After Aleppo falls, where next for Syria?

Syrian residents fleeing the violence in the eastern rebel-held parts of Aleppo react as they evacuate from their neighbourhoods through the Bab al-Hadid district after it was seized by the government forces, on Dec 7, 2016.
Syrian residents fleeing the violence in the eastern rebel-held parts of Aleppo react as they evacuate from their neighbourhoods through the Bab al-Hadid district after it was seized by the government forces, on Dec 7, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - While seizing control of Aleppo will not end the Syrian war, Bashar al-Assad's regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have more control now than at any time since the conflict began, experts say.

The United States, European powers and Gulf states gathered on Saturday (Dec 10) for talks with opposition representatives in an increasingly desperate bid to find a way to end the nearly six-year-old war.

But their powerlessness was palpable.

The meeting ended with US Secretary of State John Kerry pleading with the regime, Russia and Iran to show "a little grace" and end the "indiscriminate" bombing of Aleppo, which looks set to fall into the hands of Assad's forces soon.

Retreating rebels now control only a pocket of Syria's second city, whose fate is seen as pivotal to the outcome of the conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people.

Calls from Western leaders to stop the fighting and diplomacy at the UN have amounted to nothing with Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly intent on pushing their advantage.

"The idea of the operation is to do what was done in Chechnya... crush the rebellion and show them that they can do nothing against Russian forces," said Moscow-based analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

The West appears resigned to the fall of Aleppo and to the idea that the regime will have control of the west of the country, from Aleppo to Damascus and the central province of Homs and the coastal Latakia province.

"The partition of Syria is happening," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault conceded.

A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was a "de facto division of Syria".

"The Russians are to the West and the Western powers of the anti-jihadist coalition are to the East," he said.

In Paris, the Western countries stressed that although the Assad regime was in the strongest position it had been in since the war began in 2011, taking control of Aleppo would still leave large parts of the country beyond its control.

Extremists from Fateh al-Sham, the former Al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group - as well as US-backed Kurdish militias in the north - retain control of many areas.

"What sort of peace is it if it's only the peace of cemeteries?" Ayrault asked.

Russian and American officials will meet again in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the fighting, but even Kerry admitted his expectations of those talks were "constrained".

"I know people are tired of these meetings, I'm tired of these meetings," he told reporters before the Paris gathering.

"But what am I supposed to do? Go home and have a nice weekend in Massachusetts, while people are dying? Sit there in Washington and do nothing?"

Analysts say the timeframe and conditions of talks will be set in Damascus and Moscow, whose armies are in the ascendency despite allegations of war crimes and mounting civilian deaths.

"Aleppo is a critical turning point," Robin Wright, a researcher at the United States Institute of Peace, told US National Public Radio (NPR). "Assad looks ever stronger."

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies, also called Aleppo "a major turning point" that left the West and other countries which oppose Assad with few options.

Once the city falls, the largest remaining rebel bastion will be Idlib province, controlled by a coalition dominated by extremists from a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The ISIS militant group remains in control of territory around their de facto capital in Raqa.

"It makes the prophecy of Assad come true: it is either me or radical Islamists," Landis told NPR.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States, who favours closer relations with Putin, was already a bad omen for the opposition just before troops launched their assault on Aleppo in mid-November.

Trump is expected to be more isolationist than Barack Obama, which Russian analyst Felgenhauer said would allow Russia to strengthen its position in the Middle East.

"Everyone is going to be queueing up to become friends with Russia," he said.

"Everyone understands that Assad could have been hanged a long time ago. But he bet on the Russians and he won."