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Omar Kayed

Soleimani’s Aleppo plan is back on track

Iranian-backed militias are taking the lead in strategically critical battles that could spell the end of the armed opposition in northern Syria

A rebel fighter monitors a street in the old city of Aleppo on December 6, 2014 (AFP Photo/Zein al-Rifai)

Our attention has been drawn, over the last few days, to one of the most decisive battles in Aleppo and perhaps all of Syria. Everyone knows that the result of this confrontation will have major consequences for the conflict in general. Information has confirmed that Iranian officers are leading engagements on one side while Turkish officers participate in planning on the other. Sources have said that Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani was in the Aleppo countryside at the beginning of June and supervised the plan to take back the city himself. The plan’s implementation was delayed slightly by events in Mosul and the seizure of a large area of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State. Two months later, in August to be precise, engagements resumed.

 

On Sunday, preparations began for one of the most important battles in the Aleppo countryside in the town of Bashkawi. The regime and the Iranians had summoned an unprecedented number of reinforcements from Homs and the Damascus suburb of Sayyeda Zeinab. Most of these forces are part of Hezbollah and the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades. Around 1,500 additional fighters arrived from the nearby towns of Nubl and Zahraa. Meanwhile, the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, with its two wings Ahrar al-Sham and Liwaa al-Tawhid, brought in reinforcements from Idleb, Tal Rifaat, Andan and Hraytan. The total number of fighters on each side is estimated at between 4 and 5,000. To shed light on the importance of this battle we should take into consideration several key points that give a basic outline of how engagements in the area have unfolded over the past two years.

 

Two years ago National Defense Forces chief in Aleppo Abu Ali Qazaq, Colonel Mohammad Khodour of the Syrian Army’s Fourth Armored Division, and head of the Aleppo security committee Major General Adib Salameh flew in to Nubl and Zahraa by helicopter. The three officers met with a number of notables from Nubal and Zahraa, and discussed how the siege on the two pro-regime towns could be lifted, as even the bare necessities for life were no longer available. Three suggestions were made: 1 -  make contact with the Kurds in Afrin and ask them to open the road connecting it to Nubl and Zahraa; 2 - open the road to Menagh Airbase, almost 12 kilometers north of Nubl and Zahraa; or 3 - open the road from Nubl and Zahraa to Aleppo International Airport (east of Aleppo). Selection of the first option put the residents of the two villages at the mercy of the Kurds and “their constant blackmailing.”  Sometimes the Kurds would open the road, other times they wouldn’t, and while they did allowed entry of food they refused to permit medicine and fuel. As for the second option, around 1,500 people tried to sneak into Menagh Airbase from Nubl and Zahraa, but the two groups that went first walked in to an ambush — around 500 people disappeared and have not been heard of since. This prompted the remaining groups to withdraw and abandon the plan. All that was left was the third plan: to open the long and difficult road from Aleppo International Airport, 10 kilometers away from the center of Aleppo.

 

A force of around 500 fighters headed for Aleppo International Airport. The Syrian Army and Hezbollah, accompanied by fighters from Nubl and Zahraa, managed to lift the siege on the airport and advance by approximately 30 kilometers in around two months. Then they had two choices: either to open the road from the airport to regime-controlled areas on the western side of Aleppo, or take the long route from the eastern side of the city towards Nubl and Zahraa. The Syrian Army, Hezbollah and the Iranians decided to open the road from the west because it was short and easy to protect. They advanced towards Aleppo’s Ramouse—Saif al-Dawla—al-Hamdaniya area and managed to open the road into the west of the city over three months.

 

The regime didn’t want to try opening the second road because it knew the task would be very difficult. It was afraid of incurring heavy losses and results could not be guaranteed. But the Iranians and Hezbollah insisted on opening the eastern road and drew up a complete plan for that purpose — the Syrian Army’s task was confined to providing cover fire for the attacking forces. Around this time approximately 1,500 fighters arrived from Nubl and Zahraa, and the combined forces managed to take control of the following locations: the town of Tiyara in the east, and the towns of Naqarrin, and al-Brij, as well as Aleppo Central Prison and the industrial city of Sheikh Najjar in the northeast. Finally, they engaged in fierce battles in the Handarat area north of Aleppo, and took control of it in early October. Pro-regime forces were unable to advance toward Hraytan because it was well fortified — seen as the opposition’s most important stronghold in the Aleppo countryside, the city is comparable the Damascus suburb of Douma.

 

The Iranians changed the plan and headed north, taking control of the towns of Saifat and Doueir, only six kilometers away from Nubl and Zahraa. On Sunday, thousands of Nubl and Zahraa residents, Abu Fadl al-Abbas fighters and Hezbollah members gathered at a position known locally as al-Mafariq al-Thalatha (the three junctions) to launch an attack on the strategic town of Bashkawi. Control of Bashkawi means opening the road connecting Aleppo to Nubal and Zahraa, and would lift the siege on the two towns. Only the town of Bayanoun would stand between the pro-regime forces and achievement of this goal. However, Bashkawi is on higher ground than Bayanoun and overlooks every part of it; if Bashkawi falls, Bayanoun will be militarily un-defendable. For these pro-regime forces to reach Nubal and Zahraa would mean complete closure of the international highway into Aleppo. More dangerous than all of this, opposition brigades in Aleppo would be cut off from the outside world. They would be under siege, with their supply lines cut, and would lose all ability to maneuver. The regime is hoping to repeat the scenario of the old city sector of Homs and force the militants to surrender or withdraw. The road that has been opened from Aleppo International Airport to Nubl and Zahraa means that, geographically, the regime and the Iranians have encircled opposition brigades in Aleppo from all sides.

 

 

Opposition scenarios

 

Opposition factions who know, as do their supporters, how dangerous these developments are, have jumped into action in a number of areas: they have launched a number of attacks to take back Handarat, reinforced their presence in Bashkawi and opened a new front to the west of Aleppo in Zahraa’s southern Jamaiyyet Zahraa area. The town acts as a shield for regime-controlled areas of Aleppo — Jamaiyyet Zahraa contains an Air Force Intelligence building, and more than 10 Military Intelligence and State Security checkpoints. The goal of these operations is to deal a painful blow to the regime at that position, delay its advance towards Nubl and Zahraa and relieve the pressure on the Bashkawi front. In Bayanoun, the closest village to Nubl and Zahraa, the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front have launched a powerful attack on the two pro-regime towns, taking control of the Maamil area. Fierce battles are also being fought to take control of the strategic Jamaiyyet al-Joud position. This would open the international highway from Turkey to Aleppo as the elevated position is located on the west side the international highway, overlooking almost all of Nubl and Zahraa. Last week the Nusra Front rigged a car with a large quantity of explosives to attack Jamaiyyet al-Joud and provided covering fire as it approached, but it was spotted and shelled by Nubl and Zahraa militants when it was around 300 meters away. However, the large amount of explosives that had been placed in the car killed nearly 15 people and completely destroyed six buildings (the front line of defense) in Jamaiyyet al-Joud, which contains an estimated 30 buildings.

 

So, it is a race against time, with both sides trying to make decisive gains. The regime and the Iranians want to topple Bashkawi and finish opening the road to Nubl and Zahraa as soon as possible so they can completely surround Aleppo. Meanwhile, opposition brigades are aiming to topple Nubl and Zahraa before Bashkawi falls; that way they will be able to open the international highway, foil the plan to surround them and use the civilians in Nubl and Zahraa as bargaining chips to force a retreat by pro-regime fighters or impose some kind of compromise. According to military logic, it is a life-or-death battle for both sides, so the questions remains as to who will claim victory over the coming days. Above and beyond this, it is being said that the battle has momentous strategic importance — not only are the results important locally, but regionally and internationally; the outcome will affect the future of Aleppo in any deal or compromise that is reached.

 

This article was originally published in Arabic by Al-Hayat

The road that has been opened from Aleppo International Airport to Nubl and Zahraa means the regime has encircled opposition brigades in Aleppo from all sides. (AFP Photo/Zein al-Rifai)

The regime didn’t want to try opening the second road because it knew the task would be very difficult. It was afraid of incurring heavy losses and results coult not be guaranteed."