Aleppo: The Turkish-Syrian Battle
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Two months after the outbreak of fighting in Aleppo, the city has come to symbolize the whole Syrian crisis. Ever since the crisis spread to Aleppo and Damascus in late July, Syria’s second city has been witnessing daily battles with neither side able to make any decisive gains.
The rural areas of the Aleppo district appear to be outside the control of the state, but government forces are still holding on to a sizeable part of the nearby suburbs.
The Assad regime has never declared being close to victory in Aleppo, as it did before the decisive battles in Homs and al-Zabadani, and the government has been never been able to quell the fighting there. The opposition also has yet to confirm that it has taken the city, despite the steady supply of weapons and fighters from Turkey.
In fact, the protracted military operations taking place in the city have dampened expectations about the imminent fall of Assad and have reinforced the regime’s claims that its military and security forces remain loyal and united.
The ongoing struggle for Aleppo further suggests that the Syrian crisis will continue to drag on much longer than the West, particularly Washington, predicted. US officials insisted as far back as July 2011 that Assad was on the verge of being toppled, that it was just a matter of weeks, which became months.
The battle for Aleppo reflects the military, political and social aspects of the struggle.
First, it has come to represent the new international balance of forces in Syria that set the rules of engagement for both the regime and the opposition in such a way as to prolong the conflict, which may very well end in a grand compromise that brings all parties together.
Despite Assad’s inability to control large parts of the country, he has so far been able to withstand all the pressure bearing down on his regime. The critical support provided by Russia, China and Iran has made any compromise without him virtually impossible.
Moscow’s protection of Assad has prevented Western military intervention in Syria, but Russia would not be standing by Assad at the UN if his regime and military were truly collapsing.
After losing hope that a military coup would rid them of Assad, many in the opposition now believe that assassinating him is only one way to remove him from any final compromise. But after wiping out four of his top commanders on July 18 without causing any major tremors in the military and security forces, the possibility of reaching Assad appears unlikely.
Second, the Aleppo battle has become more of a showdown between Turkey and Syria than a fight between the regime and the armed opposition. Since last July, news about the fighting in Aleppo has eclipsed news of similar confrontations taking place on the outskirts of Damascus, Deir Ezzor, Homs, Idlib and Daraa. Aleppo’s rural areas, like Homs before it, have suffered extensive damage with neither side able to gain the upper hand.
Despite the city’s proximity to Turkey, Ankara seems to have failed to achieve a political or military victory in Aleppo, despite its best efforts to provide the armed opposition with weapons and supplies, as well as facilitating the entry of foreign fighters, not to mention the financial support flooding in to the opposition.
Add to that the Syrian refugee camps that Turkey hosts along the border, some of which have become military training camps where Turkish officers and experts assist the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and provide them with a vast communications network.
After its failure in Idlib last year, Turkey was unable to impose a buffer zone in Aleppo which could have become a safe haven for the armed rebels and a base of operations inside Syria for the Syrian National Council (SNC). With a headquarters inside Syria, it would have been easier for the Turkish-backed SNC to establish its legitimacy and gain support.
The battle for Aleppo has trapped Turkey; Ankara is unable to either continue the fight there or retreat from it, but it must continue to support the offensive as long as the battle might go either way.
Third, the Syrian president seems to have prepared himself for a long war after absorbing the initial blow. He has come to terms with the fact that the country is experiencing an internal confrontation that could very well turn into a full-fledged civil war.
Syria has endured many internal struggles over the last century, and they usually ended with the military seizing power after a confrontation with the political wing of the regime or one of the dominant political parties. Sometimes the dispute would be between two political parties or among the commanding officers themselves, but none of these ever degenerated into a civil war.
The closest the country came to outright sectarian strife was in 1954 when the air force bombed Jabal al-Druze, prompting major cities like Homs and Aleppo to rise up in rebellion. But the event never led to anything resembling a civil war.
For a year and a half now, the Syrian army has been fighting against many different groups, each with its own aims and ideologies. Some of these confrontations have been community or sect-based, while others involve army defectors. A third group, however, is fighting an unwinnable war of attrition based on an extremist sectarian ideology in defense of certain sects.
In the first three months of the uprising, the officers close to Assad were clearly distressed by the possibility of a quickly expanding rebellion spreading out from Daraa and taking over a number of Syrian cities.
Neither the army nor the many overlapping intelligence agencies thought such an explosion could occur in Syria. At a loss over how to deal with it, the army resorted to heavy-handed repression which only hastened the deterioration of the situation.
Since the last coup in 1970, the regime has not resorted to using the military in any internal dispute, preferring to leave such tasks to the various military and civilian intelligence services. The only exception was 1982 Hama, which started as an intelligence operation in 1976 and ended with the military getting involved six years later.
Otherwise, Hafez al-Assad rarely used the armed forces outside his confrontations with Israel, except when he sent the Syrian army into Lebanon.
All of this is enough to suggest that Bashar is preparing his regime for an extended war. The armed Syrian opposition is no longer his only enemy. For the regime, the battle for Aleppo represents the last Turkish attempt to create a buffer zone on Syrian soil, after having failed in Hama and Homs, which are far from its border, and even in Idlib, which is not far from Ankara’s reach.
Certainly, these cities and the battles that ravaged them were never given the kind of strategic importance that the struggle taking place in Aleppo today commands.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.