By: Christopher Kozak
The Syrian regime and its allies launched a major, multi-pronged offensive in Aleppo Province on October 15 in order to bolster the regime's foothold in Aleppo City. Both Russia and Iran likely aim to enable Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reassert control over Syria’s largest city given the heavy involvement of their military forces in these operations. Russia and Iran will not limit their support to reinforcing the regime's defenses in its heartland along the Syrian coast. Regime forces supported by Iranian proxy fighters conducted an unsuccessful operation to complete the encirclement of rebel forces inside Aleppo City in February 2015. Expanded Russian and Iranian support could enable the Syrian regime to mount a renewed effort to besiege the city.
The renewed ground operations aim at a minimum to relieve the long-standing sieges of pro-regime enclaves in Aleppo Province. Joint regime and Iranian forces began a push to relieve several hundred Syrian Army soldiers trapped in the Kuweires Airbase east of Aleppo City on October 15. ISIS forces have threatened to overrun the airbase at least twice over the past few months. Pro-regime forces may also ultimately seek to lift the siege on the Shi’a-majority towns of Nubl and Zahraa northwest of Aleppo City, which have been besieged by rebel forces since July 2012. Alawite populations along the Syrian Coast – a core support zone for the Syrian regime – organized several protests this summer criticizing the government for failing to relieve the siege of Nubl, Zahraa, and Kuweires Airbase. A successful operation to relieve the base would provide a powerful morale boost to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s base of popular support and tamper simmering discontent regarding his conduct of the Syrian Civil War.
Syrian forces also began the second prong of the offensive against rebel-held villages south of Aleppo City on October 15. The operation received support from both Russian airstrikes and up to 2,000 Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Aleppo-based rebel factions reinforced their positions with hundreds of fighters drawn from Aleppo City and the northern Aleppo countryside. Several rebel factions also deployed TOW anti-tank missiles systems provided by a covert U.S.-backed Military Operations Command (MOC) based in Turkey. Pro-regime forces have thus far seized at least seven villages amidst heavy clashes which in turn destroyed at least fifteen regime tanks, bulldozers, and armored personnel carriers.
The maneuver south of Aleppo City likely aims to set conditions for an upcoming offensive to isolate rebel forces in Aleppo City. Regime and Iranian forces began conducting probing attacks along rebel frontlines throughout northwestern Syria after the Russian air campaign began on September 30. These localized offensives likely constitute components of a larger campaign designed to confuse and overextend rebel forces in advance of a decisive operation to penetrate into core rebel-held terrain. The decisive blow will likely target rebel positions north of Aleppo City. The attacks south of Aleppo City may thus constitute an attempt draw rebel reinforcements away from Aleppo City and fix them far from the northern Aleppo countryside. Any successful operation to seize or otherwise neutralize Aleppo City would deal a powerful symbolic and material blow to the Syrian opposition. Tightening control over Syria’s largest city would also place the Syrian regime and its allies in a position of strength before any negotiations regarding a political transition, an initial proposal for which the U.S. and eight other countries floated over the past few weeks.