The citadel that dominates the Aleppo city skyline gives the place a sense of timelessness and permanence, yet Syria's biggest city is currently facing an existential challenge. If, or more likely when, the opposition-controlled areas are cut off from the outside world it will signal not just the biggest siege in the country to date but also a new chapter in the five-year conflict.

The Geneva process, which contained so much hope and promise, gathering the main players and backers into an ambitious series of deadlines for transition and constitutional reform, will surely not survive the siege or fall of Aleppo.

Inside Story - Will Syria's war be won or lost in Aleppo?

The cessation of hostilities, the main positive to emerge from the talks, saw a huge reduction in mortality rates and 3.7 million Syrians receive food aid in March alone.

Increasingly, however, it could be seen not as a genuine space for peace to emerge but rather a period for redeployment before this latest offensive was launched.

Heart of Syrian commerce

Once Aleppo was the bustling heart of Syrian commerce. In 2013 some two million people lived in and around the city.

Today that number is down to 400,000. In opposition-controlled areas the medical infrastructure has been so badly hit that according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), 95 percent of medics have fled and there are only between 70 and 80 doctors left.


READ MORE: Aleppo can be a turning point in Syria's civil war


Wounded Syrians are reportedly being treated by vets without painkillers as hundred of air strikes and artillery shells pour down.

Wounded Syrians are reportedly being treated by vets without painkillers as hundred of air strikes and artillery shells pour down.

 

According to the Syrian civil defence team the White Helmets, a strike on a water-pumping station has taken out the clean water supply.

The assault on Aleppo has exposed the shallow foundations of the Geneva peace process. While it may have appeared to have finally secured the right people's engagement with a process, it was ultimately divorced from the higher priorities that were being played out on the ground.

The Russian rhetoric and Janus two-faced approach to the conflict has been starkly exposed.

On one hand the Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennady Gatilov, declared that "we are not going to put pressure on [Assad] because one must understand that the situation in Aleppo is part of this fight against the terrorist threat".

'Regime of silence'

Then, on the other hand, Lieutenant-General Sergei Kurylenko was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies that "currently active negotiations are under way to establish a 'regime of silence' [ceasefire] in Aleppo province".

Either the Russians are complicit in the attacks or they have created a monster in the regime that can't be controlled. In each scenario Aleppo will continue to burn.

Smoke rises after air strikes on the rebel-held al-Sakhour neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria [Reuters]

Meanwhile the regime in Damascus has been much more consistent when outlining its intentions. It announced at the start of the month that it was inflicting "heavy losses" on terrorists across the country, while in April Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmed Badr al-Din al-Hassoun urged the complete destruction of insurgent-held areas in Aleppo from which shells were being fired.

If Geneva is the only game in town, what will be played once Aleppo reveals its failure?

The collapse of collective international efforts is likely to mean the start of a new chapter of the conflict characterised by increased support for the non-ISIL linked Syrian opposition.

Already there is talk of more and better quality weapons being delivered into the country, and Foreign Policy magazine reported that continued efforts are being made in the US to develop surface-to air-missiles that can be contained and controlled in the region.


READ MORE: Aleppo is symbolic of the coming apart of Syria 


Yet the loss of Aleppo is not solely symbolic. Its strategic importance will make opposition activity in the north a much more difficult prospect.

Yet the fall is unlikely to be a dramatic moment that will occur any time soon. As we've seen in places such as Yarmouk and Darayya, urban areas with opposition fighters present are "softened up" through starvation and the tactics of siege attrition. So the humanitarian picture, already mind-boggling in its sheer size and tragedy, will worsen further.

The international community will need to again assess its humanitarian norms and practices to face this new chapter of catastrophe. Serious discussions will need to be rebooted and re-energised about how to deliver aid to besieged civilians.

In areas where the regime is not in control, more thought to supporting civil first responders with early-warning systems and assistance in constructing underground shelters and hospitals can again mitigate the damage of war while a peaceful solution remains off the table.

Aleppo's reckoning has already begun and the darkness that has enveloped Syria continues to offer no sign of hope for its future.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera