This week, residents in most government and opposition areas of Aleppo are without water after a major supply pump was cut by violence, with each side accusing the other of the disruption. It’s the latest in a string of calamities to hit Aleppo in the past month.
Last week, rebel fighters tunneled under the luxury Carlton Citadel Hotel, which was being used as a government base, and bombed it; the attack was a blow to Assad’s army in a city where it had been making slow but steady advances. The attack came after government planes dropped barrel bombs on a local school building, triggering global outrage. A subsequent air raid inflicted heavy casualties at a crowded market.
Meanwhile, tensions between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have escalated in the southern province of Deraa, after al-Nusra kidnapped a key Western-backed FSA commander last weekend.
We asked Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of Syria Comment, to weigh in on the fighting in Aleppo and whether rebel infighting in the south could impact Assad’s push in the north.
Syria Deeply: How is the battle in Aleppo intensifying?
Joshua Landis: The military front is moving to Aleppo.The government is refocusing its efforts northward. Earlier this year it closed the back door of resupply to Damascus with its victory in the Qalamoun region, which was a big vulnerability. That battle, which started in Qusayr over a year ago, was fought all along the border with Lebanon. So today, Hezbollah and the Syrian army have managed to really shut off the resupply line across the border used by Jabhat al-Nusra and other opposition groups operating in the south.
They’ve destroyed the opposition in Homs, starved and bombed them out. They are now focusing on Aleppo. They’re letting people in the north know, You can’t win by being against us – your life is going to be a misery. If you look carefully at the last reports from UNHCR and the World Food Programme, you see that Assad is getting the lion’s share of food aid, and he’s using that as a bait – lots of people from the rebel-held areas of Aleppo are crossing lines in order to come to the food. So he’s got a number of advantages in the province. He’s got an air force and artillery and tanks. He’s got food and a central government. All of which the rebels lack.
Syria Deeply: Was the targeting of a school intentional?
Landis: I don’t think they care what they bomb. On the same day, the rebels targeted a Shiite school in Damascus and blew it up, killing 40 kids. And they car bombed Homs, killing 100. And they did it so the Red Crescent rescuers would all be there when the second bomb went off. So nobody is scaring civilians here. This is about terror, and using that to destroy the will of the other side. They’re using every means possible to destroy the fighting spirit and to let the other side know, You can’t win. That’s what total war is. Anything goes.
Syria Deeply: How will inter-rebel tension in the south affect the government’s push in the north?
Landis: Nehmeh was a top dog in the southern front, and he’s been put up by Jordan, Israel and other participating countries. That southern front is primarily designed to protect the Jordanian and Israeli borders, and to keep the rebel option open. But it’s unclear that most of those people in that control room want a rebel operation against Damascus. But there is is an indication that they want their borders protected from Nusra, from al-Qaida. Neither Israel nor Jordan wants al-Qaida to own real estate across those borders. So al-Nusra taking this guy hostage and perhaps executing him should not come as a surprise, because the southern front is an anti-Nusra organization and they’re going to fight over who gets that territory.
Everybody was hoping for a spring offensive in Deraa. This was the word from three months back – that Saudi Arabia was angry and it wasn’t going to take it anymore. And it was going to arm up the rebels through Deraa. And they put in place Jarba, and a new Supreme Military Commander, all of whom were southern tribal types with clear links to Saudi Arabia. But that has been a bust. There is no southern front, there is no major militia out there who can take on Assad. They haven’t been given fancy weapons. They’ve had a slow trickle of missiles in, but that’s the least the U.S. can do to keep the rebels on a lifeline. That’s what’s been going on – the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are keeping the rebels on life support.