Beirut: The Syrian war might be at its most significant juncture in years, as regime troops complete their encirclement of rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo, the former industrial capital of Syria’s north.
The idea is simple: to starve the rebel groups into complete submission or create enough domestic pressure on them, from civilians residing there, to pack up and leave. The other option would have been for the Russian and Syrian armies to pound Aleppo from the skies, completely destroying the ancient city, with an astronomically high collateral damage and loss of human life.
Regime sources in Damascus, speaking to Gulf News, confirmed that if the Syrian army succeeds in taking Aleppo, it would change the dynamics of the entire northern front and “bring the Syria war to a close”.
There is no projected timetable for the battle of Aleppo, and the siege will last so long as the Aleppo fighters survive. Since 2012, the Castello Road has been the main lifeline for the mostly-Islamist rebels in Aleppo, providing supply and arms from rebel-held towns along the Syrian-Turkish borders, and from within Turkey itself. It has now been seized by government troops, and Turkish-backed rebels have repeatedly tried to re-open it with little luck, due to major air cover from the Russian army and manpower from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
The full siege puts the rebels of Aleppo in difficult waters: either to starve or to surrender. This has been a common tactic in the Syria war; it happened in parts of Homs in central Syria and, more recently, in the town of Zabadani in the Damascus countryside. Rebels in both these cities were forced to choose between an exit under supervision of the United Nations, or death. In both cases they agreed to be escorted from Homs and Zabadani, with their light arms, and to be resettled in Idlib, a city held by Al Qaida-linked Jabhat Al Nusra, and Al Raqqa, the provincial capital of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh. The rebels of Aleppo will face a similar fate soon, if they fail at breaking the Syrian Army’s armed “necklace” around Aleppo.
Approximately 300,000 civillians are caught in the middle as the regime lays seige, hoping their their pressure will push the rebels out. Already, since the Aleppo operation started last May, prices of food and basic commodities like sugar, rice, and flour have skyrocketed by 300 per cent, adding further pressure on the city, which is left with no electricity, water, fuel, gasoline, medicine, or internet access.
The Syrian opposition is crying foul, claiming that the United States is doing nothing to help Syrian rebels in Aleppo. They believe that a secret deal has been struck between the Americans, Russians and Turks, at their expense, sacrificing the city of Aleppo in favour of the Syrian regime.
In exchange for Aleppo, the Russians will probably turn a blind eye to US advances on Minbij and Al Bu Kamal, two cities currently held by Daesh. The Turks will back off in exchange for Russian commitment to prevent the emergence of a autonomous Kurdish state on their border with Syria — a nightmare scenario for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
When US Secretary of State John Kerry was asked recently about the US’ counter-terrorism strategy, he identified two rebel groups, Jaish Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham as “subgroups” of Daesh. The former is a large Saudi-backed militia operating in the Al Ghouta orchards surrounding Damascus while the latter is a Turkish-backed army that calls the s”.
Last Spring, due to Russian intervention, the leader of Jaish Al Islam, Mohammad Alloush, was forced out of the opposition team that he headed at UN-backed peace talks in Geneva. His predecessor, Zahran Alloush, was killed with a Russian air strike on Al Ghouta last December. Alloush’s resignation on one front and Kerry’s statement on the other are testimony that the United States is less committed to a rebel victory than ever before and is slowly yielding to Vladimir Putin’s vision for Syria.
In June, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad gave a speech at the opening of the new Syrian parliament, vowing to liberate “every inch” of Syrian territory. According to opposition sources, rebels used to control 40 per cent of Syrian territory in 2012, and that has now shrunk to 12-13 per cent. With entire chunks of land restored to government control since the Russian army intervened in September 2015, the only major cities still under control of anti-Al Assad groups are Al Raqqa and Deir Al Zor, Idlib, and Aleppo.
The last time Al Assad visited Aleppo was in January 2011, where he toured its famed citadel with his former friend-turned nemesis, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thanni, former Emir of Qatar, weeks before outbreak of hostilities in Syria. Before that he was a frequent visitor of the city, unlike his father Hafez Al Assad, who never visited Aleppo during his 30 years in power, mainly due to part of the city’s support for an uprising back in the 1980s, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ancient city is the largest in Syria and the third largest in the Middle East. It has provided two of Syria’s 20 presidents and, briefly in the late 1940s, its politicians ran the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The city remained relatively calm until 2012, when its eastern parts fell to Turkish-backed militias, simply because they caught government troops off-guard in Aleppo.
The city was so safe that nobody imagined it would fall so easily — a major miscalculation on behalf of Damascus and Tehran. The battle of Aleppo has since been postponed, billed as the “final battle” by government sources in Damascus. The Russians thought otherwise, claiming that they needed to take Aleppo first for the entire rebel command in the Syrian north to collapse, then to march on the rebels in different parts of Syria, believing that their morale would collapse and they would quickly surrender after shouldering a heavy blow in Aleppo.
Due to its volatile, wild and rebel-held countryside, the city is swarming with arms and Islamist militants, unlike Damascus, which is surrounded by mixed villages and towns (some being Christian and others being Alawite) that prevented the rebels from creating a full blockade around the Syrian capital.
Additionally while Damascus rebels had no access to the outside world, the militias of Aleppo have open access to Turkey, which bankrolled them with money, arms, and fighters since 2012. Aerial bombardment alone would never be enough for the Syrian Army to retake the city, and street-to-street fighting would whip up a huge death toll among government troops and Hezbollah fighters. Simply, the battle was too costly and difficult in 2012-2015.
The Syrians and Russians created a divergence around Aleppo earlier this year, pretending to march on the city but then turning their guns on Daesh-held Deir Al Zor. As rebel focus shifted from Aleppo to Deir Al Zor, government troops headed back to Aleppo to complete the blockade.
The Iran-Syria-Russia axis
At a high-profile meeting last June, between the Iranian, Russian and Syrian defence ministers, it was decided to coordinate military strategy in northern Syria. In other words, the three countries were announcing that the UN-mandated peace talks, which began in Geneva in January, were dead. Those negotiations had been expected to lead to a transitional government by August, with a new constitution and power-sharing government between the Syrian regime and the Saudi-backed opposition.
The Tehran meeting clearly showed that neither Damascus, Tehran nor Moscow were in a hurry for more talks in Switzerland. They first want to see the military balance on the ground shift decisively in their favour, mainly in Aleppo. The defence ministers agreed to give Iran, which had been Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s key military supporter until the Russians intervened in September 2015, a more prominent role on the battlefield that the Russians have come to dominate. This involves increasing the number of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah fighters in the Aleppo area, helping to minimise opposition gains in the Syrian north.
Russia insists that it will not send troops but will let Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah do the fighting on its behalf. Iran was also promised a greater role in liberating Raqqa, the de facto capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate — until now a Russian-led operation. To demonstrate their seriousness, Damascus and Moscow appointed Ali Shamkhani, a former admiral and defence minister who currently heads Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as senior battlefield coordinator for the tripartite alliance that is now bracing itself for the “surrender” of Aleppo, rather than a military takeover.