Assad regime announced on Thursday that Aleppo has been fully captured by its forces after the last rebel fighters were evacuated from the city. The Gulf countries which haven’t given enough support for the opposition are one of the directly blamed parts.
Gulf Arab states that have funded and armed the rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad and its regime, through a coordination center in Turkey.
In addition, they offered diplomatic support to opposition groups that consider themselves an alternative government in waiting, and encouraged them to refuse any final settlement that fails to remove Assad from power.
However, this support has been greatly reduced in 2016 while Assad regime gained significant help after being nearly defeated in 2015. This change of balance changed the tide of the crisis in Assad regime’s favor.
The Assad regime forces, backed by Russian air power, Iranian ground forces and Shi’ite militia fighters from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been tightening its grip on rebel-held districts of Aleppo since the start of this year.
They have gradually closed in on eastern Aleppo this year, first cutting the most direct lifeline to Turkey before fully encircling the east, encircling 275.000 civilians and launching a major assault in September that killed hundreds of civilians but was blocked by the rebels.
The long months of crippling siege, starvation policy, daily bombardment, fierce clashes and bloody massacres ended when the Assad regime and its allies were able to oblige the rebels in Aleppo to surrender and make an agreement to leave the area they have been holding since 2012 after losing more than 90% of it.
The ceasefire agreement was a result of talks between Russia and Turkey.
As part of an agreement between Turkey and Russia, tens of thousands of rebels and civilians were supposed to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo to rebel-held Idlib, allowing the Assad regime to take full control of the city after years of fighting.
The rebels have also lost important territory in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in recent months in similar agreements, forcing rebel forces and original residents to leave their homelands after the support given to them was greatly cut.
By achieving these victories, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia’s air force and an array of Shi’ite militias backed by Iran after his rule was close to ending after major losses in 2015, while the parts that have once stood with the revolution and rebels showed no signs of real moves to counter this coalition.
Iran influence increases
After years of rivalry between Iran and gulf states headed by Saudi Arabia, Iran was finally able to achieve their goals in the region, especially Syria, using the gulf weakness and confusion in its favor.
In Syria, Iran supported Assad regime by money and fighters to defend his role, in return to freeing Iran’s hand in Syria to achieve its long-awaited dream. Iran started a demographic change in the Sunni-populated areas in Syria and sought to change the face of the Syrian cities by forcing the Shiite festivals in the heart of Damascus, adding Syria to the list of its controlled areas and making it gradually the 32nd Iranian province.
Iran and the Assad regime don’t want to compromise on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, believing that total domination will give them a better hand to shape the aftermath. Russia, on the other hand, sees a benefit in transitioning from bludgeoning superpower to peace-broker.
Shia militias have also played a decisive role. Raised by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the militias have been far more effective than Syrian units. Their numbers had built around east Aleppo since early last year to an estimated force of 6,000-8,000 troops, many of them battle-hardened in Iraq or southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah was the first of the Iranian proxies to join the fight alongside Assad, followed by Iraqi Shiite militias. finally, Afghan militias sent by Iran bacame present in Syria.
Iran has framed its war effort in sectarian terms, insisting the men it has sent to fight are in Syria to defend the shrine from “Sunni extremists”. In addresses inside Syria, Akram al-Ka’abi, the leader of the Nujaba Front, has exhorted his followers to seek revenge for battlefield losses to Sunni figures in the founding years of Islam.
On the other hand, the Sunni majority in Syria were affected by its gulf allies weakness, and left vulnerable to Iran’s plans and dreams for the area.
Gulf also lost its strength in Yemen and Lebanon to Iran’s growing influence.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s Houthi foes seem bent on denying Saudis a dignified exit, launching repeated cross-border raids and last week declaring their own new government, rather than agreeing to form one including the exiled president as Saudi wants.
The Saudis have bowed to Iran’s preference for Lebanon’s president too. With his construction firm in Saudi Arabia in trouble because of government cuts, Saad Hariri, who heads Lebanon’s Sunni bloc, has accepted the post of prime minister under Hezbollah’s choice for president.
The Hariri-led alliance that struggled with Hezbollah for more than a decade, only to see the heavily armed Shi’ite group go from strength to strength in Lebanon and the wider region.
The Gulf’s response
While the rebels no longer appear to have any path to victory, analysts in the region say the wealthy Gulf monarchies are not ready to give up on them. They could continue to fund and arm a guerrilla insurgency based in rural areas, even if the rebels no longer administer major cities and towns after the past failure of Gulf states has cost the rebel forced too much of their power.
“There wasn’t a unified international position. Each country had its own interests and they supported different groups. The lack of a unified vision weakened the Gulf role and left the rebels alone,” an analyst said.
“I believe the Gulf states will continue to support the opposition. They will not stop now,” said writer and researcher Khaled al-Dakheel.
The gulf may find in supporting the rebels again a way to defy Iran’s power in the region.
According to Dakheel, the Gulf rulers are hoping for a boost from Washington with the looming change in U.S. presidential administration. They believe outgoing President Barack Obama was too reluctant to commit military force to confronting Assad and too soft on Iran more generally, and hope for a tougher line from Donald Trump.
Gulf states believe that a stronger line from Obama would have produced a different outcome, he said. Obama threatened to take military action against Assad’s government to punish it for using chemical weapons in 2013, but then canceled the strikes at the last minute after a Russian-brokered deal under which Assad agreed to give up his poison gas arsenal.
Gulf states “will look at the position of the new administration. That position is still vague and presented a confused picture. How can you take a hardline stance and do not mind Assad staying (in power)?” Dakheel said.
“The U.S. has its own weight…. America is an important factor,” another analyst said, speaking in a personal capacity. “Of course, if Obama had stood up to his promises, things would have been changed and worked out differently.”
A Gulf diplomat based in Qatar, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said the Arab states were setting their policy first and foremost in response to Tehran.
“Iran’s behavior is dictating Gulf actions and plans. If Iran is more cooperative that will ease worries and slow military escalation in the Gulf,” he said. “But if Iran continues to intervene then Arab countries will speed up military efforts to block Iran.”
In conclusion, the most important questions are how Gulf countries and especially Saudi Arabia will deal with its defeats. Will they renew their funding of the Syrian rebels? Will they use new pressure channels to affect the Iranian economy? Or they will keep losing its influence and power? Only the coming days will provide answers, and they will be crucial for the Gulf in particular and the region in general.