The reconquest of Aleppo is a significant victory for the Syrian regime over the armed opposition which has now been confined to a few pockets in the east of the city.
But this victory is drenched in the bitter taste of defeat.
An impossible victory
This is a civil war where the balance of power shifts constantly, a conflict which no side can settle decisively or irrevocably, and a proxy war between many regional and international powers.
As a result of the complexity of Syria’s social fabric, political conflicts have assumed a sectarian and ethnic character. What began as a popular uprising against the dictatorship of one party rule, became a violent clash between Alawis and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, and Christians and Muslims, in a hideous spectacle of self-immolation.
The Levant’s sensitive geographic position has turned Syria into a battleground where international and regional players compete for control and influence. Behind each internal player lurks a foreign power with its own stakes and calculations, from Russians and Iranians, to Americans, Gulf countries and Turks.
The conflict in Syria began as a spontaneous revolution sparked by a sense of injustice and oppression and inspired by earlier popular eruptions in Tunisia, then Egypt in 2011. But this is not what we have today.
As new factors entered the equation, the popular uprising veered off course and turned into a brutal armed civil war. A noble struggle for freedom and human rights turned into an ugly scramble for power and dominance.
The ethnic and sectarian chasms within the fabric of Syrian society mean that neither the regime, nor his opponents can dictate the outcome of the ongoing conflict.
While the Alawite, Christian and religious minorities have rallied around the Assad regime, the angry Sunni majority has largely sided with the opposition. The Kurds have their own agenda which is increasingly enjoying international support.
Perhaps the most vivid embodiment of the terrible schism breaking Syrian society asunder has been the surreal images from east and west Aleppo, one of dusty, worn out, grief-stricken mourners lamenting their massacred loved ones, the other of jubilant crowds celebrating the forces responsible for the massacre.
The region’s overlapping geographic borders and interconnected conflicts, particularly those between Syria and Iraq, which remains in the grip of an endless civil war, all point to an open-ended crisis.
The balance of power on the ground is unstable: the same Syrian regime forces celebrating the reconquest of Aleppo today have a few days ago had to withdraw from the ancient city of Tadmur (Palmyra) after the Islamic State (IS) managed to recapture it .
With terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda and IS, profiting from the chaos and reigning climate of ethnic and sectarian schism to penetrate deep into Syrian territory, it has become impossible to control the situation without a viable political resolution that eliminates the root causes of ongoing tensions.
The most significant lesson from Iraq, as it continues to struggle with political disputes grounded in sectarian and ethnic chasms and fuelled by foreign Interventions since 2003, is that no conflict can be settled at gunpoint. Every battle begets another in an explosive chain of destruction that knows no end.
The way out of the abyss
This war has no winners or losers. It is a relentless conflict no one can permanently settle in their favour. This reduces the options available to Syrians to two:
They can continue down the path of civil war, as the regime proves unable to annihilate the armed opposition, despite the partial military conquests it has managed to make here and there, and the opposition fails to topple and replace Assad.
The flames would rage on, particularly as certain international powers, first and foremost the Americans and Israelis, seek to prolong the conflict indefinitely and turn the crisis into a war of attrition where Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Russians, the regime and opposition are all perpetually trapped.
The alternative is to abandon the nihilistic destructive logic of winner and loser and strive for a political compromise instead. It is to seek reasonable deals to distribute power fairly and embark on a serious reform process, on the basis of safeguarding the country’s endangered unity and sovereignty.
The truth is that Assad can no longer rule the country as he had done before the revolution, with the iron grip of the Ba’ath party, the military and intelligence services. Vast stretches of territory are outside his control. Three million Syrians have been made refugees. Millions more have been displaced internally and the extent of anger and rejection of his regime has only grown among the Sunni majority.
Seeking a serious political solution may seem like the more arduous option. But it is the least costly, too. It requires a great deal of patience, wisdom and courage from all sides.
There is no heroism, honour, or indeed victory in wars between fellow countrymen and women. Assad cannot exterminate the military opposition, no matter how many battles he wins, nor can the opposition realistically hope to topple him with the strong alliances he has managed to forge.
The only way out of the bottomless pit of death and devastation is through a political compromise backed by the main powers involved, that is, the Russians, Iranians, Turks and the Gulf. Only then can we hope to salvage what remains of Syria.
This article was first published by the Middle East Eye.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.