If the Russians and Iranians "liberate" Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad gets Syria back, and the alternative is Turkey stepping in along with the Saudis and Gulf States and essentially precipitating a shooting war between NATO and Russia.
Which outcome is worse?
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
The city, formerly Syria’s largest and its commercial and industrial hub, hasproven pivotal to the civil war in the past. As Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explained to me, the rebels’ push to take Aleppo in 2012—following a year in which the city had seen relatively little of the protests and violence that had been escalating elsewhere in the country—“was one of the first real major offensives of the armed opposition in Syria.” The hope was to set up an alternative capital there to rival Damascus, and from that base to gradually expand opposition control. The city has been roughly divided between the regime and the rebels ever since, with Assad’s forces mainly in the west and opposition forces mainly in the east, and “with some parts of the city changing hands on a daily basis,” according to the BBC.
Critically, the rebels have controlled major roads to Turkey, which has allowed them to transport supplies into their half of the city and to their other strongholds in northern Syria. Government forces in western Aleppo, meanwhile, have been cut off from those ground routes and forced to rely on airplanes and helicopters to get supplies. As Aleppo became the site of a bloody urban war of attrition—in late 2013, Assad’s forces barrel-bombed the city for a month straight, and they have repeatedly tried to encircle it—the rebels have held on.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began last fall, may change that. Unlike the U.S. coalition’s air strikes in the country, which have targeted ISIS-controlled areas in eastern Syria, Russia’s are targeting rebel groups, some of them backed by the United States, in the country’s west, including near Aleppo. “[T]he bombing over the last four months has significantly softened up the opposition, and decimated them in many areas,” Tabler said. Against that backdrop, and barring an unlikely breakthrough at international peace talks scheduled to resume this week (after they were called off following the Syrian army’s advance on Aleppo), the regime offensive to recapture the city may ultimately succeed, even if it takes starving its inhabitants into submission.
The frank analysis of author Kathy Gilsinan and Andrew Tabler is stark:
Gilsinan: And then what happens to the regional balance of power within that war?
Tabler: It would be a tremendous loss for the U.S. and its traditional allies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. It’s already been extremely costly for most of those allies, but it would be a defeat [in the face of] the Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria. This would also be a huge loss for the United States vis-à-vis Russia in its Middle East policy, certainly. And because of the flow of refugees as a result of this, if they go northward to Europe, then you would see a migrant crisis in Europe that could lead to far-right governments coming to power which are much more friendly to Russia than they are to the United States. I think that is likely to happen.
Gilsinan: So it changes the entire orientation, not just of the Middle East, but of Europe as well.
Tabler: It will soften up American power in Europe, yeah. And put into jeopardy a lot of the advances in the NATO-accession countries, which are adjacent to Russia, as well.
Gilsinan: That’s a staggeringly significant outcome for relatively cheap [expenditures] on Russia’s part.
Tabler: It is, isn’t it? I don’t think most people get how much of a blowout this really is. I don’t think most people understand: This defeat of the United States by Russia in Syria, it’s not just about Syria. It’s about our presence in Europe.
And if Aleppo falls, that's basically the ball game for NATO. Putin got the better of us here, and he knows it. If we had intervened 3 years ago, maybe things would have been different, but Republicans (and Democrats) said no.
This is the result.