After Aleppo hand-wringing, West will have to deal with victorious Assad

Regardless of how the coming hours are played out in Aleppo, Western powers will have to deal with the consequences of Bashar al-Assad's victory there.

Western powers gave up long ago on Syrian city once described as the jewel of the country

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings following an air strike on a rebel-held neighbourhood of Aleppo. (Ameer Alhalbi/AFP/Getty Images)

You would think, given the hand-wringing by Western diplomats and politicians over the past 24 hours, that the final stages of the Syrian government's brutal assault on the last few rebel-held blocks in Eastern Aleppo were somehow unexpected.

A shocking, jarring turn of events, instead of the fully advertised and inevitable outcome of Syria's decision to start pounding Eastern Aleppo from the air again back on Nov. 15, after a pause of a few weeks.

"We are filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of opposition-held Eastern Aleppo," Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Tuesday.

Former British Chancellor George Osborne (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

Colville said there had been credible reports that at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, were killed by pro-Syrian government militias Monday.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault described families being killed in their homes and what he called atrocities that "have outraged the conscience."

And here in the U.K., MPs convened an emergency debate on the situation.

The pictures of a half-empty House of Commons will have been little comfort to those trapped in Aleppo.

As the former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, said in the debate, none of what's happened in Syria can come as a surprise.

"The whole concept of an emergency debate suggests that this tragedy has come upon us out of the blue," he said. "Yet we are deceiving ourselves if we believe we have no responsibility for what has happened in Syria."

A man carries a young girl who was injured in a reported barrel-bomb attack in the northern city of Aleppo: atrocities that 'have outraged the conscience.' (Baraa al-Halaby/AFP/Getty Images)

None of what's been happening in Aleppo over the past four weeks has been a secret.

Before pro-regime warplanes started dropping barrel bombs on the east again, the Syrian government sent text messages to civilians and rebels still in rebel-controlled territory telling them to leave or suffer the consequences.

No one now is talking about the exit of Assad. No one now is talking about political transition.- Fawaz Gerges, London School of Economics

And by all accounts, they have been true to their word, the attacks on Aleppo so relentless that there is no gap in time even to bury the dead.

And yet only now have voices been raised in an "avalanche of concern," as one British broadcaster put it, when it is no doubt too late for some.

It highlights the failure and disarray of international diplomacy when it comes not just to Aleppo, but to Syria as a whole. The northern city once described as the jewel of the country was given up on long ago.

Regardless of whether civilians and rebels get out of Aleppo, Western powers will have to deal with the consequences of Bashar al-Assad's victory there.

Syrian residents fleeing the violence in the eastern rebel-held parts of Aleppo flee their neighbourhood through the Bab al-Hadid district after it was seized by the government forces Dec. 7. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)

It means, first and foremost, that he's not going anywhere any time soon.

"What happens in Aleppo determines the political future of Assad personally," said Fawaz Gerges, a lecturer in Middle East Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Palmyra again

"No one now is talking about the exit of Assad. No one now is talking about political transition …. It means Assad is there until he finishes or completes his second term in office."

That is not to say that the end of the rebels in Aleppo signals an end to the civil war in Syria. Far from it, if the recent advance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) around the ancient city of Palmyra again is anything to go by.

But it may well change its nature, potentially turning it toward a longer-term, lower-level insurgency.

The silence of those countries supporting various opposition groups in their fight against the Assad regime — from jihadists, to those described as moderate — speaks volumes.

Turkey is now more focused on making sure Kurdish fighters don't set up an autonomous state inside Syria. Saudi Arabia is turned toward its conflict with Yemen. And the United States is in its own presidential transition.

Gerges says it creates an existential crisis both for the militants fighting Assad and for the fractured political opposition abroad.

"Now, more and more people are saying [Assad] has won. The Russians are saying 'he has won, now let's make a deal.' And the reality is that's why the choices facing the rebels after Aleppo are existential. Because they cannot go on after this.

"They have no regional support, they have no major global support, they have lost militarily. I mean, they are basically outnumbered, outgunned. They are outmaneuvered."

So, too, are those powers arrayed against Assad and his Russian backers.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.