By: Christopher Kozak
Key Takeaway: Aleppo Province stands to become the focal point of a new round of violence in the Syrian Civil War even as the Geneva III Talks to end the conflict are scheduled to resume on April 13. Continued violations of an ongoing ‘cessation of hostilities’ by both pro-regime and opposition factions have fueled the largest outbreak of violence in northern Syria since the agreement went into effect on February 27, threatening to drive a wider breakdown of the tenuous ceasefire. Additional violence can also be expected in northern Aleppo Province over the coming weeks as Turkey and the U.S. vie over the course and composition of coalition-led efforts to sever the ground lines of communication between Ar-Raqqa City and the Syrian-Turkish Border. Turkey has worked to empower opposition groups in Aleppo Province in order to foil the territorial gains made by the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which the U.S. relies upon in the counter-ISIS fight. The regime and its allies also retain positions at the Kuweires Airbase from which to contest ISIS-held portions of Aleppo Province. This local competition for control over Aleppo Province – and the larger geopolitical struggle between the U.S., Russia, Iran, and Turkey that it reflects – will reach a critical boiling point in the coming months.
1. Hostilities Resume in Southern Aleppo Province: Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and a coalition of other opposition groups – including several U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated factions – seized the strategic town of Al-Eis in southern Aleppo Province on April 1 following clashes that involved at least three SVBIED detonations. The Syrian Arab Army released a statement condemning the offensive as a major violation of the ‘cessation of hostilities’ and vowing to recapture the town, while opposition groups presented the attack as a justified counterattack in response to persistent ceasefire violations by pro-regime forces throughout the country. Pro-regime forces have mobilized for a counteroffensive amidst reports that Russia resumed its air campaign in Aleppo Province. Iran also announced the deployment of ‘advisors’ from its conventional armed forces in a significant inflection of its own intervention in Syria. The mounting military escalation in southern Aleppo Province heightened further on April 5 after prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham downed a regime warplane over Al-Eis. The incident comes amidst persistent rumors that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other foreign actors may intend to provide the opposition with a small number of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) as a counter the air campaign being conducted by Russia in Syria.
2. Kurds and Opposition Skirmish in Aleppo City: The Syrian Democratic Forces – a coalition composed of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition factions – clashed with Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other opposition groups in the Sheikh Maqsoud District of Aleppo City on April 5. Activist groups accused the Syrian Democratic Forces of cooperating with the regime in order to sever the key Castello Highway that supplies opposition-held Aleppo City. Long-standing tensions with the Syrian Kurds have flared into open violence in the past few months after the Syrian Democratic Forces assisted the regime in severing the primary ground line of communication between Aleppo City and Turkey in February 2016.
3. Turkish-Backed Opposition Advances on Syrian-Turkish Border: The Hawar Kilis Operations Room – a coalition of opposition groups backed by the U.S. and Turkey – seized the ISIS-held town of Al-Rai in northern Aleppo Province on April 7. Al-Rai serves as a key route for illegal cross-border smuggling of foreign fighters and supplies to ISIS in Syria. The advance comes as part of an ongoing offensive along the Syrian – Turkish Border that seized at least sixteen villages from ISIS since March 31. Turkey has intensified its provision of weapons, cross-border artillery fire, and other forms of support to opposition forces in northern Aleppo Province in recent months in a likely attempt to preclude further gains in the border region by the Syrian Kurdish YPG.
4. The U.S. and Turkey Spar Over Counter-ISIS Operations: The Syrian Democratic Forces – a coalition composed of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition factions – announced preparations for an upcoming military operation to seize the ISIS-held city of Manbij in eastern Aleppo Province. Manbij is a major hub for foreign fighters and supplies transiting the Syrian-Turkish Border, thus representing a key objective for the U.S.-led coalition in its efforts to isolate Ar-Raqqa City. The operation nonetheless faces significant hurdles. Local Arab and Turkmen tribes have reportedly resisted overtures to participate in the operation due to the alleged mistreatment of civilians in regions previously-cleared by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Erdogan reportedly linked his support for the operation to demands for participating Sunni Arab factions to disavow their ties with the Syrian Democratic Forces as well as calls for the U.S. to provide additional air support to Turkish-backed opposition groups in northern Aleppo Province. The U.S. and Turkey held a technical meeting on April 4 in order to discuss the operation but the issue remains contentious given the links between the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group currently waging an active insurgency in southern Turkey.