This week Syrian government forces reportedly encircled Aleppo, the divided city that is the Syrian opposition’s last remaining metropolitan stronghold. Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad renewed their offensive on Aleppo earlier this summer, in an attempt to finally claim victory in a battle that has been raging, neighborhood by neighborhood, for more than two years.
Both sides need the city, which is roughly a two-hour drive from the Turkish border. It’s a key hub for supply lines and has served as a base of operations for the rebellion in the north. “Aleppo would give the regime a major geographical hold in the middle of an opposition area,” says Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who has been tracking the battle. “And losing it would threaten the opposition’s supply lines from Turkey.”
We asked Itani and Riad Kahwaji, the CEO of Dubai-based thinktank INEGMA, to weigh in on the battle in Aleppo, the deadly distraction of ISIS, and whether a regime victory would mean the end of the opposition.
Syria Deeply: How has the regime been able to encircle Aleppo almost entirely? How has it made gains so quickly there?
Riad Kahwaji: It’s quite clear that the regime has managed to do this, after two long years, and that it’s happening now because of two major developments.
The first is that it has benefitted from the unlimited aid from Iran and Hezbollah, which has been sending so many fighters in to fight alongside Assad’s forces. The second development is that ISIS has created a new front for the rebels, and that fight has taken away many fighters from the Aleppo front.
We can also include continued divisions within the opposition. It was obvious that it was only a matter of time before the Free Syrian Army’s ranks fall apart. In parts of the country, they’ve been on the retreat for a while. And they haven’t been able to get their act together. This factors in heavily. If nothing changes on all these issues, it’s only a matter of time before they lose more ground in the north.
Faysal Itani: The progress the regime has been making predates ISIS’s decision to resume their westward offensive from Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, that’s much more recent. Over the past couple of months the regime has slowly, agonizingly been taking surrounding suburbs and neighborhoods and supply liens from the rebels, starting from the east and circling counterclockwise.
Now ISIS is coming to the scene, and despite the fact that the rebels inside Aleppo have tried to launch counterattacks, the regime now has the better of them. With ISIS drawing away resources and exposing the opposition’s rear, they have serious trouble.
Whether that trouble means the regime takes Aleppo, that’s another thing. Aleppo is a large sprawling city, and a lot of it has already been destroyed and will be hard to get. Its fall isn’t imminent by any means. Losing it to the regime, or even to ISIS, would be an intense blow to the opposition. It would be a major strategic and symbolic victory for the regime. I don’t think ISIS is going to take Aleppo, but ISIS is certainly contributing to the other opposition groups’ collapse there.
Syria Deeply: If it loses Aleppo, is this the end of the Syrian opposition?
Kahwaji: This does not mean it’s going to be the end of the opposition. The conflict in Syria has now taken on a different course – it’s become part of a wider picture, which is, of course, what’s happening in Iraq. ISIS has linked the Syria situation to that of Iraq.
In Aleppo, we’ll have to wait and see whether the regime will take it, or whether it’s going to end up in the hands of ISIS. We’ve seen ISIS move in and kick the regime out of places that the opposition had failed to control before, like in Raqqa. There, after a long battle between the opposition and regime regiments, ISIS managed to come in and take over. The same thing is under way now in Deir Ezzor, where it’s making big gains. The major advantage ISIS has over the opposition in situations like Aleppo, and previously in Raqqa, is that it’s unified, under one leader – unlike the disintegrating rebel forces.
Itani: Some people say the reports are an exaggeration, but I’m not sure why because looking purely at the military landscape, there’s a problem. They’ve already expended so many resources and taken so many losses there.