Battle for Aleppo Carries High Stakes for Syria

The Syrian city of Aleppo is divided and in ruins. Russia and Iran support the regime of Bashar al-Assad while the United States targets the Islamic State and maintains that conflict will continue as long as the dictator remains in power. Protests against the regime in 2011 turned to rebellion, drawing both moderate Syrians and sectarian fighters. Rebel groups, like al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, change names and members quickly shift allegiance, complicating the US position. “Nusra’s ability to build alliances with other rebel groups, including those that are relatively secular, puts it in a position to benefit from the setbacks suffered by Islamic State elsewhere in Syria and in Iraq,” reports Yaroslav Trofimov for the Wall Street Journal. Tens of thousands of Syrians endure airstrikes, urban warfare, blockades and humanitarian crisis. More than 6 million are internally displaced in Syria, and more than 4 million others have fled the country. The UN estimates more than 400,000 people have been killed. – YaleGlobal

Battle for Aleppo Carries High Stakes for Syria

Rising prominence for al Qaeda spinoff, Nusra Front also known as Syrian Conquest Front, complicates US strategy in fighting extremists
Yaroslav Trofimov
Friday, August 12, 2016

The escalating fight for Aleppo has emerged as a test of whether Russia and Iran can in fact help President Bashar al-Assad win a decisive battle in the five-year Syrian war—and whether al Qaeda’s local spinoff will become the dominant force among Sunni rebels seeking to oust him.

The uneasy status quo around Syria’s biggest city, divided for years into the rebel-held eastern half and the regime-controlled west, collapsed in late July. That is when government forces, aided by Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, and Russian air power, capitalized on past advances and severed Castello Road, the sole lifeline that connected east Aleppo to wider rebel areas.

With the prospect of some 275,000 people in east Aleppo forced to choose between catastrophe or surrender, rebel forces surprised the regime last week by mounting a successful counteroffensive. They pierced the blockade by seizing the Ramousseh complex of military bases and surrounding areas in the city’s southwest.

Those advances were made possible by the participation of the Syrian Conquest Front, the new name of the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate previously known as Nusra Front. Importantly, they also cut off the regime’s main supply route into west Aleppo, home to about a million people.

As a result, both east and west Aleppo are now connected to the outside world only by tenuous and dangerous corridors that are insufficient to supply their inhabitants. The city hasn’t had running water for days and power is intermittent.

“If the fighting continues, it is conceivable that civilians on both sides of Aleppo could be cut off from the basic assistance they need,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power warned at a meeting on the crisis this week.

But, precisely because this status quo is unsustainable for either side, the fighting is intensifying, with Russia launching airstrike after airstrike and Hezbollah and other foreign Shiite militias pouring in more troops to back regime forces.

In close-quarter urban combat, however, the effectiveness of Russian air sorties has been limited. And those bombs, despite causing widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, so far have failed to significantly reverse rebel gains.

“Breaking the siege of Aleppo is breaking the regime’s plan to bring the opposition to its knees—not just in northwest Syria, but everywhere,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The fact that the rebranded Nusra played a major role in punching through the blockade of east Aleppo, and that the U.S. and other Western nations opposed to the Assad regime limited themselves to expressions of concern, is likely to have a lasting effect on the nature of the Syrian rebellion.

While the U.S. military campaign in Syria is focused on combating Islamic State, which isn’t directly involved in the battle for Aleppo, the U.S. also considers Nusra a terrorist organization and has, on occasion, targeted the group—even though the Syrian Conquest Front claimed it is no longer part of al Qaeda when it changed its name.

“Whatever leverage the U.S. had with the moderate opposition diminishes by the day, especially as Nusra basically led the offensive,” said Muath al Wari, senior analyst at the Center for American Progress and a former official in the United Arab Emirates. “How can moderate opposition forces cooperate with the U.S. while it, along with Russia, bombs the very Nusra that broke the siege of Aleppo?”

Nusra’s ability to build alliances with other rebel groups, including those that are relatively secular, puts it in a position to benefit from the setbacks suffered by Islamic State elsewhere in Syria and in Iraq. The two radical groups diverge on political strategy rather than fundamental goals, and many fleeing Islamic State members are likely to end up in Nusra’s ranks, Western officials worry.

If the Nusra-dominated rebel alliance succeeds in imposing a stranglehold on western Aleppo, where the population is more sympathetic to the regime and where many members of Christian, Alawite, and Kurdish minorities have sought refuge, the U.S. and its allies would face a difficult predicament. Mr. Assad and many key regime figures are Alawites.

Continuing to help rebel groups involved in such a blockade would make the U.S. complicit in its toll—while acting against it would turn the U.S. and other Western nations into allies of the Assad regime, which is despised by most Syrians.

After all, it is hard to deny the sectarian nature of the rebel offensive: it was named by the main participants after Ibrahim al-Youssef, the Sunni Islamist officer who in 1979 gunned down dozens of Alawite cadets at the Aleppo artillery school in Ramousseh, the focus of the latest fighting. Many inhabitants of west Aleppo have reason to fear for their lives should that half of the city fall to Nusra and other radical groups.

“A siege of western Aleppo would be a massive humanitarian tragedy, and would put the spotlight on the rebels, who now would be enforcers rather than victims,” said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. “But, after years of their own suffering being ignored, there is the risk that many rebels and their supporters will shrug off humanitarian requirements and the advice of their external supporters.”

Yaroslav Trofimov writes a weekly column, Middle East Crossroads, about the region stretching from West Africa to Pakistan.

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