Too Little, Too Late? Syrian Rebels Launch Desperate Counter Strike

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Syrian civil war
destroyed Syrian Army tanks
Photo Credit: 
By Christiaan Triebert - Flickr: Azaz, Syria, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30976487

On Friday, Syrian rebels in besieged eastern Aleppo launched a large scale counterstrike, hoping to break the government's tightening grip on rebel held districts. The counterstrike included intense artillery shelling, as well as suicide bombings, and other gun battles. Many are viewing the counterstrike as an act of desperation as the Syrian Opposition has lost ground and numbers in recent months.

Numerous rebel groups are believed to be participating in the counteroffensive. Some of the militia groups have been backed and supplied by the United States and other Western powers. However, support for rebel groups, as well as hopes that Assad could be overthrown, have dwindled. Now, many Western leaders are shifting towards humanitarian concerns.

Also, some of the rebel groups are linked to Al Qaeda and other terrorists organizations, making international support all the more complicated. These terrorist groups are believed to be behind many of the suicide bombings. Reports indicate that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which is linked to Al Qaeda, even rigged a tank with explosives and drove it across the front line before detonating it.

Assad Seems To Be Back In Control

As the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011, it looked like the Assad regime would be toppled. Several top government officials deflected, and many were predicting that the regime would fall within a matter of months. Assad hailed from the Shia minority in Syria, while many of the protesters were Sunni.

Facing mass protests, the Assad regime dug in. Unlike the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, Assad showed a much greater willingness to forcefully disperse crowds, and to engage with armed militia groups. As the protest movement evolved into an outright civil war, the regime even showed a willingness to use chemical weapons.

Regardless, the Syrian Opposition, which consists of a hodgepodge of predominantly Sunni rebel groups, was able wrest control of much of Syria from the regime. At one point, the rebels controlled most of Aleppo, which was Syria's largest city before the civil war broke out. The city has steadily been depopulated as fighting has dragged on.

At its peak, the rebels seemed to have the government on its heels, and defeat seemed imminent. Meetings were held to discuss what a post-Assad Syria might look like, and even Russia hinted that it might be willing to consider regime change.

How the times change. Now, it appears that the Assad regime is close to defeating the Syrian opposition once and for all. Eastern Aleppo is one of only a few major rebel strongholds left. The Syrian government, with Russian support, has already managed to retake much of Aleppo and greater Syria.

Less populated regions outside of Aleppo do remain under the control of the Syrian Opposition. However, if the Assad regime is able to retake Aleppo, it will mark a major blow to the Opposition. With few reinforcements, dwindling supplies, and diminishing troop numbers, the defeat of the Syrian Opposition now seems more a matter of “when” rather than “if.”

Battle With Islamic State Remains

The rebel groups under the Syrian Opposition banner aren't the only anti-government groups in Syria. Much of Syria remains under the control of the Islamic State. Raqqa, one of Syria's largest cities, is firmly under the Islamic State's control, as is much of the northeastern portions of the country.

The Syrian government could begin to pivot towards battling the Islamic State. With the Iraqi government committing massive resources to push the Islamic State out of Mosul and Iraq, Syria could soon become the group's last major stronghold. Both Russia and the Assad regime have called on Western powers to shift their attention away from supporting the Syrian Opposition and towards defeating the Islamic State.

Besides the Islamic State, Kurdish groups control much of northern Syria, near the Turkish border. Kurds, and especially Iraqi Kurds, have been among the preferred allies for the United States and other Western countries. Whether or not the Kurds and Syrian government will come into direct conflict remains to be seen. By and large, the government and Kurds have avoided major conflicts, but fighting between the two has broken out in the past.

Time For United States To Move On

For better or worse, the Syrian Opposition won't be toppling the Assad regime. And while the United States has been a staunch enemy of the regime over the past few years, there appears to be little America can do as far as regime change goes. With Russia providing direct support, the only way to unseat Assad would be to confront Russia.

That's not going to happen. As such, it's time for the United States to accept the Assad regime, as unsavory as that might be. Efforts now should focus on reconciliation, and ensuring that civilians are protected and provided essential aid. Further, the Islamic State remains an enemy of all, and defeating it should become a priority.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but at this point there is no viable alternative to Assad within Syria. Negotiations and diplomacy are the only viable tools left, and it's unlikely that Assad will agree to step down anytime soon.

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