February 11, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Battle for Aleppo and Syria

• Recent regime advances around Aleppo have set up a battle to decide not just the fate of Syria’s largest city, but perhaps of the war itself

• The proxy war in Syria is now one-sided; Russia, Iran, and Hizballah are supporting the Assad regime, while pro-rebel countries remain divided

• Reports that the water supply system in Aleppo is down add to the looming humanitarian crisis for hundreds of thousands of people if supply lines are choked

• How the anti-Assad coalition responds to pressure in Aleppo in the coming weeks will have enormous repercussions for the larger rebel movement and for the overall the outcome of the war.


Aleppo is the answer to the question: what happens when only one side of a proxy war is fighting a proxy war? The recent regime gains around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, are not due to Syrian army troops so much as a combination of Iranian troops, Hizballah and Shi’a militia fighters, and an overwhelming number of Russian airstrikes. These disparate forces are not training and equipping Assad’s military; they are now functioning as Assad’s military. Among the many pressing issues facing the countries who oppose Assad is how to increase support for the rebels without fighting for them and risking a greater war between nations.

Rebels in the north are reportedly resentful over what they perceive to be insufficient and inconsistent support from foreign backers, particularly the United States. This is as understandable as it was inevitable, given that the U.S. focus remains fighting the so-called Islamic State and not the Assad regime. The West has repeatedly stated there can be no military solution to the war, a view not shared by Russia, Iran, and Assad. 

The West, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia face two specific challenges as they determine what do next: how to contend with the humanitarian crisis likely to flow north from Aleppo; and how to compensate for the weakening rebel presence in the north. The answers to both of these questions will in no small measure determine the near and long-term nature of the conflict and its aftermath.

There are an estimated 300,000 civilians still in Aleppo, divided in support of the regime, the rebels, and neither side. Russian airstrikes have killed several hundred civilians in the latest escalation, and damaged water and power supplies. Humanitarian aid is still being delivered at great risk; supply lines north to the Turkish border are open, but under great pressure from the Syrian Army (SAA), as well as Iranian and Shi’a forces. An estimated 35,000 to 70,000 Syrians have recently fled north to the border, where they are trapped in tent cities. As bad as it is in crowded border crossing towns like Bab al-Salameh, it can get much worse; Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu stated that up to a million more people may flee the area if the fighting intensifies. Turkey is already sheltering 2.5 million refugees and, alongside countries like Jordan, is at its breaking point.

As desperate as the humanitarian situation is, maintaining support for the rebels while avoiding direct conflict with Russia is equally pressing. The window for many of the proposed options may have already closed; calls for a no-fly zone to protect civilians and rebels alike now run into Russian air defense systems set up since last fall. Russia and anti-Islamic State coalition forces have up until now deconflicted strikes in the crowded and dangerous skies over northern Syria. Because U.S.-led strikes are focused entirely on the Islamic State, Russia has not yet interfered; a move by the United States or others towards direct air support for the rebels battling Assad would merit an entirely different calculation. The closer the regime forces come to securing the border—and the more Russia achieves its own version of a no-fly zone for those trying to support the rebels from the north—the greater the chances of rebel collapse or dramatic escalation. As bad as the Syrian war is now, it can always get worse, and direct conflict between more powers can quickly spiral out of control.


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