Battle for Aleppo could be crucial turning point in Syrian war

Wresting control of city from various factions key to Assad’s bid for legitimacy

Syrians fleeing the battle for control of Aleppo walk towards the Turkish border at the Bab al-Salam border gate, on February 5th. The districts held by anti-governmetn forces  in Aleppo are a prize they dare not lose. Photograph: Depo Photos via AP

Syrians fleeing the battle for control of Aleppo walk towards the Turkish border at the Bab al-Salam border gate, on February 5th. The districts held by anti-governmetn forces in Aleppo are a prize they dare not lose. Photograph: Depo Photos via AP

 

When the battle for Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo, began in July 2012, the provincial governor appealed for troops to counter rebel advances. The government in Damascus, however, did not deliver.

The former senior official who disclosed this information to The Irish Times said the city could have been defended at that time and failure to do so was a major miscalculation.

During their initial attack, rebels grouped under the Free Syrian Army umbrella seized the eastern and medieval districts of the city as well as villages in the Aleppo countryside and control of supply routes from the Turkish border. At present insurgents hold about half the area of the city, covering an area where 350,000 people live.

Turkish border

Syria

His 2015 proposal for a six-week ceasefire was also dismissed by insurgents.

In the ongoing battle, at least 14 mainly fundamentalist factions are involved, including radical fundamentalist Ahrar al-Sham, the largest and most powerful insurgent group in Syria; the Tawhid Brigade, an early local faction; the Fath Brigade; Saudi-fostered Jaish al-Islam; and a host of other factions forming uneasy alliances.

Ahrar al-Sham has dispatched reinforcements from Idlib province, which it controls along with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

Al-Nusra and Islamic State, which occupy territory in the Aleppo countryside north and east of the city, are also involved in the campaign, giving credibility to Russia’s claim that its air strikes are directed against these two groups regarded as “terrorist” by the UN and the international community and declared legitimate targets by UN Security Council resolution 2254. The Ankara-backed Syrian Turkmen (ethnic Turk) groups positioned along the Syria-Turkish border have also been bombed by Russian aircraft. These factions have close ties to al-Nusra and other jihadi organisations.

Syrian insurgents have been financed, trained and armed by the US, Britain, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Ranged on the government side are the overstretched and undermanned Syrian armed forces, national defence units, the ruling Baath party militia, Lebanon’s Shia Hizbullah, Syrian Shia Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas brigade, Iraqi Shia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Iraqi Shia Kata’ib Hizbullah, Iranian-formed Iraqi Badr Organisation (among the most powerful of the country’s militias), and Iraqi Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

While Russia has supported the government with arms and political action since conflict erupted in 2011, Moscow did not intervene until the end of last September . Since then Moscow has deployed at an airbase near the northern port of Latakia a large number of military aircraft as well as surveillance drones and surface-to-air anti-aircraft batteries. Russia has also upgraded Syrian aircraft and tanks and provided weaponry and advisers.

Russia is lending support to the US-backed People’s Protection Units of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is not recognised by the US as a “terrorist” party, although Ankara insists it is an offshoot of the “terrorist” separatist Turkish Kurdish Labour Party (PKK), which is fighting Ankara for autonomy.

The protection units have been the most effective ground force against Islamic State, also known as Isis, and can be expected to take part in the battle for Aleppo against insurgents, although not in alliance with government forces.

Iranian general

IranQassem Suleimani

The districts held by insurgents in Aleppo are a prize they dare not lose as this could mean their collapse on the battleground of northern Syria.

The return of Aleppo is essential if Damascus is to assert its control over Syria’s main cities and assert its claim to be the government of Syria.

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