Too Big to Fall
Aleppo was the Syrian rebels’ first big prize. If Assad retakes it, is the war as good as over?
Is the Syrian opposition about to lose Aleppo? With the world’s attention focused on the war in Gaza and the aftermath of the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has made great strides in recapturing the country’s largest city. Earlier this month, and without much of a fight, the regime took the strategic industrial area of Sheikh Najjar in northeastern Aleppo, and for the first time in a year it attempted to enter the rebel-held neighborhoods of Salaheddin and Bustan al-Basha.
The regime’s recent gains mean that it may be able to strangle the opposition’s strongholds in Aleppo, and threaten its support networks outside the city. Sheikh Najjar is a strategic gateway for the regime into Aleppo’s northern countryside, and if it can capture the still rebel-held Infantry School and Handarat camp, it can secure northeastern Aleppo and encircle the rebels. It can also disrupt the rebels’ supply lines to Turkey, which represent their main source for arms and supplies.
Thus, the rebels in Aleppo find themselves squeezed from all sides: They are facing pressure from much of the city’s surrounding countryside, the loss of strategic territory on the outskirts of Aleppo, and now regime incursions into the city’s internal districts. The regime has also successfully opened a supply route into Aleppo from the southern countryside, which activists say was one of the key reasons for the regime’s latest advances in the city. To make matters even worse, the Islamic State (IS), previously known as ISIS, is advancing toward Aleppo from the east, from its strongholds in the cities of Raqqa and al-Bab.
Aleppo’s recapture by the regime would be catastrophic for the opposition. From the opposition’s point of view, the city is too big to fall: The takeover of the country’s northern economic hub in 2012 helped the opposition to establish itself as a viable challenge for the regime. If it now falls to the regime, the opposition would have lost four main provinces — after Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Homs — to its rivals in the regime and the Islamic State. According to activists, fighters, and residents of Aleppo, there are three primary reasons for the precipitous decline in the opposition’s fortunes in the city.
The first reason is that the rebels are fighting on three fronts. Besides the regime, rebels are concerned about the Islamic State making a comeback. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around 7,000 people have died during the rebels’ fighting against IS — battles that have sapped the rebels’ strength in the fight against the regime. Fresh from the capture of large swaths of northern Iraq, the jihadist movement is also resurgent in Syria: It controls al-Bab, 50 miles from Aleppo, and appears to be trying to take the areas near Aleppo International Airport on the way to Sheikh Najjar. If that happens, the Islamic State will be in the regime’s backyard, and the rebels’ movement from Aleppo to the northern countryside will become more restricted.
The rebels are also beset by internal conflicts. Some of the main opposition factions have launched a campaign against rogue groups affiliated with them over robbery and looting. The Islamic Front, a merger of some of Syria’s most powerful Islamist brigades, kicked out one of its constituent brigades, Qabdat al-Shamal, and has clashed with it because the group rejected a trial. The Tawhid Brigade (Liwa al-Tawhid), which was credited with the takeover of Aleppo in 2012, is also struggling. The group has been drained by fighting with IS and by infighting: After the death last November of its charismatic leader, Abdul Qader Saleh, the coalition lost many of its fighters to other groups, and has recently split into two factions.
The second reason for the opposition’s setbacks is a sharp drop in military help from foreign sponsors. Although rebel groups had enough fighters to prevent the regime from entering some areas around Aleppo, they said they were forced to concede the battle because they did not have sufficient ammunition. The Islamic Front, in Aleppo and elsewhere, has been affected by U.S.-backed measures to ensure resources reach only vetted groups. Aside from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, the only two groups that appear to be doing well are Harakat Hazm and Harakat Noureddin al-Zinki, both of which are supported by the Saudis and the Americans — and both of which have received U.S.-made anti-tank guided missiles. Although it has few fighters compared to other groups, Harakat Hazm is fighting on the front lines, especially in the Handarat camp, the hot spot closest to Sheikh Najjar.
The alienation of the local population from the rebel groups is another important factor that has played into the hands of the regime. Most of the fighters in Aleppo come from the countryside, and it is common to hear from residents that the fighters pay little attention to the destruction of their home city. "The countryside has been marginalized for 50 years, and [so fighters from there] dealt with the city residents out of spite in many cases," said Ahmed Hasan, an activist from the northern countryside, who spent six months in a regime prison in Damascus before he was released in mid-July. "They did not try to win the population’s hearts and minds."
As a result, the regime’s "barrel diplomacy" — a caustic term used by Syrians to describe Assad’s strategy of bombarding Aleppo with barrel bombs — has pushed some people to welcome peace deals with the regime. According to Hasan, who said he was privy to such moves, delegations from some rebel-held areas have been visiting Damascus as part of negotiations for peace deals similar to the ones struck in districts around the capital. "Now there are delegations visiting the [presidential] palace from [the border town of] Azaz and from many areas in [the] Aleppo countryside."
Hasan adds that the regime has offered residents reassurances of safety, security, and stability — unlike the opposition. Despite Assad’s use of barrel bombs, the prospect of an end to the violence is tempting for civilians who have spent the past months coping not only with fighting between the rebels and the regime, but also with robbery and looting from rebel sub-factions. As one frustrated activist put it, "Maybe the regime’s controlling of Aleppo would be the best thing that happens to the civilians."
Collaboration between local forces and the regime may be one reason why the regime took Sheikh Najjar with such ease, activists suspect. "There were rumors of a treason from within the industrial area," one activist said. "Some people no longer trust the rebels because they proved to be a failure in managing liberated areas, in addition to the miserable security situation."
Whether the regime can make good on its promises to rebuild the industrial area, however, is an open question. "The regime has reassured people and businesses in these areas to repair and protect their property," another activist said. "Barrels are getting people to surrender to the regime, [and] reach out to it."
While these dynamics have played out elsewhere in Syria without affecting the military situation significantly, the combination of all of them at once makes the possibility of the regime’s recapture of Aleppo ever more real. To be sure, this will not happen quickly or easily: The regime’s strategy does not appear to involve a complete takeover of Aleppo in the short term, and the rebels still have cards to play — such as their ability to open quiet fronts inside Aleppo if the regime encircles them at the outskirts. Meanwhile, the rebels inside the city still have an extremely tight grip over several key districts. As one rebel fighter jokingly put it: "It is easier to smuggle heroin from Gaza to Israel than to enter some rebel-held districts, especially in the Old City and eastern Aleppo."
But the rebels risk being transformed from a force dedicated to pushing back regime advances and attacking regime-held areas into one trying to break a siege. If the regime can link the areas loyal to it, such as the Shiite villages of Nubl and Zahraa, to areas that favor the regime but are currently under rebel control, the rebels’ lives will become much harder.
It is hard to predict what will happen in Aleppo, but the situation does not look good for the opposition. Unless something fundamental changes in the dynamics of the conflict, it may lose its most important foothold in the battle against Assad.