Monday, August 8, 2016

Opposition Forces Break the Siege of Aleppo City

By Christopher Kozak
Opposition groups lifted the siege of Aleppo City on August 6, dealing a severe setback to efforts by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies to force the surrender of the primary stronghold of the opposition in Northern Syria. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – the successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – and other groups in the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room seized the Ramouseh Artillery College and neighboring Ramouseh Industrial District following several days of heavy clashes with pro-regime forces. These gains opened a one-mile-wide corridor to opposition-held districts of the city, representing the high-water mark of a major opposition counteroffensive that began on July 31 with a stated aim to break the siege after pro-regime forces completed the encirclement of opposition-held districts on July 28. The estimated quarter-million remaining residents of Eastern Aleppo City nonetheless face a continued threat of siege amidst ongoing clashes and heavy aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes that have prevented humanitarian groups and civilians from using the newly-established supply route.

Both the opposition and the regime are preparing to escalate their military campaigns in Aleppo City over the coming weeks. The opposition has advertised their intent to carry the fighting into the regime-held districts of Western Aleppo City. Prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham declared a military zone over several regime-held neighborhoods, while the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room released a statement on August 7 announcing the start of the battle to seize all of the city. The opposition nonetheless risks losing momentum in the heavily-populated urban terrain of Western Aleppo City, where the population remains largely supportive of the regime. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces have begun to muster reinforcements for a counterattack to reestablish the siege. Unconfirmed sources claimed that Iran deployed several thousand Iraqi Shi’a militiamen as well as a special forces unit from Lebanese Hezbollah on August 7 to reinforce Aleppo City. President Assad also replaced the head of the Aleppo Security Committee with Syrian Republican Guard Deputy Commander Brig. Gen. Zaid Saleh on the same day in a major reshuffle that reflects the prioritization granted to the upcoming fight for Aleppo City. The regime will likely concentrate its upcoming operations in the rural southern outskirts of the city rather than the urban terrain targeted by the opposition. If pro-regime forces succeed in drawing the fight away from the urban core of the city, they could potentially use their advantage in artillery, airpower, and armor to encircle opposition forces within a new, wider perimeter.

The success of the opposition counteroffensive, even if temporary, marks a major victory for al Qaeda in Syria. Aleppo City represents the main hub of acceptable opposition groups in the Fatah Halab Operations Room that retain relative independence from al Qaeda in Northern Syria and thus one of the last remaining pools of potential partners for the U.S. in Syria. The U.S. nonetheless failed to provide meaningful political or military support to prevent the siege of the city, with some commanders even claiming that the U.S. slowed its provision of critical anti-tank missiles to vetted opposition groups in recent weeks. These grievances provide Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham an opportunity to leverage their integral role in lifting the siege to generate public support and draw opposition groups into a closer partnership. This integration would advance the long-term goal of al Qaeda to unify the jihad in preparation for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate. The conditions for this outcome are already being set. The Fatah Halab Operations Room released a video statement on August 6 praising the unity of all opposition factions. Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the High Negotiations Committee – the delegation representing the opposition in internationally-sanctioned negotiations with the regime - stated on August 8 that the victory in Aleppo City reinforced the message that “depending only on political solutions will achieve nothing” in the Syrian Civil War. The current groundswell of goodwill thus stands to only strengthen irreconcilable extremist groups such as al Qaeda in Syria, setting the stage for further conflict and radicalization that erodes the strategic interests of the U.S.