By: Christopher Kozak
Battlefield realities rather than great power politics will determine the ultimate terms of a settlement to end the Syrian Civil War. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran have internalized this basic principle even as Washington and other Western capitals pinned their hopes upon UN-sponsored Geneva Talks, which faltered only two days after they began on February 1, 2016. Russian airpower and Iranian manpower have brought President Assad within five miles of completing the encirclement of Aleppo City, the largest urban center in Syria and an opposition stronghold since 2012. The current campaign has already surpassed the high-water mark set by the regime’s previous failed attempt to besiege Aleppo City in early 2015. The full encirclement of Aleppo City would fuel a humanitarian catastrophe, shatter opposition morale, fundamentally challenge Turkish strategic ambitions, and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community.
The campaign against Aleppo City began in October 2015 and proceeded in several phases. Regime forces enabled by Russia and Iran initially mounted probing attacks along multiple fronts in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces as part of a larger campaign designed to confuse and overextend the opposition. They conducted shaping operations in the southern, eastern, and northern countryside of Aleppo City in order to draw opposition forces out of urban terrain, relieve long-besieged pockets of regime forces, and set conditions for a future decisive operation to besiege the city, as ISW warned on December 30, 2015. They also secured core regime terrain along the Syrian Coast against further opposition attacks through a series of rapid offensives in Latakia Province. These gains marked a fundamental shift in battlefield momentum following dramatic losses experienced by the regime in the first half of 2015.
President Assad has used unconventional shaping operations to complement these ground offensives and further strengthen his bargaining position. The regime intensified its campaign of sieges and aerial bombardment against opposition-held pockets in Homs and Damascus Provinces in order to impose one-sided local ceasefires that would allow it to consolidate control in these two vital cities. These operations in some cases included the use of chlorine gas and other unidentified chemical weapons in violation of international prohibitions. The regime also escalated a campaign of targeted assassinations against key opposition commanders - most notably the Saudi-backed Damascus powerbroker Zahran Alloush - in order to weaken the political influence of its opponents. These gains strengthen the hand held by President Assad at the negotiating table and incentivize further violence among all sides in an attempt to secure additional concessions during an eventual settlement. The mounting pressure will tend to drive the opposition towards militarily reliable but politically irreconcilable Salafi-jihadist groups such as Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Conditions on the ground remain unsuitable for the achievement of any meaningful peace in Syria.
The regime and its allies have waged a multi-pronged campaign in Aleppo Province over the past four months to set conditions for an offensive to isolate and ultimately seize Aleppo City. The opposition is uniquely vulnerable in Aleppo City due to its position along a lengthy salient that relies upon one primary ground line of communication (GLOC) that faces compounding pressures from the regime, ISIS, and the Syrian Kurdish YPG. The return of the largest urban center in Syria to government control would represent a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that would bolster his leverage in current or future political negotiations. A successful campaign for Aleppo City would also constitute a serious blow to the morale of opposition groups that have contested the city since mid-2012.
The operations in Aleppo Province have hinged upon heavy military support from both Russian warplanes and Iranian proxy fighters. Russia concentrated a significant portion of its air campaign against opposition forward positions and supply lines in Aleppo Province. Meanwhile, U.S. officials estimated in October 2015 that up to 2,000 Hezbollah, Afghan, and Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters led by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani currently operated in Aleppo Province. U.S. officials also stated that Russian Spetsnaz special operations forces recently began operating in conjunction with pro-regime forces near Aleppo City. The regime has become increasingly dependent on this foreign support in order to conduct successful maneuver warfare.
Southern Aleppo Province
The regime and its allies launched the first shaping operations of their reinvigorated campaign in Aleppo Province on October 15, 2015. Regime forces supported by heavy Russian air cover and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen mounted an offensive against the sparsely-populated opposition-held villages in the southern countryside of Aleppo City. The regime secured steady advances against opposition forces over subsequent weeks despite opposition attempts to reinforce the front with hundreds of fighters drawn from Aleppo City and northern Aleppo Province. Several Western-backed opposition factions also deployed multiple TOW anti-tank missiles systems to the region. An opportunistic attack by ISIS in late October 2015 managed to disrupt the ongoing operation temporarily by seizing several positions along the regime’s primary ground line of communication (GLOC) to Aleppo City. Pro-regime forces nonetheless seized the opposition-held towns of Hadher and Al-Eis on November 12, securing the only prominent population centers in southern Aleppo Province.
The opposition responded to the advances by deploying valuable reinforcements to the region. Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other key opposition groups reinforced the southern countryside of Aleppo City from Idlib Province. Prominent Salafi-jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham (HASI) issued a general call for mobilization to southern Aleppo Province on November 13, 2015. The arrival of fresh opposition reinforcements managed to blunt and in some cases reverse regime gains on a tactical level. These minor reversals also corresponded with an apparent operational pause by pro-regime forces to consolidate their new holdings and receive additional reinforcement, including several advanced T-90 main battle tanks provided by Russia. The regime mounted a renewed offensive in early December and seized the opposition-held town of Khan Touman directly southwest of Aleppo City by December 20. The regime and its allies have used these new gains to contest the strategic M5 Highway and the opposition-held southwestern suburbs of Aleppo City.
The regime designed its operational maneuvers in southern Aleppo Province to set conditions for the upcoming offensive to isolate opposition forces in Aleppo City. The offensive drew opposition reinforcements out of Aleppo City and fixed them in a battle of open terrain that allowed the regime to fully-utilize its advantages in armor, airpower, and artillery. The loss of this pool of combat reserves will weaken opposition defenses against future operations by the regime and its allies to isolate Aleppo City. The gains also position the regime to threaten the eastern flank of core opposition-held terrain in Idlib Province. Iranian-backed proxies have repeatedly asserted that the operation in southern Aleppo Province ultimately aims to relieve the besieged pro-regime towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya near Idlib City. The need to defend against this threat further constrains the flexibility and freedom of action available to opposition commanders in northwestern Syria.
Kuweires Airbase and Al-Bab
The regime and its allies began a second simultaneous shaping operation in eastern Aleppo Province on October 15, 2015 in order to relieve the besieged Kuweires Airbase. The base faced repeated challenges from ISIS that threatened to overrun the facility, fueling simmering discontent within the regime’s base of popular support along the Syrian Coast. Elite regime light infantry units supported by Russian aircraft and reinforcements from Lebanese Hezbollah conducted a slow battle of penetration along a narrow front in the face of heavy ISIS resistance. Pro-regime forces successfully established a ground line of communications (GLOC) to the Kuweires Airbase on November 10 in a major symbolic victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The operation revitalized the morale of regime loyalists and demonstrated the first tangible battlefield achievement for the regime since the Russian intervention on September 30.
The regime has since leveraged its forward position at the Kuweires Airbase as a staging ground to conduct follow-on operations against ISIS in eastern Aleppo Province. Pro-regime forces expanded the defensive perimeter of the Kuweires Airbase throughout late November 2015, enabling the regime to resume both fixed-wing and rotary-wing flights out of the airbase by December 15. Regime forces later conducted several advances west of Kuweires Airbase in an offensive aimed at encircling an ISIS pocket that threaten the key regime-held logistical hub of Al-Safira and the adjacent supply route to Aleppo City. This offensive sets the stage for a classic ‘cauldron battle’ drawn from Soviet military doctrine, illustrating the degree to which Russian advisors likely play a role in operational planning. The regime also advanced north from the Kuweires Airbase in January 2016, seizing several villages less than five miles from the major ISIS-held urban center of Al-Bab. Regime forces currently hold optimal positions to mount a potential operation to seize Al-Bab and secure additional legitimacy before the international community as a partner against ISIS. Russia reportedly deployed two hundred personnel and several air defense systems to Kuweires Airbase in February 2016 in likely preparation for such an operation. The regime may intend to use future anti-ISIS operations by the U.S.-led coalition in eastern Aleppo Province as an opportunity to secure its own gains near Aleppo City.
Northern Aleppo Province
The regime mounted its most significant shaping operation in Aleppo Province in February 2016 with a renewed attempt to complete the encirclement of Aleppo City. Pro-regime forces lifted the siege of the pro-regime towns of Nubl and Zahraa in northern Aleppo Province on February 3, linking regime forces in an arc of control that dominates almost all opposition supply lines between Turkey and Aleppo City. The regime previously failed to capitalize upon a similar offensive over the same terrain in February 2015. The opposition nonetheless faces a severe challenge in mobilizing sufficient forces to reverse this new attack given the conditions set by the regime and its allies in Aleppo Province over the past four months. The regime and its allies will likely attempt to complete the encirclement of Aleppo City in coming weeks by seizing its opposition-held northwestern suburbs. The end result of this operation could be a protracted siege of Aleppo City that bolsters the political leverage exerted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while subjecting the remaining civilian population in opposition-held districts to a punishing campaign of starvation and aerial bombardment.
The regime and its allies simultaneously conducted major operations to expel opposition forces from core regime terrain along the Syrian Coast. Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other armed factions have occupied the Jabal al-Turkman and Jabal al-Akrad regions of northern Latakia Province since 2012, providing the opposition with a safe haven from which to threaten the Alawite population that constitute the popular base of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This threat reached unprecedented heights after opposition forces secured control over almost all of Idlib Province in mid-2015 and began posturing for an offensive into Latakia Province. The stabilization of this front thus constituted an immediate priority for the regime and its foreign backers. Russia provided extensive military support with the provision of technical advisors, armored vehicles, rocket artillery, and a heavy campaign of aerial bombardment based from its nearby airfield at Bassel al-Assad International Airport near Latakia City. Iran also committed significant numbers of proxy forces to enable the mobilization of local pro-regime militias. These deployments produced a significant reversal in the balance of forces in Latakia Province over recent the past three months.
Pro-regime forces launched an offensive against opposition forces in Jabal al-Turkman on November 19, 2015 in an attempt to deny opposition forces access to supply routes across the Turkish border. The regime seized multiple villages and hilltops in the mountainous region within several days with the support of heavy Russian airstrikes. The offensive drew immediate condemnation from Turkey as thousands of ethnic Turkmen refugees fled across the border ahead of regime forces. Two Turkish fighter jets later shot down a Russian warplane on November 24 after the aircraft violated the border while conducting operations against the opposition. The escalation in geopolitical tensions nonetheless failed to prevent continued tactical advances by the regime and its allies in both Jabal al-Turkman and Jabal al-Akrad.
The regime secured major breakthroughs in its operations to clear Latakia Province in January 2016. Regime forces seized the opposition stronghold of Salma in Jabal al-Akrad on January 12 after successfully surrounding the town from three sides over the preceding weeks. Salma occupied a dominant high ground and served as the anchor for the opposition frontline in northern Latakia Province. The regime and its allies exploited the collapse of the front in order to secure rapid advances deep into opposition-held terrain. Pro-regime forces later successfully encircled and seized the town of Rabi’ah on January 24, securing the primary command-and-control node for the opposition in Jabal al-Turkman. These gains threaten to expel all overt opposition presence from Latakia Province over the next few months. The regime and its allies likely intend to ultimately seize the opposition-held city of Jisr al-Shughour in western Idlib Province in order to anchor their advance and secure a buffer against future counterattacks.
The direct threat posed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to core opposition terrain in Aleppo City and other parts of Northern Syria will present a critical challenge for U.S. strategic interests. The realities on the ground currently being set by the regime will entrench the position of President Assad and his foreign backers, preserving Syria as a regional base of operations for both Iran and Russia. The renewed pressure being placed upon the opposition also risks driving opposition groups to deepen their coordination with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other Salafi-jihadist factions. Major opposition factions in the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room based in Idlib Province reportedly came close to signing a unification agreement supported by Jabhat al-Nusra emir Abu Muhammed al-Joulani. The incentives to solidify this cooperation will only grow in the face of further regime gains. The current violence thus stands to solidify Syria as an arena for U.S. adversaries over the coming months.
The willingness of parties on both sides to pursue further conflict will only serve to prolong the bloodshed of the Syrian Civil War and exacerbate the humanitarian consequences of the conflict. UN officials reported that nearly 40,000 civilians fled the southern countryside of Aleppo City amidst regime operations in October 2015, while at least 70,000 civilians have fled the latest round of violence in northern Aleppo Province. The regime has also conducted a series of engagements in in Central and Southern Syria meant to increase the pressure brought to bear upon remaining opposition pockets, particularly through the use of sieges and starvation as weapons of war. The flows of displaced persons generated by this campaign will place additional strain upon regional U.S. allies while fueling further resentment and radicalization among the refugee population.
The looming siege of Aleppo City poses a strategic dilemma for Turkey. Turkish President Recep Erdogan provided weapons, supplies, and safe haven to opposition forces in order to advance Turkey’s strategic objectives, including the formation of a Sunni Islamist government to replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The mounting opposition losses in Aleppo Province directly undermine these core strategic interests and bring Russian military personnel to vital positions within forty miles of the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey will likely respond to these inflections through military force. President Erdogan may even consider a range of high-risk military options to reassert his control over the conflict that could include providing the opposition with man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) or mounting a cross-border intervention into Northern Syria. These operations risk fueling an intensified regional proxy war or even a direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia. The current campaign undertaken by President Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran will be a driver of long-term disorder in Syria and the wider Middle East.