Nadine Elali

The fight for Aleppo

Assad regime forces are taking advantage of coalition strikes against ISIS

Syrians try to rescue wounded people from a burning building following a reported airstrike by government forces on the Kalasa neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 12, 2014 (AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri)

The airstrike campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) has been underway for months now, but doubts remain as to its effectiveness. In Syria, as the US-led coalition focuses its campaigns on the northern part of the country, Bashar Assad’s forces have also increased their attacks on Syria's more moderate rebel groups. As regime forces gain ground in Aleppo, fears have mounted that the city will be besieged, resulting in a humanitarian crisis similar to those of Homs and Damascus and potentially ending hopes of a political solution to Syria's three-year civil war.


According to Alan Mendoza, founder and executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, the strikes have had some impact on ISIS’s operational capacity, but the fact that they have not yet been able to “roll back the State’s advances,” means that “the coalition may need to increase its efforts if it is serious about making a real impact.”


So far it has been difficult to accurately assess how efficient coalition strikes against ISIS have been, but Syrian activists and fighters told NOW that the strikes have not been playing to the rebel’s favor, either. The attacks, they say, have also hit military posts belonging to rebel groups. And regime forces have been taking advantage of these strikes by increasing their bombing of opposition-held areas.  


Syrian activist Ghassan Yassine, of the Syrian Centre for Media & Communication, told NOW that moderate rebel groups are being pressed by the coalition, on one hand, and regime forces on the other. As a result, Yassine said, the Assad regime has been progressing in Aleppo.


“The coalition has targeted forces fighting the regime, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib, northern Aleppo, which has made it easier for the Assad forces to progress towards Aleppo.” Bassil Haffar, a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, concurred with Yassine, adding that aside from targeting Ahrar al-Sham’s ammunition depots in Aleppo’s western countryside, the coalition has also been targeting the homes of innocent civilians.


During the campaign, a group of Syrian activists held demonstrations in Aleppo denouncing the international coalition's airstrikes across Syria. The protesters chanted slogans condemning the United States and demanding dissolution of the coalition, which they claimed “is meant to strengthen the Assad regime.” Some activists, Yassine included, have gone a step further and accused the coalition of directly coordinating with the regime. “The simultaneous takeoffs,” Yassine said, “and the flying of both the US and Syrian Air Forces cannot possibly be done without prior military cooperation.”


In September, the coalition launched its first air strikes against Islamic State militants, using Syrian air space. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that it would not cooperate with Bashar Assad in any way and warned Assad not to interfere with its operations. Looking to confirm whether there has been de facto military coordination or not, NOW spoke to a Syrian military official, on the condition of anonymity, who denied the possibility of both air forces coordinating. He did say, however, that the regime has been taking advantage of the attacks to progress militarily and also to turn people against the coalition.


“When the coalition attacked the Nusra Front, it lost the public support of the Syrian people,” he said. “They now believe that, contrary to what the coalition had previously claimed, – that the strikes are meant to avert the threat of the Islamic State – that it actually seeks to strike Islam in general by attacking the Nusra Front and its host communities.”


As regime forces gain more ground in Aleppo, fear has mounted over the possibility of the city being besieged, resulting in a humanitarian crisis similar to those around Homs and Damascus. Haffar and Yassine, both based in Istanbul, believe that the regime aims to besiege Aleppo’s liberated areas in order to have a better position when bargaining for a political settlement. If the regime succeeds, they said, Aleppo’s fate will be similar to the other cities; many civilian deaths due to starvation, and regime incursions in which massacres be committed and the city destroyed.


“This has been one of the dilemmas in the coalition's approach,” said Mendoza. “That is, how to destroy the enemy without also aiding Assad. Unfortunately, it seems as though this is the reality; that striking Islamists will indeed help Assad… and if [his] army continues to advance, it could achieve that end goal and the result would be yet another humanitarian tragedy, as we have seen how little value Assad places on civilian lives.”


Last month, the UN called on all sides of the Syrian conflict to “de-escalate the violence through local truces” and to “allow for the movement of humanitarian aid.” Staffan de Mistura, a UN mediator, told the BBC that truce measures may be “favorable to [both] moderate rebels and government forces as they face a common threat from Islamic State militants.” When Syrian state media reported that President Assad was considering the UN proposal for a cease-fire, rebel fighters rejected it, saying that it served regime interests.


As de Mistura continues to press for a diplomatic solution, international calls have also mounted to save Aleppo and the region around it as moderate rebels continue to face attacks by forces loyal to the regime. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was reported in the press to have said that if Aleppo falls to the regime, it would “end hopes of a political solution in Syria's three-year civil war.”


“Aleppo is a totemic battleground because of its importance as a rebel stronghold from early in the conflict,” said Mendoza. “A rebel defeat would therefore harm morale and allow Assad to claim he is making progress.”


“But there is more to the situation than even that,” he added. “If‎ Aleppo were to fall it would represent the end of an idea in Syria that a people-led rebellion could deliver change.”


Nadine Elali tweets @Nadine_Elali

Syrian activists and fighters told NOW that the strikes have not been playing to the rebel’s favor. (AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri)

If‎ Aleppo were to fall it would represent the end of an idea in Syria that a people-led rebellion could deliver change.”