The bloody fall of Aleppo, Syrian opposition forces’ last major urban stronghold, is now certain. Without outside assistance, the rebel groups found it impossible to withstand a ruthless air and ground onslaught by the Iranian-led military forces that are propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Tens of thousands of rebels and civilians are currently trapped in the city hoping for a tenuous ceasefire will permit their evacuation with their survival shrouded in uncertainty. Soon, through brutal military force or negotiated evacuation, the Iranian-run forces will control all of Aleppo – a significant blow to the opposition forces and the popular Syrian revolution that started more than five years ago.
Celebration in Tehran
While the world community is deploring massive bloodshed and human suffering in Aleppo, Iranian leaders are celebrating the “liberation” of Syria’s second largest city as a “strategic victory” over America and regional Sunni governments. They also see the seizure of Aleppo as a “turning point” that could bolster Iran’s docile ally in Damascus and expand the Islamic Republic’s ideological and physical sphere of influence across the broader Middle East.
“The alliance between Iran, Russia, Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah brought about Aleppo’s liberation,” bragged Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a senior military aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). “In our region, Americans have realized that… Iran’s geopolitical weight is mightiest and most influential in the region,” he added. IRGC’s deputy commander, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, echoed a similar remark: “What happened today was an obvious defeat of policies of America, a number of European countries and some of their regional allies. It was a clear victory for the resistance front.”
Iranian leaders’ claim that without the intervention of Iran and Russia, Damascus would have collapsed is perfectly true. Even Russia’s military intervention in Syria reportedly came about after a request by Iran. Once on the verge of collapse, Assad now controls all key urban population centers.
Since the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, the IRGC has deployed its senior commanders and mobilized tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen to help the Baathist dictatorship in Damascus. Upon IRGC’s request, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran-run Iraqi Shiite militias have played an instrumental role in defending the Assad regime.
The IRGC has recruited thousands of “volunteer” Afghan and Pakistani Shiites to fight in Syria. Last month, a senior Iranian official admitted that more than 1,000 combatants dispatched by Iran to fight in Syria had been killed. And with the Syrian army overstretched, Iran and Hezbollah are currently helping Damascus to form a new elite force, the Al-Filq Al-Khamis-Eqteham (Fifth Assault Corps), to recruit and mobilize more militia fighters.
Interviews with leaders of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in IRGC-affiliated outlets show that Tehran is also encouraging more PMF units to join the Syrian war after the Islamic State is ousted from the Iraqi city of Mosul.
But while the fall of Aleppo is a cruel victory for Iran and its allies at least in the immediate term, it will not end the Syrian war. Violence and bloodshed, which has already claimed more than 400,000 lives, will continue, and probably escalate even further.
Emboldened by its latest victory, Iranian-led forces in Syria will likely seek more aggressively to replicate the success in Aleppo to capture other regions currently held by rebel groups – causing more mayhem and human suffering.
And as in Iraq, Iran-run Shiite militias are already engaging in targeted killing of Sunni rebels and civilians still trapped in Aleppo, which will exacerbate sectarianism and draw more Sunni youths to the ranks of extremist and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Al-Nusra Front).
On December 14, Iran-backed militias violated a Turkish-Russian evacuation deal and denied rebels and civilians a safe passage from Aleppo. According to the United Nations officials, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nuaba, an IRGC-affiliated Iraqi militia group, was involved this week in the massacre of at least 82 civilians in eastern Aleppo, including several women and children.
Finally, with the balance of power tilting toward Iranian-led forces, opposition forces and the international community may also now find it more difficult to force Damascus and Tehran to negotiate a political settlement to the Syrian tragedy.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.