Struggle for Aleppo may be Syria’s last big battle

Sunday 31/07/2016
People inspecting site hit by air strikes in rebel-held town of Atareb in Aleppo

BEIRUT - Once hailed as the “in­dustrial capital” of Syr­ia, Aleppo is a besieged and war-torn city. Gov­ernment troops, sup­ported by the Russian Air Force, completed the encirclement of the city in July, imposing a siege aimed at forcing rebel groups holding out there to surrender.

It is widely believed that if Alep­po falls, the entire northern front in Syria would crumble, possibly marking the final chapter of this savage war now in its sixth year. This prospect is receiving very lit­tle attention in Western media, preoccupied as it is by the Turkish coup attempt, the Brexit saga and terrorist attacks across Europe.

For months, the Syrian Army has been trying hard to encircle Alep­po to cut off the supply of arms and fighters from Turkey to the rebels. The city — once the biggest in Syria — was simply too large and logisti­cally difficult to isolate.

The city’s entire eastern sector has been in the hands of Islamic groups since the summer of 2012. Rebels here had access to the Turk­ish border, unlike the capital, Da­mascus, which is far from any of Syria’s frontiers.

Aleppo is swarming with jihad­ists who are heavily armed and surrounded by a vehemently anti-regime hinterland, making the blockade all the more difficult. But Damascus recently announced that it had encircled Aleppo, cut­ting off the Castello Road, the last rebel artery north towards the Turkish border.

This occurred weeks after Hez­bollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah declared that the “real, strategic and greatest battle is in Aleppo”.

Both sides realised that a mili­tary victory in Aleppo would be immensely costly. It would lead to the destruction of what remained of the ancient city with heavy loss­es for all concerned, government troops, rebels and Hezbollah fight­ers.

A street-by-street battle in Alep­po’s battered neighbourhoods would be suicidal for the Syrian Army, leaving it the option of lay­ing siege to the city to force the re­bels to starve or surrender, a strat­egy successfully used to retake the town of Zabadani near Damascus and the city of Homs in central Syria.

In both cases, the rebels chose the former and were escorted — with their light arms — out of besieged territory by the United Nations. UN convoys transported them to Deir ez-Zor on the Euphra­tes river in the east or Idlib in the north-west.

The first is controlled mainly by the Islamic State (ISIS) while Idlib is held by al-Nusra Front, al-Qae­da’s Syrian branch. If the new siege in Aleppo lasts, the same scenario will likely be played out there.

Ultimately, the Russians hope that the 300,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo will provide enough pressure on the fighters to leave. Life is becoming unbearable because of the soaring prices of basic commodities such as sugar, flour, fuel and medicine and the lack of electricity and running wa­ter.

The rebels in northern Syria are appealing to Turkey for help but after the recent coup attempt and several Kurdish terrorist attacks in Istanbul, few Turkish officials have any appetite left for Syria.

Worse than that, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has spo­ken of normalising relations with Damascus and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently patched up a very icy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, much to the horror of the Syrian opposition.

Then came a statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, la­belling the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham militia, which is fighting in northern Syria, as a “subgroup” of ISIS — greatly damaging the mo­rale of Syrian fighters in Aleppo and its surrounding countryside.

Privately they say that Turkey sold them out to the Russians and the Americans. The proposed military cooperation deal between Russia and the United States adds to rebel fears, because not only does it legitimise Russia’s position on the war but also makes Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army a fully fledged ally in the “war on terror”.

The proposal was put forth after a US-backed militia tried and failed to retake the strategic town of Al­bukamal in eastern Syria in June. Its fighters were rounded up and slaughtered by ISIS, prompting US officials to grudgingly accept the brutal fact that, if they wanted to fight ISIS in Syria, they had to work with the Russian Army.

If such a deal is in the works, the Turks will set out their own de­mands in exchange for letting Da­mascus and Moscow retake Alep­po. They will seek cooperation on counterterrorism against ISIS and guarantees that all sides will work to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state on the border with Turkey.

In exchange for American si­lence, the Russians will turn a blind eye as US proxies take Man­bij and Albukamal, two northern towns held by ISIS. This is indica­tive of Moscow’s and Damascus’s determination to subjugate Aleppo at any cost.