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Haid Haid

The impact of Aleppo’s battle on Syria’s future

Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled the city of Aleppo to escape major military offensive. (Image via AFP

The ongoing battle for Aleppo is not only a test of the military capability of rebel groups there, but also of their allies’ commitment toward them. The Syrian regime was able to accomplish in a few weeks what it had failed to do for over three years due to the increased support from its allies, namely Russia. It forced the rebels out of Latakia after seizing Salma, it took over Sheikh Miskin, Daraa’s fourth largest city, and continues its advance into rural Aleppo. Assad’s allies have been benefiting from the US lack of interest to intervene in Syria’s civil war against the regime, which allowed them to tip the balance in favor of Assad.

 

With no peaceful solution in sight, will Assad and his allies continue to win militarily? If so, are we back to talking about a military solution in Syria? Will the opposition’s allies, namely Saudi and Turkey, make a move to counter Russia’s support to Assad? If so, how long can they afford to wait?

 

Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and the country’s former economic powerhouse. Its countryside is a rebel stronghold and one of their main supply lines from Turkey. The city has been divided into government and rebel zones—west and east, respectively—shortly after the fighting began there in mid-2012. The frontlines have remained fairly static since then, despite attempts to encircle the opposing group by advancing around the city. These dynamics have changed recently after pro-Assad forces, supported by heavy Russian air support, seized a number of towns north of Aleppo and cut off a key supply line from Turkey to rebels in Aleppo.

 

It’s unlikely for the regime to advance inwards to the city to recapture the city; on the contrary, it will continue advancing outwards to rebel areas in the countryside and divide them into manageable clusters that could be dealt with individually. Meanwhile, the Assad regime is expected to intensify its aerial and artillery attacks on the city and use starvation as a weapon to force them to surrender. Although starvation as a weapon is a war crime, Assad’s forces have been using this tactic widely due to its low cost, effectiveness and the absence of any real pressure from the international community to put an end to it.

 

It is hardly a coincidence that the Russian led attack on Aleppo immediately followed the start of the peace talks in Geneva. Moscow knew that this attack would push the opposition away from the talks, as it stepped up its support to Assad’s regime instead of pressuring it to show a good will gesture. This move proved, once again, that Assad and his allies are not genuine about reaching a political settlement, and they are only participating to buy time and secure military victories on the ground. Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during the negotiations that his country's military will not stop its airstrikes in Syria until the "terrorist organizations" there are defeated. Moscow is duplicating in Syria the strategy it applied in Chechnya—using brutal military attacks on inhabited areas so rebels are destroyed or forced out.

 

In order to resume the peace talks in Geneva as planned, the US pressured the rebels and their allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to accept an unconditional participation. However, the US seems unlikely to use any pressure on neither Russia nor Assad in order to bring the latter back to the negotiating table. Saudi and Turkey have more to lose in Syria than the US, therefore these two countries are likely to step up their support to the rebels. The recent attack has triggered a new wave of refugees towards Turkey and this wave is expected to get bigger if Assad continues to advance towards the Turkish border. Turkey also fears the outcome of such attacks with regards to the establishment of a Kurdish region along its border with northern Syria especially that the Kurdish forces benefited from the attack to advance. Both Saudi and Turkey, have invested heavily in Aleppo’s rebel groups, because they both know that they need to secure the existence of these groups in order to stop Assad’s allies from winning militarily.

 

Turkey and Saudi are not the only ones that have too much to lose in case Assad, with the support of Russia and Iran, continues to destroy everything to win. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra will become more powerful, which will increase their chances of expanding outside of Syria. More Syrian refugees will flee to neighboring countries and from there to Europe. No matter how much the EU invests in making it difficult to cross to Europe, it will still be easier than watching your whole family dying in front of your eyes by a barrel bomb attack. This will also give Assad and its allies the perception that a military victory is a possibility, which will put an end to any attempt to reach a political solution.

 

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “The continued assault by Syrian regime forces--enabled by Russian airstrikes--against opposition-held areas, as well as regime and allied militias’ continued besiegement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, have clearly signaled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one.” A lot could be done to bring Assad and his allies back to the negotiating table, changing the “let’s wait and see approach” could be a good start.

 

Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution and Kurds and Islamist movements.

Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled the city of Aleppo to escape major military offensive. (Image via AFP

These dynamics have changed recently after pro-Assad forces, supported by heavy Russian air support, seized a number of towns north of Aleppo and cut off a key supply line from Turkey to rebels in Aleppo."

  • Beiruti

    As long as Obama is president, there will never be a credible threat of force to gain leverage to a negotiated settlement. Without leverage, negotiations are a non starter.

    February 11, 2016

  • manjarola

    The lives of both the Lebanese and the Palestinians are also subject to the ambitions of Iran, which fills the coffers of groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

    February 11, 2016