Of particular strategic importance is the village of Murassat Khan and adjacent towns north of Aleppo: by taking control of the area, Damascus ended the main Turkey-Aleppo insurgent supply line. The tourniquet around Aleppo can be pulled off the city -- and at the same time, one of the main ISIS oil corridors to Turkey is cut. If things proceed as they have been, with the regime advancing further into rebel-held territory, the red swathe of Syrian government forces will shortly expand to encircle all opposition forces (predominantly Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS), who themselves have been encircling Aleppo in the east.
Edward Dark, a pseudonym for a respected commentator on Syrian affairs living in Aleppo, tweeted on Feb. 3, "This is the beginning of the end of jihadi presence in Aleppo. After 4 years of war & terror, people can finally see the end in sight."
But if we were to step back and take a look at more of Syria, as shown in the (slightly older) map below, a bigger picture emerges.
If government forces, moving north, can make friendly contact with the Kurds in the northeast, almost all Nusra and allied rebel forces would be nearly surrounded. The insurgents would be caught in a cauldron with their backs to a lightly populated and forested territory.
The grey, ISIS-controlled corridor, especially the Jarablus border crossing with Turkey, remains effectively open. Turkey has proclaimed this represents its "red line." Were this corridor to be closed by the Syrian Kurds, the Turks have indicated they could respond by invading Syria. The YPG say nonetheless, that they are contemplating just such a move.
In the last few days, the spokesman for the Russian defense ministry warned that Russia has seen clear evidence of Turkish preparations for a military invasion of Syria. It seems likely that this statement is intended by Russia as a warning to Turkey to do no such thing.
Nor, it seems, is Syria heading toward a low-intensity guerrilla war in the aftermath of any military victory on the ground. The scenes below, showing people's jubilation when the Syrian Army and Hezbollah forces entered villages that had been retaken from rebel forces this week, tell a different story:
Peoples who undergo the kind of trauma to which Syrians have been subjected either emerge as a psychologically defeated nation or they are strengthened by the crisis through which they have passed. I am quite sure from my visits to Syria through this crisis that its people will emerge stronger. Steel has entered into the Syrian soul.
American and many European elites will find this outcome hard to swallow. Western diplomats and military officers have become more used to quagmires that lead to no political outcomes, or to fudges that lead to stasis, rather than interventions that have a real conclusion. That this should have been achieved with direct help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah will be a bitter pill to swallow. It will have consequences too.
One is already apparent. The Obama administration announced this week it would ask Congress to quadruple its security assistance to Europe. Polarization seems to be on the cards. The 4+1 coalition (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah) is likely to become the core to a real security architecture for parts of the Middle East -- and probably Central Asia too. China will increasingly be drawn into this new architecture as well, since it fears that its "One Belt, One Road" project, on which its economic future largely is staked, is as vulnerable to Wahhabism as was Syria and Iraq. Chinese officials, I've been told, are aware that America could again use the Wahhabist tool to frustrate their new project.
The question is, will the bitterness at Syria, Russia and Iran's achievement poison America and Europe's attitude towards the new security architecture being forged in Syria? Will it be seen as anti-Western (which it is not), or will Europe manage to curb the Pavlovian NATO impulses sufficiently to establish some modus vivendi? The auguries are not promising.