October 27, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Battle for Much More Than Aleppo

• Following several weeks of Russian airstrikes aimed primarily at the non-Islamic State forces in northern Syria, the Assad regime has made real but limited gains

• The Russian airstrikes followed up by regime and militia ground offensives will not be enough to dislodge the various rebel factions around the vital area of Aleppo

• The Islamic State has seized a sizable stretch of the Hama-Aleppo highway, presenting the regime with immediate challenges to its offensive plans

• With enough TOW missiles, the rebels can punish regime forces trying to move under the cover of Russian airstrikes.


Aleppo was never going to be easy for anyone to claim; the area is too vital and too crowded with shifting alliances. In the 1,687 days since the March 15, 2011 protests against the Assad regime lit the fuse for what is now a bloody civil war, Aleppo has become a symbol of the war’s brutality and complexity. Russian airstrikes in support of the regime have not changed that reality.

The Russians are learning what the United States has belatedly realized; there is no feasible air campaign that can be brought to bear over Syria (or Iraq or Yemen, for that matter) that can do enough to end an internecine ground war. Moscow likely hoped for a quick decisive action that would set the negotiating table in its favor. This has yet to happen, however, and is unlikely within the current parameters of the conflict. Russia is determined to maintain its access and influence in Syria and the Middle East—a quagmire, however, tends to sap determination as weeks turn to months, with limited returns.

On the ground and in the air around Aleppo are an increasing mix of rebels, extremists, loyalists, and superpowers. Assad ground forces comprise a mix of Syrian army factions, various militias, Hizballah, and Iranian combat advisors and troops. They are hoping to advance into rebel-held territory under the protection of Russian airstrikes. Regime forces have advanced in certain areas, but not widely enough or deeply enough to manifest a resounding shift in the battle, let alone the war. Both sides see Aleppo as a rare knock-out punch—of enough importance to drive various factions to negotiate, even from unfavorable positions.

The rebels and extremist groups around Aleppo—from the Free Syrian Army, Jaysh al-Fatah, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the so-called Islamic State—have been fighting somewhat separate battles against the regime around Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State recently fought separate battles against the regime on the Hama-Aleppo highway. There is no love lost between the two rival terrorist groups, but it is not impossible—and perhaps not entirely improbable—that they could coordinate efforts north of Aleppo.

The battle for Aleppo has huge strategic value in dictating how the entire Syrian civil war bleeds out in the coming months. A victory by the regime or the rebels would be a massive momentum boost and a validation of the supporting roles of their respective backers; Russia and Iran for Assad; Turkey, the U.S. and the Gulf Arab countries for the rebels. The modest advances by the regime in Aleppo have not only been costly in terms of armored equipment, but have also been offset by rebel and extremist gains elsewhere in Aleppo. Losing control of its main supply line between Hama and Aleppo was not what the regime envisioned when it pushed this latest offensive just a few weeks ago. As all sides expend more resources and effort in Aleppo, the area could become a definitive battle in a war that is desperate for an end.


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