As President Bashar Assad’s army pushes into the last few neighborhoods controlled by rebels in Aleppo, the Syrian leader can claim a stronger position than at any point since the early days of a war that broke out in 2011.
This doesn’t mean Syria’s bloodletting is over, but it is entering a new phase.
Assad himself acknowledged this in an interview Wednesday with Russian television:
“Liberating Aleppo doesn’t end with liberating the city itself, for it needs to be secured on the outside. Afterwards, identifying which city comes next depends on which city contains the largest number of terrorists.”
The heaviest fighting in Syria’s war has been in and around the cities that run north-south along Syria’s western spine. Assad’s army and allied forces now hold all the key cities — Aleppo in the north, Hama and Homs in the middle, and Damascus in the south.
In a war with many players, what now looms is a more focused confrontation that features Assad’s forces in heavily populated western part of the country, and the Islamic State in the sparsely populated deserts of the east.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will be confronted with this new reality when he takes office on Jan. 20, and he’s given conflicting signals, but no clear plan of what he’ll do.
So what’s next in the Syrian war?
The short answer is no one knows for sure, but here are the key things to watch.
1. Where will the next big battle be?
The Syrian president said in October his military would use Aleppo as a base to go after remaining rebel forces in the countryside, including Idlib Province, to the southwest of the city, and the areas near the Turkish border, to the north of Aleppo.
Aleppo is “going to be the springboard, as a big city, to move to another areas, to liberate other areas from the terrorists,” said Assad. “You have to keep cleaning this area and to push the terrorists to Turkey, to go back to where they come from, or to kill them — there’s no other option.”
In addition to its advances in Aleppo, the Syrian army has steadily uprooted rebels from the suburbs of Damascus and other cities.
Throughout the war, the Syrian military has methodically besieged rebel areas, making them uninhabitable for civilians and rebels, forcing the opposition to surrender or leave. This approach seems certain to continue.
As he plots his next move, Assad said Wednesday he would hold “discussions with the Russian leadership which takes part in these battles with us, and also with the Iranian leadership.”
2. Do the rebels have a future?
The loss of Aleppo was a major setback and the rebels appear smaller, weaker and more fractured than at any time in recent years.
The opposition groups have focused their fight on the cities, and were able to claim parts of many urban centers at various points. Even if they could not take over completely, they had a high-profile presence and could keep pressure on Assad’s government.
But now that they’ve been driven out of the cities, they’ve lost leverage, not only on the battlefield, but also in any potential negotiations.
“You’d have to take Aleppo, not lose it. And you have to take, perhaps, Damascus, too. And they’re nowhere close to that. They’re just getting further away from it,” said Syrian analyst Aron Lund.
Out of necessity, the rebels will have to take a different approach to the fighting.
“They have tried for the last five years to hold territory — cities and suburbs— which is becoming impossible when the Assad government and its allies have superior airpower and superior firepower,” Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, recently told Syria Direct. “The armed opposition is going to have to think about adopting new tactics, more along an insurgency. Otherwise, the regime will gain ground, slowly but surely.”
3. What does this mean for the Islamic State?
The extremist group faces increased pressure on multiple fronts.
The U.S. is bombing its headquarters in Raqqa and other areas it controls in central and eastern Syria. The U.S. also declared recently that it’s coordinating an offensive to drive ISIS out of Raqqa, though it appears to be a very measured operation being conducted with Syrian opposition groups in the region.
Also, ISIS has been losing ground in Iraq, which means it could face increasing pressure on its eastern flank.
Assad and his Russian allies have devoted relatively little firepower toward ISIS. But now that the Syrian leader is feeling more secure in the most critical parts of the country, he may choose to direct more guns toward ISIS.
However, he may also be content to let the Americans and their partners take on group while conserving his own limited resources.
While Assad appears unlikely to make a major push against ISIS, he can’t ignore the group entirely. The Syrian military in March claimed a big victory over ISIS in Palmyra, a central city famed for its ancient ruins. Yet ISIS recaptured Palmyra this week.
4. What will Donald Trump do?
The incoming U.S. president could face his first major foreign policy test in Syria.
Under President Obama, the U.S. has been steadily bombing ISIS for more than two years. The general assessment is that the U.S. has weakened ISIS, and the group has lost some ground on the edges of its Syrian territory. When it comes to the recently announced offensive on Raqqa, all the evidence points to a protracted, difficult fight.
Trump says he will destroy ISIS quickly, and his top advisers, including National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the nominee for defense secretary, James Mattis, have both staked out hawkish positions against ISIS.
Yet Trump has offered no details and has sent contradictory signals, saying he doesn’t want the U.S. dragged into another open-ended Middle East conflict.
Assad seemed to be sounding out Trump on Wednesday, telling Russian television that “if Trump can genuinely fight against terrorism, he can be our natural ally.”
Alison Meuse contributed to this story from Beirut.
Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1.