Aleppo Siege Back in the Spotlight Ahead of Renewed Push to Freeze Hostilities

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Syrians walk amidst the rubble in search for survivors following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces in the Maysar neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 7, 2015. AFP/Zein al-Rifai

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Tuesday, February 17, 2015

All fronts in the city of Aleppo are expected to erupt at any moment. Syrian sources have recently talked about “tightening the siege on Aleppo,” which appears to be a message addressed to UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura. The next few days will likely determine the course of events in the capital of the north: either unprecedented fierce battles, or a first step down a long and bumpy political road.

Talk about the “Aleppo siege” has returned to the spotlight, coinciding with the day (Tuesday) on which UN Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is expected to brief the Security Council on the proposal to “freeze hostilities in Aleppo.” Although the realities on the ground in “the capital of northern Syria” have changed in the past two weeks, Syrian field sources have reiterated that the Syrian army and its allies continue to have the upper hand in the city, though that's not true.

But the prospective “siege” — whereby the army would encircle neighborhoods controlled by the opposition factions in Aleppo — is not only linked to developments on the ground. It will also depend on political decisions, according to which the military plan has been postponed to make way for political solutions. It is well known that the Aleppo front has special significance in regional (and international) calculations. It is one of Ankara’s main bargaining chips, one player that has so far maintained silence over the UN envoy's efforts and mission.

In the past two days, Syrian field sources have confirmed the arrival of huge military reinforcements to Aleppo, ahead of the “zero hour” for a major operation, which may extend beyond the “siege” on the city. Most notably, the sources referred to a “main role by Kurdish fighters in the prospective [military] act,” which (at least apparently) contradicts the recent talk about a rapprochement between the Kurds and the “Sham Front,” which includes the major armed groups in Aleppo affiliated with the Turks. In the last two days, the “Sham Front” tried to achieve new gains in their battles against the Syrian army and its allies on the Bureij and al-Mallah fronts, two key fronts in the “Aleppo siege” battle. Despite the significant progress made by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the north-eastern Aleppo countryside, which might lead to their control of wide parts of the Syrian-Turkish border, disagreement between the YPG and the Sham Front will put the latter in a critical situation.

The success of the “freeze of hostilities” initiative — albeit on a small scale, since it will be initially implemented in the Salah al-Din neighborhood — will likely affect other areas, given that the YPG and “Sham Front” have power over most areas that are outside the control of the Syrian state in Aleppo. Also, the clout of the jihadists on the ground — represented in two main factions, the Ansar al-Din Front, al-Nusra Front, and to a lesser extent the Ahrar al-Sham movement — cannot be overlooked, especially since Ahrar al-Sham and the Sham Front would agree to take part in negotiations if they receive a green light from Turkey.

Accordingly, based on the military and political realities in Aleppo, the Syrian leaks about an imminent decisive move in the city appear to be a message that the “freeze of hostilities” would be the last opportunity, and the failure to take advantage of this opportunity may lead to a “zero hour.” This does not mean that the military operation will inevitably succeed, as it might trigger unprecedented violent battles in the region, in which Ankara is expected to play a role other than a mere spectator, though not necessarily through direct involvement. Also, the allies of the Syrian army would likely play a major and declared role on the ground, as is the case in southern Syria.

Syrian Revolutionary Command Council refuses to meet with de Mistura

It is important to note the position of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council on de Mistura’s initiative, which is not necessarily an attempt to undermine the efforts of the UN envoy, and taking into account that regional influence may affect the positions of the “revolutionary blocs and alliances.”

In a statement issued yesterday, the “council” said that “all its factions refused to meet with the UN envoy due to his unfair stances towards the revolution of the Syrian people, which are demanding their legitimate right to freedom and a decent life.” The statement came in response to de Mistura's remarks, in which he stressed that “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is part of the solution in Syria,” which were described as “shameful and biased” in the statement.

The “council” includes a number of active military groups in the northern military scene, such as the “Army of the Mujahideen, the Nur al-Din Zanki Movement, the Army of Islam, the Sham Hawks Brigades, and the Hazm Movement.”

De Mistura concerned

The UN envoy’s spokeswoman Juliette Touma said that there is concern over the refusal of the “Revolutionary Command Council” to meet with de Mistura. Touma added that “we are aware of the statement and continue to follow with interest and concern the reactions coming out from the different groups and entities.”

Staffan de Mistura is expected to announce to the UN Security Council the Syrian government’s approval to freeze fighting in the Salah al-Din neighborhood in Aleppo, before the plan is extended to the rest of the city's neighborhoods in the event of the success of the first step.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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