Struggle for Aleppo may be Syria’s last big battle
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.