THE BATTLE FOR ALEPPO: HOW IMPORTANT IS IT?
"The encirclement of Eastern Aleppo by the Syrian military and its allies is a major blow to the opposition. It reenforces regime aspirations that it can manage, if not entirely destroy the insurgency over the course of the next five years. It signifies four important developments that have been brewing for some time.... The reconquest of Aleppo fits into the larger regime strategy by consolidating its grip on what has been called “Useful Syria.” More than half of Syria’s population lives in its four great cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. The regime is intent on retaking these four cities for they are the heart of the nation, certainly the urban nation. It should be remembered that Syria is a country of deep divisions, not only between religious communities but also between the classes and between urban and rural society. The upper and middle classes live in the cities. By restricting the rebellion to the poorer countryside and tribal regions, Damascus will have scored a moral and strategic victory. It will be able to turn rich against poor and city against village. Syria’s rebels have grown progressively weaker over the last year. Russia’s entry into Syria was key to this shift. But other trends also contributed. Jihadist bombings in the West, Turkey and Saudi Arabia eroded support for arming rebels. The refugee problem in Europe, also undermined the desire to escalate in Syria. Iraq’s destruction of its Sunni rebellion weakened Syria’s rebels. The rise of ISIS and Nusra to paramountcy in Syria, undercut those arguing for arming rebels. For all of these reasons, the future looks dark for the rebel cause. Assad’s encirclement of Aleppo is an important chapter in Syria’s ongoing struggle."Joshua Landis, "What the Rebel Loss of Aleppo will mean for Syria?" Syria Comment. 29 July 2016 in www.syriacomment.com.
"Syria’s opposition has hailed rebel advances in the strategic city of Aleppo as a stunning success for ragtag forces, while the international community looked on as 300,000 Syrians suffered a weeks-long siege. But the offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s troops may have had more foreign help than it appears: activists and rebels say opposition forces were replenished with new weapons, cash and other supplies before and during the fighting. “At the border yesterday we counted tens of trucks bringing in weapons,” said one Syrian activist, who crosses between Syria and neighbouring Turkey. “It’s been happening daily, for weeks . . . weapons, artillery — we’re not just talking about some bullets or guns.” Two other rebels, who, like all those interviewed, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, described cash and supplies being ferried in for weeks. They and others believe the money and supplies came from regional backers, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and were sent in trucks across Turkey’s border with Syria. This was in spite of the fact that the rebel offensive — dubbed “the great Aleppo battle” — has been led and organised by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a jihadi group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Some rebels claim that US officials supporting moderate rebel forces intentionally turned a blind eye to Fatah al-Sham’s participation in the offensive to ensure the opposition maintains a foothold in Aleppo. “The Americans, of course, knew what was going on. They ignored it to put some pressure back on Russia and Iran,” said a western diplomat in contact with the opposition. Both Iran and Russia back the Assad regime, and Russian air power was critical to the government laying its weeks-long siege on rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Rebel fighters claim they broke the siege on their territory when they advanced into regime-held districts over the weekend and have vowed to retake the whole of Aleppo".Erika Solomon, "Outside help behind rebel advances in Aleppo". The Financial Times. 8 August 2016 in www.ft.com. The battle for Aleppo in some telling has all of the hallmarks of either the Stalingrad or Brunete of the Syrian Civil War. As Joshua Landis correctly points out, the fall of Aleppo will be a devastating set-back for the rebels, both of the so-called 'moderate' as well as the Muslim extremist variety. However, since Landis wrote his posting, the rebels have staged a comeback and have ousted the regime's forces from a portion of the city, and provided a land-bridge to the rebels outside of the city. Thus in essence breaking the regime's siege at least temporarily. The rebels success has lead to claims that Assad's opponents will be able to soon conquer the regime's held portions of Aleppo. I for one depreciate this given the fact that as the French analyst, Fabrice Balanche has cogently argued recently, the rebels successes should not be overstated due to the fact that:
"Since July 2012, all rebel attempts to hold the western part of the city, where the population does not favor them, have failed. However, in 2012-2013, the rebels were mostly nonradical Islamists, which today is not the case. Jaish al-Fatah is headed by a former Jabhat al-Nusra faction -- known before the offensive as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham -- and includes several jihadist groups, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Jund al-Aqsa, known for their great brutality. The recent radicalization of "moderate" groups like Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki does not reassure western Aleppo's urban middle classes. In Aleppo, the major divide between rebels and pro-government factions is not based on sectarian opposition -- except for the pro-government Christian minority -- but mainly on social class divisions and the historic urban-rural cleavage. Therefore, the chances for an anti-Assad uprising in western Aleppo are nonexistent. If the rebels want to conquer the government-held portion of Aleppo, it will be with a hard fight. Moreover, the Ramouseh victory took a great toll on the rebel ranks: five hundred killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 1."In short, do not be lead by the rebels temporary success in breaking the siege to believe that Assad's forces are on the brink of defeat in Aleppo. Given the very heavy Russian air support, as well as Hezbollah, Persian and Iraqi militia forces on the ground to stiffen Assad's army, it is difficult to believe that the rebels will be able to follow-up their success. Indeed, it could very well be the case that in order to improve Assad's bargaining power in any upcoming negotiations with the Americans in Geneva over Syria, that Russia and its local allies will pour in more men, air support and material in order to win the battle of Aleppo and thus drive the rebels from the last major population centre it has a hold on. A victory of this sort by Assad, could very well, `a la Joshua Landis, be a 'game-changer' in this long struggle. Time will of course tell. 1. Fabrice Balanche, "Aleppo: Is the Turnaround Sustainable for the Rebels?" The Washington Institute. 9 August 2016, in www.washingtoninstitute.org