On Monday, Syrian regime forces made headway against opposition forces in neighborhoods around Aleppo, part of a new siege campaign in the country’s second-largest city. The impact on the opposition could be huge: if they lose Aleppo, Assad will have control of all four major Syrian cities.
The government has been barrel bombing opposition-held areas of the city since December, creating one of the largest refugee streams seen since the beginning of the conflict. Now, after months of stalemate, it wants to put on enough pressure to finally push rebels out of the city and into rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
We asked Joshua Landis, the editor of Syria Comment and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, to weigh in on whether Assad’s siege will mean the end of the moderate opposition.
Syria Deeply: How important is Aleppo right now?
Landis: Aleppo is very important. You cannot be a real opposition with ambitions if you don’t have one of Syria’s four major cities, preferably two. Syria is basically Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Damascus. The rebels claim to be in control of 60 percent of Syrian territory in the north. If they lose Aleppo, they’ve got some poor countryside in Idlib that’s been surrounded and eventually will be picked off. And Assad increases his position as the only power that can fight ISIS.
Syria Deeply: If Assad retakes Aleppo with this siege, will it be the end of the moderate opposition?
Landis: After Homs fell, Aleppo was the big front. The Syrian government owns Damascus, Homs and Hama. If it can retake Aleppo, which it seems to be on the way to doing, the Syrian opposition will not be viable for a lot longer. Already, the international community has lost faith. The half-billion that Obama earmarked for the moderate opposition will be too little, too late.
Assad forces are going to slowly start making a circle around the city center, and then they’ll move in. They’ll starve people, they’ll bomb them, and then destroy the neighborhoods that resist. They will slowly close the door on the rebels in the city – this is how they retook Qalamoun, and how they consolidated their hold over Damascus. In Aleppo, they’ve been using barrel bombs, which drive the population out of the areas in which they use them. Their Aleppo policy has been much more aggressive, particularly because they haven’t had a strong position in Aleppo. But it works. Ultimately, you destroy the morale of the opposition.
Then the international community has to see Assad as the alternative to ISIS. The West has begun to doubt its entire policy of democracy promotion and has begun looking at this simply: if you destroy the state, you get chaos, you get ISIS. So you have to side with the state, no matter how brutal or objectionable. This is the calculation that Assad is counting on. The quicker he can destroy the urban opposition, the more clear the choice to back him becomes.
The Sunnis are split. Today, the urban and middle classes have been re-evaluating their flirtation with the opposition. Once Aleppo falls and they see the chaos that brings, the desire for security and stability will go up. Their objection to the lower-class rural militias will increase.
Syria Deeply: What do you see happening in Aleppo over the next few months?
Landis: The regime is already making serious headway. But it’s going to be slow going because it’s urban warfare, street by street, and the opposition will make it costly for the regime. There are going to be booby trapped houses and underground tunnels. The regime doesn’t want its men to be killed, they don’t have enough men. We’re going to see a slow destruction of what’s left of Aleppo. This is going to drive the remaining FSA fighters into the arms of ISIS.
We’ve already seen this, because they’re trapped between Assad and ISIS. Just like the Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq who are saying Baghdadi is better than Maliki, many opposition leaders in Sunni towns in the north are going to make that calculation. But once they do that, they’ve lost any possibility of Western support.