Yes, after years of effort, Assad has taken Aleppo. But now Assad has to defend what he took. The fall of Palmyra to ISIL while Assad's focus was on Aleppo shows the risk that Assad will face as he looks to continue his offensives against the rebellion.
If Turkey is truly moving to backing Assad, the rebels in Idlib province on Turkey's border will be in rough shape to resist the Assad regime and their Russian and Iranian allies:
Turkish and Russian diplomats on Tuesday declared their intention to halt the civil war in Syria, showing no signs of a rift in their warming relationship the day after the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara in a brazen shooting.
A tripartite conference here, held together with Iran, was hailed by Russian’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, as a way to “overcome the stagnation in efforts on the Syrian settlement.” The comment was a dig at the United States, which was absent from the Moscow meetings despite its own involvement in the Syrian conflict.
But the show of solidarity could not mask underlying frictions between Russia and Turkey over the war in Syria, which the assassination of the ambassador, Andrei Karlov, had brought to the fore.
I don't know what Turkey is doing. Are they truly content to have a pro-Russian and pro-Iranian regime in power in Syria after opposing Assad for so long?
Is Turkey, with a long history of conflict with both Russia and Iran, really content to have Russia and Iran set up shop in Syria on their southern flank?
Or is this dance with Russia (and Iran since Iran is tied to Russia on Syria) tactical to appease Russia in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey, an event that otherwise could have greatly angered Russia?
Given that opposition to Assad and his war on Sunni Syrians is widespread in Turkey, how long can Erdogan back Assad's Alawites? The ongoing purge may have crippled secular resistance to Erdogan, but that means that he can hardly afford to lose the religious Sunni Turks who had responded to Erdogan's call to resist Assad. Not for long, anyway.
It seems to me that we can overcome the apparent defection of Turkey, that once wanted Assad out of power, to the Russians and Iranians on the issue of Assad.
There are opportunities, I think, to undermine Assad given that for all practical purposes, we are already at a post-Assad Syria where regional strongmen already run their own fiefdoms, with Assad reigning more than ruling these power centers:
Basically, the Syrian army's army divisions had--prior to the war--evolved into virtual feudal realms that exercised political and economic power in regions they were responsible for. As the infantry died in the civil war and was replaced by militias as the infantry component, the divisions became the technical backbone (firepower, armor, combat support, and air power) of military efforts that suffered fewer casualties. The lines of economic, military, and social power that extended throughout the region that existed parallel to the chain of command up to Damascus allowed the Assad regime to essentially subcontract control to regional power centers that are more allied to Assad than they are subordinate to Assad.
Interestingly, Russia provides support through the formal military channels while the Iranians directly support the militias.
As virtual fiefdoms, these regionally based sub-state powers rely on local resources extracted from the population that lives there rather than relying on Damascus for support. Assad is transitioning from an autocrat who rules to a figurehead who reigns over the locals he cannot control with the relative power.
Since the Assad regime is basically a backbone of support to the regional fiefdoms, could we lead an effort to get one or more of these fiefdoms to defect from Assad in exchange for our support? Syrian forces in the south by Jordan would in theory be the easiest to flip because that fiefdom could be supported from the American-Jordanian effort to support Southern Front rebels. Perhaps anybody far from Assad can be flipped.
Getting Arab Syrians in the east to turn against Assad is crucial to keeping Assad from filling the vacuum that the defeat of ISIL in Syria will lead to. The Kurds cannot fill that vacuum because they will not become the shock troops to defeat Assad when they need to conserve their strength to defend their new autonomy against the Turks and Assad. And I don't think the Arab forces we are training as part of the Kurdish-dominated effort against ISIL's capital Raqqa will be enough.
If we are serious about Assad needing to step down, as President Obama said seemingly another era ago, we need to flip some of those fiefdoms who may not want to give up power or make the effort to reconquer Syria for Assad. Without these defections, I don't see how we can mobilize enough ground power in the aftermath of our defeat of ISIL--which is an enemy of Assad, too--and the Assad/Russian/Iranian (and Hezbollah) efforts that have weakened non-ISIL resistance.
Russia and Iran want the victory at Aleppo to be the exclamation point on a defeat of America to demonstrate our inability to oppose their pursuit of their objectives. But that victory doesn't need to be the final word on our reputation that President Obama has built that makes allies question our resolve to defend them and our enemies' conviction that we are unwilling to oppose them.
And to further weaken Assad, we should have information operations in Shia regions where Iran recruits their Shia shock troops (like Lebanon with Hezbollah or Iraq and Afghanistan for the Shia foreign legion). Rather than oppose recruitment, we should celebrate the opportunity these Shias have to die a glorious death in Iran's service, doing Allah's work to keep Persian Iranians from having to die.
UPDATE: Much more on Syria and things related from Strategypage, including this casualty estimate:
The most recent casualty estimates are that 310,000 have died during the civil war that began in 2011. About 30 percent of those were civilians. Most (nearly 60 percent) of the dying took place in a few areas. About 20 percent of the deaths were in and around Aleppo, another 18 percent around Damascus, ten percent in the northwest (Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces) and eight percent down south (Daraa and along the Israeli border). ISIL js believed to have executed over 4,500 people since mid-2014 and killed many more in combat. Russia believes that at least 2,000 of ISIL dead are Moslems from Russia and other nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Palestinian groups believe 3,400 Palestinians have been killed in Syria and over 400,000 are still stuck in the country.
Past estimates have been that regime (and allied) and rebel (all types) equally split the remaining casualties. Which means that the pro-Assad forces have suffered 110,000 dead, most Syrians from a rather small population base.
Oh, and perhaps to rub Turkey's nose in Turkey's new subservience to Russian and Iranian goals to save Assad, Russia and Iran announced that they would share a naval base at Tartus, Syria, once the war is won. It's been a long time since Turkey issued an ultimatum to Assad to stop killing his people.