The rout of Syrian rebels by the Russian-backed forces of President Bashar Assad in the city of Aleppo likely marks the beginning of the end of the civil war that has ravaged the country for more than 5 years and led to the unprecedented slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.
But the fall of rebel-held parts of Aleppo — once the country’s largest city and a major trading and economic hub — also will usher in a new, unpredictable phase.
Mr. Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, Iranian militias and Hezbollah fighters, aim to crush the remaining resistance across the country while challenging the base of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which recently cut ties with al Qaeda and changed its name from the Nusra Front.
That unpredictability will be further exacerbated with Donald Trump in the White House. The president-elect has said he plans to abandon President Obama’s policy for regime change, end support for leading rebel groups and back Moscow’s efforts to prop up the Assad regime.
The Trump transition team remained quiet Tuesday regarding the ongoing carnage in Aleppo. However, the president-elect has made clear that he plans to rein in the U.S. role in the Syrian civil war and focus efforts on driving the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, from its self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa.
Mr. Trump said repeatedly during the election campaign that he would push to rework the overall U.S.-Russian relationship, particularly on how to handle the war in Syria.
SEE ALSO: Aleppo cease-fire collapses, threatening evacuation plans
“My attitude was, you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Assad said this fall that the Syrian army’s next target would be the northwestern city of Idlib, about 35 miles from Aleppo. Control of Idlib would give the government control of the main land transportation links between Damascus and Aleppo.
With the rebels’ latest defeat, the composition of Mr. Assad’s adversary is likely to change too, with jihadi fighters taking a more prominent role with secular pro-Western rebel forces badly mauled in Aleppo’s fall.
The Obama administration has tried for months to negotiate a cease-fire in the city, widely seen as a key to ending hostilities in the country. But Washington remained largely on the sidelines as Russia and Turkey took the lead in talks.
But Syria policy under Mr. Trump may not necessarily be that different from the one drafted by the outgoing administration, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior defense and foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Well, at one level, we shouldn’t overstate the importance of the change in the White House. It was under Obama, after all, that Russia intervened and Assad regained momentum,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
“Perhaps the first-order difference between Obama and Trump is that Trump’s rhetoric will be more consistent with actual Syria policy than has been the case the last five years,” he said.
Aside from a more straightforward U.S. policy in Syria, Mr. O’Hanlon said, revamped ties between Russia and a Trump administration could pave the way for a soft partition of the country.
Under this plan, Mr. Assad’s regime would consolidate into a sector with his fellow minority Alawites along the country’s western borders, while “local autonomous zones” elsewhere would consist of various ethnic and sectarian groups.
“We could pursue a confederation in Syria. And there may still be options even after Aleppo has fallen, even under Trump,” he said. “But it’ll take some doing to create the conditions to make even that possible.”
‘Meltdown of humanity’
On Tuesday, rebel forces agreed to withdraw from their enclaves in the eastern half of Aleppo as part of a cease-fire deal brokered by Russian and Turkish envoys. The cease-fire was reached after Mr. Assad’s forces secured virtually all of the once evenly divided city.
But news of the cease-fire deal was marred by reports that squads of government troops and Assad loyalists were moving house by house in formerly rebel-held areas in Aleppo and killing civilians by the dozens as they tried to flee.
The United Nations verified that government and paramilitary troops loyal to the Assad regime had executed 82 Syrian civilians over 48 hours, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told The New York Times.
Indiscriminate bombardments of clear civilian targets in eastern Aleppo have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Syrians since Russia restarted its air campaign against the city last month, according to human rights groups.
Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the United Nations, told reporters Tuesday that the situation on the ground represented “a complete meltdown of humanity.”
But Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, praised what he called “the liberation of Aleppo” from “terrorists” and denied any revenge attacks or mass killings. Russian military officials said rebel leaders in the city fabricated such reports.
“All of the statements by high-ranked Western officials, which cite so-called ‘reports by the activists,’ [reporting] alleged ‘Russian bombardments,’ ‘executions’ and other stuff are staged videos, produced by special film crews formed by militants,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.
“It remains a question, why some media outlets were so eager to use them without checking,” Gen. Konashenkov said.
Regional analysts and human rights observers say the unyielding Russian onslaught was the key to breaking the resistance in eastern Aleppo, which had been under rebel control for most of the war.
Russian jets and warships based on the Admiral Kuznetsov strike group anchored off the Syrian coast restarted their bombardment of Aleppo in mid-November after a three-week lull in operations against the city.
The bombardment allowed government troops to cut off the eastern part of the city from other rebel strongholds in western Aleppo, making it only a matter of time before the city fell back under Mr. Assad’s control.
The Associated Press reported that celebrations broke out in the government-controlled western half of Aleppo, with people in cars honking horns and waving Syrian flags.
The Obama administration warned that the fall of Aleppo by no means meant the end of the Syrian civil war. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that violence would continue to engulf the country.
“Even if it is the end of the siege in Aleppo, it is not the end of the war in Syria. It will go on. The opposition will continue to fight,” Mr. Kirby said.
“The bloodshed in Aleppo needs to stop. That the brutality of the regime and support that’s getting from Russia and Iran has got to stop,” Mr. Kirby said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.