April 30, 2016

Syria: The impending fall of Aleppo

The city of Aleppo will fall in the near future - the anti-regime rebels in the remaining contested areas of the city will not be able to hold out much longer.

The graphic (left) epitomizes the pessimism that pervades the rebel-controlled areas of the city.

It is titled "Aleppo is burning - under the auspices of international organizations." It is a direct criticism that the United Nations is doing nothing to stop the relentless air strikes being conducted by both the Syrian and Russian air forces.

The targets, according to the graphic, are civil defense (fire and rescue) services, hospitals, schools, markets and bakeries. The complaints are accurate - over the last two weeks, Syrian and Russian fighter-bombers have conducted a coordinated campaign against these target sets across northern Syria, particularly in Aleppo and Idlib governorates, areas in which the bulk of the anti-regime rebels are located.

The increased air attacks are being conducted in conjunction with increased pro-regime ground forces operations in these same areas - the troops are Syrian armed forces supported by units of both the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and now the regular Iranian Army, as well fighters from Lebanese Hizballah. Russian advisers are also on the ground with these forces, coordinating air attacks and artillery fires to great effect.

The timing of the renewed focus on Aleppo is somewhat surprising. Rather than press the attack on retreating forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) following the regime victory in the strategic city of Palmyra, most of the regime forces were re-tasked for an assault on Aleppo. Militarily, it does make sense - the regime needs to secure the Aleppo area and close off the ISIS resupply lines from Turkey that lie to the northeast of Aleppo.

The situation in Aleppo has changed dramatically since September 2015 - it was then that Russian forces entered the fight, while at the same time increased numbers of IRGC and Hizballah units were deployed to Syria. It was the liberal (some would say indiscriminate) application of Russian airpower to support the revitalized Syrian government operations on the ground, allowing the regime to virtually erase all of the recent gains of the anti-regime rebels.

Prior to the Russian intervention, Syrian forces were on the defensive, retreating south from Aleppo and much of Idlib governorate. Soon after Russian aircraft began providing direct air support, the rebels were pushed back into enclaves in and north of the city of Aleppo. It is those enclaves that are now under renewed - and increased - air attacks. The recent attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the Sukkari district of Aleppo is symptomatic of the stepped-up air campaign.

The cessation of hostilities, by all accounts, has collapsed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are trying to revive the ceasefire, but it is doubtful that it will be any more effective than the previous failed agreement. In any case, the renewed ceasefire will exclude Aleppo - that is basically giving Bashar al-Asad the green light to press the attack and take the city.

It really does not matter if a new cessation of hostilities is enacted. Many observers, including me, believe any ceasefire is merely a ruse on the part of the Syrians (and Russians) to continue military operations, taking advantage of a loophole in the agreement that permits attacks on "terrorist" groups - specifically, but not limited to the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) and ISIS. The Syrian regime labels anyone in the opposition as terrorists, making them valid targets.

A look at the map above clearly shows the dire situation facing the opposition fighters in Aleppo. The regime has been able to pressure them from the west, south and east. It is obvious what the regime and its allies are attempting to do - continue the push on these same three axes and cut off the enclave, then pivot to the north and retake the entire city.

The fall of Aleppo will cripple much of the rebel activity in the northern part of Syria - it will also have significant psychological impact on both sides. The retaking of Aleppo will be a major morale booster for the regime, and a major blow to the opposition. It will be a hard fight - both sides realize the importance of controlling Syria's largest city.

With the regime in control of the capital of Damascus and Aleppo, the perception will grow that the forces supporting Bashar al-Asad are on the path to defeating the opposition. It is analogous to controlling both Washington, DC and New York City.

I see no good options for the opposition in Aleppo - their military situation is untenable. With the Russian Air Force bringing effective airpower to the fight, and the Syrian Army refocusing its efforts on the rebels in Aleppo rather than on ISIS to the north of Palmyra, it is too much force for the opposition to withstand.

The coming battle might not be a rout, but it is only a matter of time until an army with the resources of a state, willing allies on the ground (Iran and Hizballah) and a committed air force (the Russians) capable of massing a large number of sorties in a concentrated area, wear down any resistance.

What does this impending defeat mean for U.S. interests? Cynically, it clears the way for all parties to concentrate their efforts against ISIS. Thus far, the U.S. coalition has limited its operations to attacks on ISIS and occasionally al-Qa'idah elements in the country.

Ironically, coalition operations have indirectly assisted the Syrian regime by relieving pressure on the government from ISIS, allowing the Syrians and their allies to focus their efforts on the rebels. The bulk of American support in Syria has been to anti-ISIS groups, not anti-regime groups. While there has been some support to anti-regime groups, it has been too little to make a difference.

It does not appear that the U.S.-led coalition is willing to provide protection or support for the rebels in Aleppo. They are on their own, facing the Syrian Army and Air Force, the Russian Air Force, Iranian IRGC and Army troops and Hizballah fighters.

How long will it take? Hard to say exactly, but time is running out.