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analysis

A child cooks in the street in a rebel-held area of Aleppo.AFP / Getty Images

The Syrian army captured Aleppo from rebel fighters on Tuesday, a culmination of years of fighting and a devastating siege in what was one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war. But before crippled opposition forces agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire, there were reports of widespread massacres by Syrian troops taking full control of what was once the country's largest city.

Pro-government forces reportedly entered homes and killed dozens of civilians, including women and children. There has been "a complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo," said Jens Laerke, the UN humanitarian spokesman.

The end of the battle for Aleppo marks a dramatic turning point in the country's long civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and left countless more homeless.

Read more: Although fighting has officially ended, Aleppo residents still face uncertain future

Read more: Ottawa calls on Syria and Russia to end 'horrific crisis' in Aleppo

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Even though the war is far from over, the conquest of Aleppo will be seen as a victory for President Bashar al-Assad along with his military backers: Iran and Russia.

For the West, there will be questions about how collective inaction led to a vacuum that was filled by Russia.

In the past weeks, Canada has been trying to help mobilize the UN General Assembly to hold a formal plenary session and "signal the need to take action" on Syria.

On Tuesday, Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan called on Syria and Russia to end the "horrific crisis" taking place in Aleppo where thousands remain without food, water or medical assistance.

"At the end, whether it's Russia or Assad, [they] really need to take a strong look at themselves and the atrocities that are being committed and the humanitarian crisis that's been created. At the end of the day, the human suffering is unimaginable," he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion echoed his cabinet colleague's frustration, urging Mr. al-Assad's regime to show "a minimum of humanity" as the casualties mount. "We are condemning a situation where civilians are the victims of atrocities. We are asking the Assad regime … to allow humanitarian support for the civilians," he told reporters Tuesday.

"We remind all sides that even war has rules," said Teresa Sancristoval, head of the Médecins sans frontières emergency unit for Aleppo. "It is paramount that all parties allow people to flee to safety, allow the evacuation of sick and wounded, and facilitate the provision of protection and humanitarian assistance to those that are caught on the front lines."

In the face of the Western-backed opposition's defeat in Aleppo, there will be fears that it can't regroup and reach its goal of toppling Mr. al-Assad.

"It's a hard blow for the opposition, no doubt about it," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and author of ISIS: A History. "The moderate mainstream has lost the last urban centre it controlled. … The Syrian opposition finds itself alone in the eye of the storm, it's outnumbered, it's outgunned and it's outmanoeuvred."

Just more than a year ago, the Syrian army appeared on the ropes and opposition forces seemed on the cusp of overthrowing the Assad regime. But that changed as the Russian military provided more support to the Syrian army and Western backers of the opposition faded away.

Turkey, once a key supporter, is working with the Russians on securing the Turkish-Syrian border. Another backer, Saudi Arabia, is caught up in the battle over Yemen while the United States has also stepped away almost completely and isn't likely to offer much support under president Donald Trump.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson lamented the impotency of the West during a speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday, noting that Parliament voted in 2013 not to support air strikes on Syria even after proof emerged that Mr. al-Assad's regime had used chemical weapons. "We as a country vacated that space into which Russia stepped," he said.

With Aleppo gone, moderate forces will have to rethink their strategy. But the situation for Mr. al-Assad is tricky as well. The Syrian army has been seriously stretched and Mr. al-Assad continues to rely heavily on Russian air strikes as well as fighters from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. al-Assad will also have a difficult time keeping control of the territory his army has taken given the weak state of his military and the country's lack of resources.

"Aleppo is not going to go back to normalcy the way the regime depicts it – the regime-dominated Aleppo of 2017 will most likely be characterized by retributions and looting, little reconciliation and a largely persisting insecurity and chaos," said Raphael Lefevre, a Syria researcher at Oxford University and a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

"The battle for Aleppo is unquestionably a significant short-term victory for the regime, and provides it with a massive morale boost, but I'm skeptical that it can translate this in a lasting territorial gain. Where will it find the $200-billion needed to rebuild Syria?" he asked.

Mr. Lefèvre added that policing and controlling Aleppo will be particularly hard given that most of the population is Sunni and the Syrian forces taking over the city are largely Shia and include many foreigners.

Nonetheless, the Aleppo victory will be a boost for Mr. al-Assad and make him less likely to find a political solution to the war. Talk of him being pushed out is now rarely heard and, as long as the Russian military continues to give the Syrian army support, there is little incentive for Mr. al-Assad to negotiate. And that means the fighting will continue.

Mr. al-Assad indicated as much in recent interviews with Syrian media. While victory in Aleppo will transform the war, he said, "Let's be realistic. It won't mean the end of the war in Syria."

With a report from Steven Chase in Ottawa