Analysis |

Syrian Rebels Can Blame America for Loss of Aleppo

The Russians and Syrian Kurds tipped the odds in the regime’s favor; the next battle will likely be in the diplomatic arena.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Syrian pro-government forces stand on top of a building overlooking Aleppo in the city's Bustan al-Basha neighborhood on November 28, 2016, during their assault to retake the entire northern city from rebel fighters.
Syrian pro-government forces stand on top of a building overlooking Aleppo on November 28, 2016, during their assault to retake the entire northern city from rebel fighters.Credit: George Ourfalian / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The battle for Aleppo hasn’t ended, but the gains made by the Assad regime and its affiliates in the eastern part of the city point to an imminent victory.

On Sunday and Monday, the forces of President Bashar Assad – backed by Russian aerial support – succeeded in capturing two important neighborhoods in the city’s northeast. This time, paradoxically, they are also being helped by the Syrian-Kurdish forces that have for some time controlled one of the neighborhoods in the north of the city.

According to opposition estimates, rebel forces have lost about half of the areas that were previously under their control in the eastern part of the city (the western part fell to the Syrian regime a while ago).

Reports on the ground indicate that several thousand civilians who were under siege managed to flee to the west and to the neighborhood controlled by the Kurds. Over the next few days, the rate of abandonment by civilians will probably increase, meaning that, after more than six months, they will be able to receive humanitarian assistance and medical care. However, more than 200,000 civilians are still trapped inside the battle zone between the rebel forces and the regime.

The regime’s control of Aleppo is likely to be a strategic turning point in the campaign across all of Syria. Aleppo is important not only because of its size and geographical location: it is on a crucial crossroads between Syria and Turkey in the north, and between Aleppo and the city of Raqqa – the de facto capital of the Islamic State group – to the east. Aleppo is a symbol of resistance to the Assad regime, and a supreme test of the ongoing ability of the rebels to dictate the course of the campaign.

Aleppo is also the crossroads of the battle between Russia and the United States, and a regime victory in the city will also signal America’s failure in conducting military campaigns and supporting the rebels.

Russia aims to achieve a final result in Aleppo before the new Trump administration begins its term on January 20, in order to determine facts on the ground ahead of the diplomatic negotiations whose renewal Russia has opposed until now – and to provide Assad with a significant achievement against the rebels.

With Aleppo in his grip, Assad will be able to report to the international convention – whose date is yet to be determined – from a position of strength, one from which he will be able to dictate his terms.

Syrian regime forces standing in Aleppo's Bustan al-Basha neighborhood on November 28, 2016, during their assault to retake the entire city from rebel fighters.Credit: George Ourfalian/AFP

There are several reasons for the weakness of the rebels in Aleppo, the most important being the absence of the United States from the military arena and total Russian domination of how the battles are being waged.

Under outgoing President Barack Obama, the U.S. administration “abandoned” the arena – and the support it had promised the rebels – when it decided that the war against ISIS was its ultimate objective. This decision forced the “moderate” rebel organizations, and especially the Free Syrian Army, to refrain from the fight against Assad and make do instead with defending the borders between Syria and Jordan and Turkey.

The Free Syrian Army, whose funding came mainly from Saudi Arabia and the United States, was forced to obey the U.S. dictate all the time while the aid it received from the administration was steadily declining. As a result, it relied on its partnership with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front), which is affiliated to Al-Qaida – a partnership that gave Russia an excuse to attack the Free Syrian Army with the claim that it cooperates with the Islamist group.

The efforts of the U.S. administration to convince the Free Syrian Army to sever its ties with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham were unsuccessful until recently. But in light of the regime’s successes in Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army is likely to withdraw from parts of eastern Aleppo. By so doing, it will pave the way for the continued occupation of the city by Assad’s forces.

The military weakness of the Free Syrian Army was the reason why other militias decided to join Assad’s forces, thereby significantly undermining the strength of the rebels.

Another significant turning point is the addition of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which captured one of the neighborhoods alongside Assad’s army. The irony is that these forces are defined by Turkey as terrorist organizations that must be destroyed, as Turkey did on its border with Syria, along with the Free Syrian Army. But Russia and the Syrian regime are treating them as allies, despite Turkey’s opposition.

It’s possible that the Syrian Kurds’ cooperation with Assad is based on the assessment and hope that the Assad regime will allow them to establish an independent region along the border with Turkey when the war ends. It’s doubtful whether this aspiration will be realized, but meanwhile the Kurds are likely to rely on Russian assistance in the war being waged in the Syrian-Kurdish region.

The fact that the Syrian Kurds are fighting alongside Assad is dividing the rebel forces even further. Moreover, there is a real war between the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army due to the latter’s assistance to Turkey in the border war between the two countries. This means that the capture of Aleppo is liable to increase Turkey’s military intervention in Syria, in order to prevent the possibility that Syrian-Kurdish cooperation will provide the Kurds with support in their efforts to establish an autonomous region on the border.

For the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Aleppo, the city’s occupation by Assad is likely to offer hope for the start of a long and expensive rehabilitation process. The international consensus increasingly recognizes the fact that Assad is likely to be a part of the solution, especially in light of the rebels’ impotence. The expectation, therefore, is that Aleppo will fall quickly, thus making it possible to move onto the diplomatic stage.

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