The large-scale attacks on the city of Aleppo in Syria have been labeled a battle for the entire country, and justifiably so.
Reports of the fighting are contradictory, as the rebels claim to have taken over six neighborhoods in the city, as well as an important border crossing into Turkey.
On the other hand, the Syrian regime is firmly denying that version of the story, and claims to have expelled the rebels from many parts of the city.
The wide scale of the attacks, the involvement of the air force, the non-stop shelling, and the dramatic death count, however, attest to the importance of the battle.
The significance of the conquest of Aleppo by the rebels is hidden in the fact that Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria, and is considered the nation’s economic capital. By contrast, cities such as Daraa, Adlib, and even Homs, are less significant, and Free Syria Army successes in those cities amount to tactical victories, which will not bring about the collapse of Bashar Assad’s regime.
The fact that Aleppo played a mostly passive role in the conflict until recent weeks granted legitimacy to Assad’s claim that “the people are with the government,” and that the war against him was led by armed gangs.
The city is home to roughly 2.5 million residents, with another million or so living in towns in the district. Although most Aleppo residents are Sunnis, the city was cherished both by the current Assad and his father, as the country’s economic backbone. Today, many government workers of varying ranks and importance live there.
For this reason, Aleppo residents, mostly beneficiaries of government perks, preferred to keep away from the protests, to stay at home, and go about their business as other provinces were erupting.
The incorporation of Aleppo residents into the rebellion is a dramatic turning point in the conflict. If it leads to the city falling into the hands of the rebels, it could bolster the rebellion in Damascus, and even bring about the collapse of the regime.
The city’s proximity to Turkey, and the critical border crossing, make Aleppo a prime area in which to set up a secure zone. Turkey is clamoring for just that, as well as a base of operations for military, logistic, and civil operations for foreign entities, primarily Turkey, that could choose to intervene in the conflict.
If such a secure zone were set up in Aleppo, opposition leaders, currently active outside of Syria, could return to the country and establish a temporary government within the nation’s borders. The fact that opposition leaders have been active outside of the country has made it difficult for them to claim to be cooperating with the rebellion.
With this kind of background, Aleppo is on par with Benghazi, Libya, where Libyan opposition forces that defected from that nation’s army succeeded in establishing an administrative and command center, from which they then set out to conquer the rest of the country, and the capital, Tripoli.
As alluring as the comparison may seem, the circumstances in Syria are different, as Syrian opposition forces are still having a difficult time uniting under one central command.
It still appears that each militia, or “battalion,” controls the areas most familiar to them, with some degree of loose cooperation.
Moreover, clashes continue to flare up between rebel groups, some of them over ethnic or religious differences. Other conflicts are fueled by different groups’ apparent motive to use conquered areas as bases of power following Assad’s downfall.
According to reports coming from the territory surrounding Aleppo, dozens of organizations are involved in the fighting, including Salafis, groups associated with al-Qaida, independent Kurdish forces, and local gangs. The general assumption is also that every organization is backed by a foreign power – providing support for “their” activists.
The involvement of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Turkey, and recent financial and munitions support from the United States, is not hidden, but out in the open.
Such involvement has also failed to unite the opposition forces, and some nations, such as Iran and Iraq, have no interest in doing so, and rather intend to take advantage of the splits within the opposition as a means to influence Syria in the future.
Another aspect of the hidden importance in the battle over Aleppo, is that control of the city could establish a center for the rebels, as well as a focus point for organized, large-scale international aid, something that has been missing up until this point.
It could also be a turning point for Russia and China, which still believe in Assad’s ability to re-conquer the country.
The battle could also lead to widespread defections, many more than have already occurred, as the families of many high ranking officers live in Aleppo, and a great deal of them have already fled to Turkey or Lebanon.
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