Over the past week, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized several villages north of Aleppo, the country’s largest city and one of the last remaining strongholds of Syria’s non-jihadist rebels, in a development that threatens to escalate the horrors of the Syrian civil war.
Thanks to heavy Russian air support, the regime “succeed[ed] in a few days in what it had failed to do for over three years,” according to an Atlantic Council analysis by Faysal Itani and Hossam Abouzahr. It severed rebel supply lines into Turkey and threatens to encircle the remaining opposition-held territory.
Aleppo was always a checkerboard of military forces, divided between regime, opposition, and jihadist zones. No one camp has had the ability to fully control a city that had a pre-war population of more than 2 million.
As it is, the Assad regime has suffered from manpower and budgetary shortages. And Assad’s Iranian allies have taken substantial losses of their own, including several high-ranking Revolutionary Guards Corps officers. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy force in neighbouring Lebanon, may have had one-third of its fighters killed or injured in Syria.
But the regime is making progress even amid this ambiguous ground-level situation. And a humanitarian catastrophe might be in the offing:
In recent days, thousands of people have reportedly fled Aleppo. Video posted on social media has shown civilians streaming out of the city:
Reuters put the exodus in the “tens of thousands,” citing an opposition source claiming that Russian aircraft had carried out 250 strikes around the city in the span of a single day.
The Assad regime is now in a position where it could try to recapture the city. Itani and Abouzahr said they believe Assad could decide to “freeze the Aleppo city frontlines” and refocus on other pockets of non-jihadist resistance as part of a larger strategy of “isolating the opposition into manageable pockets and dealing with each individually.”
As Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Syria in Crisis website, explained to Business Insider, the Assad regime isn’t in immediate danger of recapturing the country’s largest city — although its battlefield tactics would be highly destructive.
“I imagine a government reconquest of Aleppo would be a slow process involving both military assaults and bombings, siege tactics and pressure on the civilian population, and, ultimately, political deals with those factions willing to bargain,” Lund told Business Insider in an email, adding that it’s conceivable it could take the regime “many years” to fully retake the city.
But Assad might not even need to conquer Aleppo to achieve its most important battlefield objective: crushing the country’s non-jihadist resistance, leaving western powers without an anti-regime force they can support and cornering the international community into a de-facto alliance with his regime.
“If the government manages to retake and secure eastern Aleppo, which is still a big if, I think the rebels are pretty much out of the game — as long as the government itself remains in the game,” Lund said. A rebel defeat in the city “would presumably have a devastating effect on international and Syrian confidence in the rebels’ ability to win the war or even wring real concessions from Assad,” he added.
A regime victory in Aleppo could be the final defeat to any remaining US or Western strategy of propping the country’s non-jihadist opposition groups.
“I can’t imagine that anyone seeing Aleppo slip out of rebel hands after these past four horrifying years would just say, well, bad luck, let’s send some more guns into Syria and have another go at it,” Lund told Business Insider.
The regime’s Aleppo encirclement motions toward what once seemed to be an unthinkable endgame in Syria: the permanent partition of the country between regime and jihadist-held spheres, with Assad as the country’s most seemingly viable source of long-term authority and no remaining force committed to the idea of Syria as a unified or coherent national entity.
But it would be a mistake to think of such a scenario as an “endgame.” Even if Assad prevails in Aleppo, his regime will still be fundamentally weak and almost totally dependent on the direct military support of outside powers. A possible rebel defeat might also work to the advantage of jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, which are still committed to fighting the Syrian regime, and which continue to control substantial territory.
The regime has had moments of relative strength and impending collapse throughout a now four-plus-year-long conflict — none of which have made the Syrian civil war any shorter or less deadly.
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