Assad supporters see domino effect in Aleppo government win

AP , Thursday 8 Dec 2016

In this Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 photo, Syrians sit at a restaurant in western Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo)

Aleppo shakes with explosions and gunfire day and night in both the government- and rebel-held sides of the divided Syrian city. But for supporters of President Bashar Assad, there is a growing sense of imminent victory.

If the city's rebel-held sector falls, many see a domino effect across the country. And with the rebels losing one ravaged stronghold after another, attacked from the skies and abandoned by allies, it's a scenario that looks ever more plausible.

A rebel defeat in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once its commercial center, would reverberate across the war-torn country, where opposition forces continue to hold out in smaller, scattered areas. It would cap a string of government successes over the past year and provide a turning point in a war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people, displaced more than half of the country's population and defied all international efforts for a political solution.

"When Aleppo is done, 90 percent of the Syrian crisis will be resolved," said Mohammad Hassino, a 45-year-old businessman walking with his wife in the narrow alleys of the old quarter of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

It is a belief shared by many government supporters, who also note a radically changed international atmosphere that aligns more with Assad, including an incoming U.S. president who has suggested he might be willing to work with the Syrian president and his international backer, Russia, against the Islamic State group.

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to maintain his goal is Assad's removal from power, his military intervention in northern Syria has been focused against the Kurds, and the Islamic State group around the militant-held town of al-Bab, north of Aleppo. International demands for Assad to step down have all but vanished.

Around the country, Assad's forces have been steadily gaining ground, particularly around Damascus, seat of Assad's power. There, rebel strongholds have surrendered to government forces in quick succession, forging truce deals with Assad's troops that have allowed fighters safe passage to the rebel-held northern province of Idlib.

In Aleppo, rebel factions that had held out for four years finally buckled last week under the pressure of a massive air campaign that took out all remaining hospitals, and a suffocating siege that has seen medical and food supplies running dangerously low.

By Wednesday, Syrian troops and allied militiamen had seized control of three-quarters of the territory the opposition controlled, leaving the rebels boxed in, mostly in the southern part of their ever-shrinking enclave.

A military victory in Aleppo now seems inevitable, and only a matter of time. Fighters and remaining residents of rebel-held areas say morale has hit rock bottom.

Rebels still hold other pockets around Syria, including northern Idlib province and the southern province of Daraa. But if government forces prevail in Aleppo, any movement to unseat Assad would have to reckon with the reality that he holds the country's four largest cities and its key coastal region.

"A defeat in Aleppo will leave the Syrian opposition at a dead end, not just because it will have lost its most important piece of real estate, but because the remaining rebel strongholds are of little use as platforms to reverse the tide of war," wrote Aron Lund, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program.

Part of the reason for Assad's survival, in addition to the unwavering support of Russia and Iran, has been his ability to preserve a measure of normalcy in areas under his control.

On a visit to Aleppo this week, an Associated Press team witnessed the devastation wrought by years of barrel bombs and airstrikes on the city's rebel-held sector. Entire blocks of the recently captured eastern neighborhoods of Hanano and Bani Zeid were leveled and thousands of housing units were not suitable to live in anymore.

Newly evacuated residents were traumatized, recalling days cowering in bathrooms and their children going hungry amid an ever dwindling supply of food. Some said their children had not gone to school in years.

By contrast, in western Aleppo, schools, businesses and government institutions continued to function, albeit with intermittent interruptions. On a recent day, shops were busy and restaurants packed with people who came to dine or have a drink on the popular Aziziyeh Street. When a shell hit nearby, people ran for safety inside buildings and moved away from windows for fear of another barrage. But an hour later, normal life picked up again.

Residents said the government's capture of the once rebel-held Bani Zeid neighborhood, located on a hill overlooking large parts of western Aleppo, was a turning point. From Bani Zeid, rebel militia fighters used to fire gas cylinders that could knock out several floors of a building.

"We are living the best period in more than four years," said Mohammed Youssef, a 52-year-old waiter in western Aleppo.

Aleppo has been without electricity since 2012 and giant generators are seen in the streets of the government-held sector where people pay a weekly fee for power. Last year, the state began powering traffic lights in government-controlled areas with solar energy, placing mirrors directed toward the sky on every intersection.

"We as Aleppans want victory so that Aleppo returns to its normal life," said a man who only gave his first name, Tony, as he sipped a cup of tea at a cafe in government-controlled downtown Aleppo as explosions echoed in the distance.

In government-controlled parts of the country and on social media, Assad supporters are already touting the Aleppo advances as an overall military victory by Assad in the war.

But the conflict is far from over, even with a government win in Aleppo. Large parts of the country remain outside government control, including areas held by the Islamic State group. Hundreds of armed rebel factions are likely to continue the insurgency with guerrilla-like tactics.

Syrian TV and cinema producer Basil Taha, 33, said even if the city is retaken, it does not mean that the war will end.

The Aleppo native, who now lives mostly in Damascus, said the conflict in Syria is a battle between foreign powers.

"I am happy for what is happening in Aleppo," Taha said, referring to the government push. "But if the fighting ends in Aleppo, it will resume somewhere else."

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