To the backdrop of Donald Trump’s election as US president, the opening of a new Russian-backed military assault on rebel-held Eastern Aleppo this week – following a three-week pause – heralds a potentially critical moment in the course of the devastating five-year conflict.
With Syrian opposition forces, their regional backers and much of the European policy-making community having placed their hopes on a Hillary Clinton victory and a rapid assertion of US military force behind the rebels, there are now few, if any, viable options to prevent the brutal assault. While it remains to be seen whether President-elect Trump will cut a deal with Putin that involves working with Assad, he has made clear that he won’t militarily back the opposition.
The Assad regime is now inching every closer to the seizure of most of Aleppo, even if complete control remains distant given the well-entrenched urban position of rebel fighters. In doing so, the regime is cementing its wider strategic dominance of the conflict. While the country faces a long-term insurgency and a potentially ever more radicalised (albeit increasingly squeezed) opposition, Assad may now be within touching distance of effective victory, an outcome long dismissed as impossible.
For European states – France and the UK in particular – that have held onto the pursuit of a near-term transition longer than most, these developments represent a critical point of reckoning. A reassessment of what remains possible is badly needed; as is a much more strongly unified position, something that has long eluded European capitals and been a key factor in their ongoing irrelevance to international diplomatic efforts.
In this light the European focus must now shift, by necessity if not desire, towards better managing the reality of Assad’s survival. As part of this it should seek to use the limited but not insignificant leverage it still possesses, – such as the weight of sectoral sanctions on Syria’s economy and Europe’s possible contribution to post-conflict reconstruction efforts, in an effort to shape some viable way forward. The alternative will be an ongoing military fight in favour of the regime, at the end of which there will be absolutely no terms to even consider negotiating.
The immediate aim must be a deal over Aleppo that averts a humanitarian catastrophe already well advanced. This may need to involve more active engagement in negotiations aimed at evacuating a core group of rebel fighters. Beyond that the focus should be on extracting sufficient political concessions, albeit accepting that they will largely be on regime terms, to make possible the hope that de-escalation could lead towards longer-term stabilisation.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special envoy for Syria, whose mandate is based on the pursuit of a transition, has himself now called for “a completely new approach” with a focus on “political devolution”. This may represent one of the few options that could still hold water given that the regime (and its backers) clearly lack the longer-term resources and capabilities to actually run the country in a post-conflict scenario. Given current realities Assad is likely to be willing to give less than ever, but by taking his position off the table of negotiations there would be a far better prospect of getting his key external backers on board. A process of devolution would aim to offer some – though clearly not all – opposition forces enough local autonomy to secure their buy-in for some form of de-escalation even with Assad remaining in power. Here, Europe’s ongoing economic leverage could potentially play a meaningful role in securing continued regime commitment to any agreement.
Some in Europe will now point to the alternative possibility of Turkish and Saudi initiatives to strengthen the opposition, including through an increased supply of Man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADs). But this misses the relatively insignificant impact that an increased flow of (already-present) MANPADs would have on the conflict dynamics, and mistakes the level of ongoing commitment by these regional players to the anti-Assad fight.
Turkey, for its part, is now more invested in securing control of a strip of territory in northern Syria as part of an anti-Kurdish and anti-ISIS drive that has already seen it divert significant rebel resources away from the Aleppo front. To the backdrop of the recent failed coup attempt, an increasingly stretched Ankara has shown little appetite for a wider push against Assad, nor a new confrontation with Russia given the recent patching up of a relationship that is so economically important.
Riyadh, meanwhile, remains consumed by the Yemen conflict, a struggle of far greater strategic importance to the Kingdom, as well as internal challenges including a much-needed economic reform programme. Over recent months the Kingdom has slowly but surely disengaged from the Syria conflict, and while it could reassert itself, it is hard to imagine a meaningful commitment of strength given the competing pressures it faces.
In this context, European states are going to have to reassess their own positions, as painful as that will be given the indisputable reality that Assad is the core source of the tragedy that has overwhelmed Syria. But with meaningful European military intervention a complete non-starter, possible divisions with the new US government, extremely poor relations with Moscow and regional allies that are materially and rhetorically softening their positions towards Assad, European capitals do not have much room to manoeuvre.
In many ways the writing has been on the wall for some time, but only now – with the end of any dream of a Clinton-led military intervention – can it be truly internalised. Given the direct European interests at stake – from terrorism to migration challenges – and a clear sense that President-elect Trump is not going to be concerned with European priorities, reality can no longer be ignored.
Ironically, having long derided – and on some occasions actively sought to undermine – President Obama’s efforts to resolve the Syria crisis, European states may now find themselves embracing a similar track: one of trying to cut an ugly deal that sidelines the transition question, as the best way to try to end the violence and salvage something for the Syrian people.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.