.

All options are open, explains colonel Hassan Hamadeh from the Free Syrian Army. The officer underlines that, alongside classical military operations, the opposition could also resort to asymmetric warfare.

Given the new balance of power clearly favouring the regime, the latter option would be an obvious choice for rebels.

Future battles may include small group of combatants using ambushes, sabotage, raids, hit-and-run tactics that would exhaust the larger and less-mobile pro-regime forces.

Yet rebels' margin of manoeuvre is greatly constrained by Turkey's calculations in Syria.

Russia, Iran and Turkey announced on Tuesday they were working towards a political accord to end Syria's war, after a meeting in Moscow. Turkey and Russia seem to be looking for a way out of the conflict by pushing for a transition phase. Iran remains the wildcard in this new equation.

Tehran places the preservation of Assad's rule above all else in Syria.

To insure Assad security once and for all, Iran and the regime have to pursue military operations. While many experts have argued that the takeover of Idlib would be the next logical step in the battle, it is the Ghouta region that represents a direct threat to the regime

To ensure Assad's security once and for all, Iran and the regime have to pursue military operations. While many experts have argued that the takeover of Idlib would be the next logical step in the battle, it is the Ghouta region that represents a direct threat to the regime.

The Damascus suburb located at the doorstep of Assad's seat of power is home to the powerful Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman.

By taking over Ghouta, Assad would have asserted his authority over Syria's largest demographic hubs and relegated a defeated and cumbersome opposition to peripheral areas.

Talks of a political transition would be mere window dressing for the regime, despite the fact that Assad's bet to reclaim full control over power, shared with a flurry of local and regional backers, appears, for the moment at least, far off.

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organisations. Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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