The Battle of Aleppo: High Stakes for Both Sides

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on 25 September 2012, shows a digger along a street in the Arkoub district of the city of Aleppo (Photo: AFP - SANA)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The mounting violence in Aleppo – and also in rural areas around Damascus, Homs and Hama – reaffirms that military operations remain the only option being pursued in the Syrian crisis, even though both sides have so far failed to achieve the decisive victory they claimed they would.

Instead, they have engaged in a war of mutual attrition which only enables either side to make minor advances on the ground, insufficient to force the other to negotiate on its terms or retreat. A balance of power has evolved which enables the armed opposition to control large areas adjacent to the Turkish border, thanks to Ankara’s ample support, while the Syrian army retains control of most of the interior, the main cities, and the supply routes between them, thanks to its military superiority over the militias affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi groups.

Yet recent military operations underline the success which armed opposition groups have had in penetrating army defenses in several cities, particularly Damascus and Aleppo but also others where clashes have ignited. They no longer confine their actions to small-scale operations such as bombing military or security installation or ambushing isolated units or outposts, but have engaged the army in fierce head-on confrontations.

The battle underway in Aleppo is unprecedented in terms of the number of fighters involved and the level and sophistication of their weaponry and defenses. It is equally momentous for the army, which continues to hold together despite the severity of the blows it has both sustained and inflicted: the assassination of four of its top commanders, the bombing of its general staff headquarters and the loss of more than 15,000 of its soldiers, or its contribution to the killing of more than 20,000 civilians and the utter devastation of Syria.

The focus of both sides is on Aleppo. While the regime controls two thirds of the city, some 20,000 fighters have been gathered by the armed groups into the opposition-controlled remaining third. These include an estimated 5,000 Arab and foreign nationals, mostly hard-line ideologues who have received professional training in guerrilla warfare – unlike either the army, for which fighting in streets and alleyways is a novelty, or the FSA, whose members are former soldiers trained in conventional warfare.

The regime is waging the battle for its defense in Aleppo. Its survival has come to hinge on controlling the city, or at least the greater part of it. Its proximity to the Turkish border and other factors mean that if Aleppo is lost to the armed opposition, the regime will have to defend the walls of Damascus.

This accounts for the ferocity of the fighting. If the second biggest Sunni population center after Damascus, the country’s most populous city and economic powerhouse, were to fall into the hands of the opposition, so would the cities between it and the capital such as Homs and Hama, to the northwest such as Idlib, and to the south such as Deraa. Conversely, the regime expects to be able to prevail in the other cities if it succeeds in Aleppo.

Both sides are in effect approaching the exorbitantly destructive battle for Aleppo as though it will be the last big battle, determining the fate of Syria and in whose hands it will be.

While each may believe it will prevail military in Aleppo at the end of the day, prevailing politically is a more complex and unpredictable matter given the intervention of Arab and foreign players in the crisis and other considerations.

The regime, in this regard, appears cohesive, and the support of its allies Russia and Iran seems solid.

The opposition, however, seems riven with splits: between political factions, between armed groups, and between political and military leaders. As for its allies, the US is busy with presidential elections, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been unable to compel the West to intervene militarily, and are increasingly at odds over the arming of the opposition.

A new factor is at play here: fear that the fallout from the Syrian crisis could spill over beyond Syria and Lebanon to Saudi Arabia itself. Last month, Riyadh reportedly contacted the Lebanese authorities for help in preventing the smuggling of arms from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. They had discovered that groups engaged in supplying weapons to rebels in Syria were arranging to transfer them to the kingdom.

Turkey, too, is torn between continuing to try to topple the Assad regime without intervening directly and stepping back, as the Iranians and Russians have been urging it to do in their contacts. Ankara no longer feels sure that Assad‘s departure or forcible overthrow is inevitable, nor that it can take Aleppo from him and turn it into a buffer zone. This impression was reinforced by the advice given by Turkish intelligence to Lebanese officials negotiating over the release of Shia hostages in Syria: act on the assumption that Aleppo is in Assad’s hands.

Turkey’s ambivalence did not prevent it from mounting mild military retaliation against Syria’s violations of its territory. But it no longer calls for the overthrow of the regime, after repeatedly declaring its days numbered for much of the past 19 months. Now, contrary to what it has been saying for months, it is prepared to agree to the regime remaining but Assad departing. It used to insist the two were synonymous and that both had to be removed entirely when it was promoting itself to the world as the one country capable of breaking the back of the Assad regime.

After the Syrian president realized that the option of Western military intervention was no longer on the cards, nor that of overthrowing him by force, he turned into a de facto partner at the negotiating table. June’s Geneva Agreement broke new ground by proposing a balanced solution providing for dialogue between Assad and his opponents via a government of national unity to oversee a transitional period. But there was no real incentive to get the agreement implemented.

Assad is certainly no longer in a position, as he was a year ago, to impose what he wants. But he still has the capacity to prevent anything being imposed on him. He has won, at least until now, the battle for his survival and prevented his overthrow, but without creating a fait accompli. He can no longer say, anywhere in Syria, Aleppo and Damascus included, that things are going his way.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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