Tony Badran

The Battle for Aleppo never began

Syrian rebels gather on an Aleppo street

With the Obama administration’s Syria policy still a mystery, and as the world became preoccupied with Egypt, Syria quietly fell from the headlines following the battle of al-Qusayr in June.


When Syrian regime forces, spearheaded by Hezbollah units, retook that small town a little over a month ago, the expectation was that the regime and its allies would turn to Aleppo next. Syrian officials even announced an impending “Operation Northern Storm” in early June. Consequently, rebel commanders, as well as some Western officials, sounded the alarm, fearful that the potential fall of Syria’s biggest city would deal a crushing blow to the revolution. But the offensive never came. In fact, the Aleppo operation may have been a feint all along, used by both sides to shape perceptions of the war’s trajectory.


A major operation in northern Syria was never the logical move after Qusayr. The real, strategically coherent next step always was in Homs and Damascus and their countryside along the border with Lebanon. That’s precisely where the regime and Hezbollah have been operating most heavily since June. Understanding the purpose of these operations helps us identify where the regime and Hezbollah are most likely to concentrate their efforts in the months ahead.


There are several reasons why an Aleppo offensive wasn’t likely imminent. For one, there was no force build-up of the kind we saw before the Qusayr battle. Moreover, the months-long, systematic campaign to besiege the target by clearing the surrounding villages was not only absent in Aleppo, but also the battlefield there was almost the mirror opposite of Qusayr. Whereas in the latter case Hezbollah and the regime had secure logistical lines as well as depth in Lebanon and the Alawite coastal region, in Aleppo, it was the rebels who had this advantage in the northern countryside all the way into Turkey.


Instead, regime and Hezbollah forces have pressed their advantage in Homs and Damascus, where it makes both tactical and strategic sense. For instance, right after Qusayr, the regime recaptured the town of Tal Kalakh, on the border with northern Lebanon, cutting off another rebel resupply channel into Homs from Lebanon. Currently, a siege is being tightened around the city of Homs, and a joint offensive to overrun the remaining rebel neighborhoods in city has been underway for two weeks, still without a critical breakthrough.


At the same time, the combined forces of the regime, Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias have been assaulting Damascus’ northeastern neighborhoods like al-Qaboun and Barzeh. These neighborhoods also lie right by the highway linking Damascus and Homs. The rationale, then, is clear: secure critical routes and lines of communication, and consolidate the regime territory stretching from Damascus to the coast through Homs.


The regime’s military strategy, then, is now following the precedent witnessed in the first phase of the Lebanese civil war. In winter of 1976, as the Christian forces moved to secure their enclave, they needed to clear out pockets of Palestinian presence in their areas, which threatened their lines of communication. Thus, they attacked the refugee camp in the coastal town of Dbayyeh, situated between Jounieh and Beirut. Then came the onslaught on Quarantina, a shantytown that commanded the main coastal highway from Beirut to the Christian strongholds further north. At the same time, the siege of the Tal el-Zaatar refugee camp began. The camp likewise was positioned at a critical node, disrupting the Christian forces’ communication in multiple directions, including the main road up to the Kataeb militia’s bastion in the Metn region. It took about seven months before the camp was finally overrun. These battles were instrumental in consolidating the Christians’ territory.


If the strategy of the regime and of its Iranian patrons is the securing of a similar canton that runs along the border with Lebanon, thereby maintaining a critical link to Hezbollah, then the major operations and force build-ups are likely to be in Homs and Damascus, not Aleppo.


Indeed, a quick perusal of media leaks and hints from Hezbollah circles reveals that these are the zones they’re zeroing in on. Therefore, the next area where we’re likely to see major operations in coming months is the region south of Qusayr down to the western countryside of Damascus, adjacent to the Lebanese border. The area around towns like Zabadani and Seghraya, for example, is regularly focused on in pro-Hezbollah media, especially since it’s very close to Party strongholds like Nabi Sheet on the Lebanese side. When the rebels seized the nearby Rankous crossing last year, a source close to Hezbollah noted the area’s strategic importance for the Shiite group, and emphasized the need to control it.


Consolidating this stretch of territory, commonly recognized as the corridor connecting Damascus to the Alawite heartland, is the strategically sensible move. Even at the height of their power in the early to mid-1980s, the Christian Lebanese forces found it very difficult to expand beyond their enclave, including in areas where they had a foothold. Foraying into Aleppo, at least at this stage, doesn’t make sense for the regime and Hezbollah, and would not have advanced what appears to be a methodical territorial strategy.


It is possible, then, that the fanfare over an impending offensive to retake Aleppo was an information operation. The regime sought to build on the momentum from Qusayr to demoralize the rebels and create a sense of panic and confusion among their ranks, possibly even forcing them to divert resources to the north, away from Homs and Damascus. As for the rebels, as well as for some European allies, the possibility of such a setback served as a wake up call to push a detached and reluctant US to finally get its act together.


However, as we’ve seen since, even the underwhelming White House announcement that it would increase aid to the rebels has not translated into action. But beyond sending arms, Washington still lacks strategic vision. In contrast, the Iranians are securing their interests, consolidating a protectorate in western Syria adjoined to their base in Lebanon. 


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Syrian rebels gather on an Aleppo street. (Image via AFP)

"Foraying into Aleppo, at least at this stage, doesn’t make sense for the regime and Hezbollah, and would not have advanced what appears to be a methodical territorial strategy."