Opposition groups brace for onslaught as US and Russia agree to cooperate, and Ankara sends peace feelers to Moscow and Damascus

Just over a month into Syrias uprising in 2011, the leader of Lebanons Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt, travelled to Damascus to visit Syrias then security tsar, Mohammed Nasif. As well as being the Assad familys most trusted senior official, he was also the linchpin of Syrias close ties with Iran and Hezbollah, a human bind more than most to the fate of the regime.

He said to me at the time, its either us, meaning the Alawites, or them, entailing the Sunnis, Jumblatt recalled. I knew which way this was going then. He added, even if it expense us a million dead.

More than 5 years later, the toll in the now raging war is well past a quarter of that calculate international monitors stopped counting last August. The sectarian dimension to the fighting foreshadowed by Nasif is a reality. So is the destruction of much of the country, including the ancient city of Aleppo, which after years of being viewed as the key to Syrias fate last week slipped from the comprehend of the opposition and into the hands of the Syrian regimes friends, led by Hezbollah.

The encirclement of Aleppo is a significant moment in a war that has led to more unrestrained savagery, international repercussions and unlikely confederations than most others in modern times. Another emerged last week, as Hezbollah and Syrian troops were beating back the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra from farmlands to the north of the city. As that combat raged, the US was drafting a deal with Russia that would create a joint operations centre to coordinate assaults on al-Nusra and Islamic State.

The move has created despair among the ranks of the Syrian opponent, which insists that a pact between Moscow and Washington will entrench the Syrian leader, whom Russia and Iran have saved from defeat over the past 12 months. Adding to the alarm of the now diminished rebel ranks is a detente, also signed during the week, between Moscow and Ankara, after a seven-month stalemate, as well as the Turkish “ministers ” remarks that Ankara was interested in peace with Damascus.

This all means that Assad is no longer at risk, said a senior official in the western-backed Syrian opposition. This means that “hes having” won.

A civil defence member looks for survivors amid rubble of damaged houses after an airstrike on rebel-held Old Aleppo. Photo: Abdalrhman Ismail/ Reuters

In the eyes of the exiled political opponent and rebel struggle groups still in Syria, the political realignments mark a decisive phase in a war that they believe they can no longer win. In recent years, as Bashar al-Assads friends have weakened the rebels posture, a faith suffered among opposition military leaders that if they could not win the war, Assad could not either. That position has changed.

Im sitting here in a ruined house in eastern Aleppo, said Abu Sobhi Jumail, a Syrian opponent fighter who has fought across northern Syria for the past five years. I have the Russians in the skies, the Syrian us air force too, when its planes can fly. I have Isis to my east, Hezbollah to my north and al-Qaida[ Jabhat al-Nusra] in between. They abandon us, and tell us to rely on God, and then condemned us when we are forced to seek help[ from al-Nusra ]. Without them we would all have been killed a year ago. That is not politics. That is life and death.

Since Russia launched its large-scale intervention last October, opposition divisions that had been backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US have been the prime targets of Moscows bombers. Isis has largely been spared, with notable exceptions such as in Palmyra.

Turkey, too, has largely left the jihadis alone, concentrating its fight on Syrias Kurds, whom it views as a subversive extension of Turkish Kurdish groups, which Ankara continues to fight.

Though remaining a supporter of the Syrian opponent, including Islamic parts such as Ahrar al-Sham, President Recep Tayyip Erdoan, has focused much of his energies on ensuring that Syrias Kurds do not seize control of more of the shared border and that their utilize by the US as proxies in the fight to confiscate land from Isis in eastern Syria does not amplify the Kurds ambitions.

We are doomed in Aleppo, said Suleiman Aboud, who fled with his family from the rebel east of the city in February. The next phase of this is likely to be retaliation. No one has paid a price for all these abuses. That is what hugging Assad does. This revolution was noble. It may not have been fully democratic, but people are allowed to fight oppression. We have the same rights to security and liberty as you.

Acknowledging the immense suffering across rebel-held parts of the country, Gareth Bayley, the UKs special envoy for Syria, said: The situation on the ground in Syria is dire. The UK is deeply concerned by the regime and its allies taking ground and harming civilians in Aleppo and rural Damascus. This is in direct violation of the cessation of hostilities and there is appalling suffering amongst the population.

There is no way out of eastern Aleppo and north to the Turkish border, with the last remaining render line severed. A siege that has all but taken hold over the past year is now likely to be enforced, say the few remaining residents of the eastern half of the city.

For a long time people have been out of ideas, said Abu Subhi. There is no enthusiasm to assist us. They want it all to go away. But you will all be judged for what has happened in Syria. I wont be alive to witness it, though.

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