November 30, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The High Stakes in Aleppo

• Aleppo was the largest city in Syria prior to the Syrian civil war; it is now threatening to be the location of the rebels’ largest defeat if the eastern portion of the city is lost to regime forces.

• The Assad regime’s forces—backed by Russian airpower and Iranian and Hizballah troops—are close to dividing the rebel-held part of Aleppo in two.

• On November 29, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that 20,000 people had fled Aleppo over the previous 72 hours, as the regime dropped leaflets warning of annihilation and the rebels continued to shell western Aleppo.

• A rebel defeat in Aleppo will not mean the end of the war, but it may bring about a shift in the fighting leading to a more persistent, extremist-dominated guerrilla style conflict.

While the Syrian civil war has experienced many alleged ‘turning points’, the slow-motion collapse of rebel-held east Aleppo would be among the most significant rebel losses since the conflict began in 2011. The Assad regime’s forces—which are depleted but still functioning—and their Iranian and Hizballah allies have made sizable gains in recent days in rebel-held parts of Aleppo. The regime’s gains on the ground have been enabled by extensive direct Russian air support, which has destroyed much of east Aleppo’s critical infrastructure and inflicted serious rebel losses.

The international outcry over the humanitarian atrocities being inflicted by the joint Syrian-Russian air campaign has had no impact on lessening the bombardment. The regime and its backers have gone ‘all in’ on Aleppo, and are aiming to deliver a crushing blow in what has been a long-time stronghold of relatively moderate rebel factions. The Assad regime has started to drop leaflets offering the residents of east Aleppo the Faustian choice of surrendering to a government known for brutal atrocities, or suffering annihilation by the imminent air and ground offensive. 

Aleppo is already an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, presenting enormous immediate and long-term consequences. The recent fighting—and the expected increase in indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling—will only exacerbate an already horrible situation. At least 200 civilians have been killed in the past week of fighting; as rebel-held territory is squeezed the situation will undoubtedly worsen. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that 20,000 people have fled Aleppo since November 26; many more will likely follow suit if airstrikes intensify.

A rebel defeat in Aleppo—which appears likely though not certain—will not mean the end of the war. The horrific truth of the Syrian conflict—which has left hundreds of thousands dead—is that there does not appear to be any feasible end to the fighting. The rebels’ loss of Aleppo would be a significant event, but the conflict—and the accompanying extremism—will persist. The so-called Islamic State’s fortunes are not tied to Aleppo, nor are those of the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Aleppo is home to many Western-supported elements of what was once the Free Syrian Army as well as other groups. The fate of many of these groups is tied to Aleppo. It will be difficult for any moderate rebel groups to operate without some sort of stronghold that can be replenished and defended.


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