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Free Fire | | Counterterrorism, Middle East

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The Syrian city of Aleppo has been surrounded by Assad government forces. Syria’s largest city has been held by multiple rebel groups since 2012. Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda linked Ahrar al Sham, and several closely aligned Islamist militias play a dominant role in the rebel-held city.

However, after weeks of Russian airstrikes and strategic maneuvers, the government looks ready to begin an assault to retake the city.

Aleppo serves as a major supply point for the opposition forces, due to its close proximity to the Turkish border. Without Aleppo, the rebels would lose key access to their supply lines.

Government forces have been able to make significant advances on rebel strongholds due to the recent support of the Russian and Iranian military. Iran has predominantly reinforced the Syrian military with ground troops, while Russia has launched an extensive campaign of airstrikes on rebel territory.

Since Russia and Iran have joined the fight late late year, government forces have been able to take back numerous rebel held territories.

  • In late November, government forces made their first significant movements towards taking Aleppo by reclaiming several towns just south of the city.
  • In early December, the Syrian government reclaimed the Marj al-Sultan airbase on the eastern outskirts of Damascus.
  • On January 24, the town of Rabia, long held by rebel forces, was reclaimed. Russian airstrikes played a key role, as they allowed for the government forces to capture three surrounding cities before taking Rabia.
  • On February 2, government forces and its allies made reclaimed three cities, Hardatnein, Tal Jibbeen and Deir Zaitoun, north of Aleppo.
  • The next day Al Jazeera reported Syrian army and its allies took Nubul and Zahraa, cutting off rebel supply lines from Turkey.

There have been rumors that the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), Syrian Kurds, is increasingly aligning with Russia after YPG officials stated their support of the Russian airstrikes against Jihadists. The biggest rift between the YPG and Russia is Assad. The Syrian Kurds strongly oppose Assad, but have reportedly welcomed any help against the jihadist groups, including not only Islamic State but also Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat Al Nusra, which YPG has been engaged by in the past.

If the government forces take Aleppo, the opposition forces would lose any leverage they would have hoped to hold in the Geneva peace talks. The peace talks were pushed back to February 25 after the opposition forces refused to move forward until their demands were met. On top of this, the rebel groups have used continued advancement towards Aleppo by the Assad regime as reason to delay talks.

The potential attack on Aleppo does not just pose a threat to rebel forces, but also regional neighbors. BBC reports a monitoring group lists roughly 40,000 people fleeing to Turkey. With terrorists previously traveling through Turkey to reach Europe, the large numbers of these fleeing citizens will provide the perfect cover for more jihadists to move past borders.

While losing Aleppo would surely hurt the rebel cause, it may intensify the fighting overall. While the Saudis have pledged to fight IS in Syria, they are just as concerned to remove Russia and Iran’s influence from Syria. This may lead the Saudis to increase their support of the rebels, which will lead to greater support from Russia and Iran for Assad. With the majority of efforts being focused on government and opposition forces, IS will have the ability to further its control within Syria.

The UN and U.S. hope the civil war in Syria can be resolved through diplomatic means instead of force. However, this seems unlikely particularly while Russia, Iran, and Assad continue to see battlefield success.

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