July 30, 2012

Syria - the battle for Aleppo

Aleppo, Syria - حلب، سوريا

Aleppo is critical for the opposition, but not so much for the regime. The real battle will be for Damascus.

The battle for Aleppo, which started a few weeks ago, has now been joined in earnest. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has committed armor, artillery, attack aircraft and helicopter gunships to the fight, wreaking devastation on one of the world's oldest and continuously-inhabited cities.

Aleppo is by far the most important confrontation between the regime and opposition since the uprising began 16 months ago. The outcome will have a profound effect on the future of the rebellion. The battle for Aleppo has much greater ramifications for the opposition than the regime. If the regime is successful in crushing the opposition in Aleppo - which it appears intent on doing regardless of the damage to one of the world's most important historical cities - it may deal a fatal blow to the Free Syrian Army.

Bashar al-Asad, like his father Hafiz before him, has spent almost his entire time in power developing a network of supporters throughout the Ba'th Party and Syrian government (some would argue that it is one and the same), including the Syrian armed forces. While the Syrian military may be no match for the Israelis or the Turks, they are certainly capable of employing overwhelming force against ill-equipped and poorly trained volunteer fighters. The regime soldiers and airmen also seem willing to kill their own people for Bashar al-Asad. Say what you will, al-Asad has proven himself to be a capable politician, able to engender a level of support that is surprising.

I believe that al-Asad has decided that he must crush the opposition in Aleppo. He could have made a similar decision months ago when the main venue for the uprising was in the central cities of Homs and Hamah. At that time, the president likely believed that the opposition was going to be a short-lived phenomenon and did not warrant the level of military force we are now observing in Aleppo.

As the fighting spread to the northern area, closer to the al-Asad family home near Latakia and an opposition-supporting Turkey, it appears that the president determined that the situation required stronger military action. In the recent past, we have seen the commitment of additional army units, backed by armor, artillery and combat aviation.

As I watched the footage of the coverage of the fighting in Aleppo, I noted that the Syrian military units are equipped with T-72 tanks. The T-72 is used by the best units in the Syrian military, those being the trusted and what we call the "regime protection units," such as the Republican Guard and the 4th Armor Division. The officers in these units are mostly of the same 'Alawite sect as the president and are beholden to the regime for their livelihood. Now that the country is in a virtual civil war, these officers have cast their futures with the president. When the al-Asad regime falls, these officers will have to answer for their actions.

Can the regime survive a military setback in Aleppo? Does pulling out and allowing the opposition to control the city mean the end of the regime? Unfortunately not. While a loss for the opposition could sufficiently weaken it to the point where they are no longer effective, a loss for the regime will not have the same effect. While Aleppo is important from a psychological standpoint, it is not Damascus.

Damascus has been, is and will continue to be the center of gravity for whoever rules Syria. A look at the deployment of the Syrian armed forces underscores the relative geopolitical importance of Damascus versus Aleppo. The vast majority of Syria's military forces are arrayed south and south west of Damascus. Why? That's where Syria believes its major foreign threat to be - Israel. The Syrian army is deployed in an arc mostly south and to the west of the capital to defend Damascus against an Israeli thrust over the Golan Heights up the major established road network. It is the same roads used for centuries - it includes the road used by Saint Paul on the famed "road to Damascus."

The Syrian military is also deployed to the southwest of the city to protect the centuries-old attack routes through Lebanon's south Biqa' Valley, followed by a pivot to the east and an attack through the passes to Damascus. It has been used by countless attackers since antiquity up to the French at the Battle of Maysalun in 1920.

The major combat elements of the Syrian Air Force and Syrian missile forces are deployed in the south of the country at bases and positions that would facilitate defense from an attack by the Israelis, or to facilitate an attack on the Israelis. There is almost no military power arrayed in the north of Syria, in the area of Aleppo. Most of Syria's training bases and military industry is in the north, but as far as real military power, almost none.

The battle of Aleppo will be a harbinger of things to come. If the opposition is defeated by overwhelming military force, which it might be since the Bashar al-Asad regime seems to have no reticence about turning its military - the armed forces built to fight the superior Israel Defense Forces - on its civilian population, it may well portend the end of the uprising. The opposition cannot afford to lose in Aleppo - for them it is do or die.

On the other hand, the al-Asad regime can sustain a setback and regroup its vastly superior military might to fight another day. The two sides have adopted interesting rhetoric: the opposition is calling Aleppo the "grave of the regime" while the regime is touting the Saddam terminology of the "mother of all battles."*

Of course, that is Aleppo. The real battle will be for Damascus.

* The phrase um ma'arik (mother of battles) has been translated to "mother of all battles." It is a fairly common Arabic language construct that has been sensationalized in the press.