The inadequate international support for the Syrian opposition means that the struggling fighters in Aleppo and the strategic corridor linking the city to the Turkish border may face complete defeat. They face hostile Kurdish YPG forces to the west, Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) to the east and regime forces to the south. They had to deal with strong regime assaults on the corridor in the past few months as the regime tried to encircle opposition-held Aleppo, but the situation changed again in late May when Daesh launched a successful offensive from the east that came close to overwhelming the corridor.
During the assault, Daesh took six villages and laid siege to the town of Marea, while also getting nine suicide bombs into the main town of Azaz, before withdrawing in the face of opposition resistance, according to the Institute for the Study of War. The opposition then successfully recaptured several villages near Azaz, but the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia from the west had taken control of the adjacent town of Shaikh Eisa on May 30, in exchange for the safe passage of more than 6,000 civilians from the town.
Up till now, the Turks and Americans have supported the opposition in Aleppo and northern Syria with arms and supplies, but these events may indicate that the Americans are getting ready to abandon this support for Syrian opposition in favour of the Syrian Kurds. Given the complex and miserable situation in Syria, no-one can choose a good move and everyone is condemned to pick the least-worse move, but tragedy is that this particular shift in the dynamics will mean that the United States is ready to sacrifice fighting for long-term regional stability for short-term tactical gains against Daesh. This has been vigorously opposed by Turkey, which has repeatedly called for the Americans to increase their support for the opposition rather than deepening their cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, which is an America-backed coalition led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. The Turks consider the YPG to be a terrorist organisation because of its connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for decades.
In addition, as Chris Kozak argues in an ISW paper: “The collapse of the Marea Line will drive the US to deepen its current over-reliance on the Syrian Kurdish YPG — setting the conditions for long-term ethnic conflict in the region and further limiting opportunities for partnership with Sunni Arabs in Northern Syria as part of the anti-Daesh campaign. In a reflection of this shift, the US provided direct support to an SDF-led operation to seize the key cross-border transit hub of Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province that began on June 1 despite long-standing reservations from Turkey regarding further Syrian Kurdish expansion along its border”.
Critical geopolitical interests
As Faysal Itani observed in a paper published by the Atlantic Council on May 27: “Aleppo is where multiple axes of the Syrian war intersect: The regime-opposition conflict; Kurdish-insurgent competition; Russia’s military role; US policy towards the rebellion (and therefore the regime); Turkey’s critical geopolitical interests; and of course, the multi-front war on Daesh. The real significance of military developments in Aleppo usually goes beyond territorial changes. For the insurgency and its Turkish patron in particular, the margin for error in a critical part of Syria is now vanishingly thin. The implications for the US war on Daesh are alarming.”
Itani foresees a number of scenarios under which, the corridor will collapse. Either the Kurds may take it under the pretext of defending it from Daesh, and if they wished to bolster their anti-Daesh credentials, they could grant the opposition fighters safe passage through Kurdish-dominated territory instead of attacking them. But that seems unlikely, given the mutual hostility. Or Daesh may continue its west-ward offensive in a race with the Kurds to hold the corridor and they will probably execute any Syrian opposition prisoner. What is alarming is that either regime or Russian air strikes on the opposition forces holding the corridor will facilitate either Daesh or the Kurds, which will be consistent with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s policy of prioritising the war on the insurgency.
If the Azaz corridor collapses, Turkey will lose its only real proxy in the Syrian civil war, handing a significant advantage to the Syrian Kurds, with their links to the Turkish Kurds. But the Americans will also be in trouble as they have repeatedly tried to find Syrian Arab partners to support, well aware that any long-term solution will be dominated by the Sunni Arab majority in Syria. Itani reports that they are working with the Kurds east of the Euphrates, but west of the river, they are working with the Hiwar Kilis Operations Room organisation, which combines Turkish–backed Islamists and US-backed insurgents. If the corridor falls first and then Aleppo, the Americans will be left with the narrow option of backing only the YPG Syrian Kurds, which makes clear how much they need a well-armed opposition force in Aleppo.