Though the major weight of the Syrian army’s offensive is against the Jihadi forces still concentrated west of Aleppo, news reports are trickling in that the Syrian army has advanced further into the Jihadi controlled pocket in eastern Aleppo, seizing most of the district of Bostan al-Pasha.
There is a widespread misconception about the landscape of the Jihadi pocket in eastern Aleppo. It is generally assumed that this is a heavily built up urban area, and that its capture will require intense street fighting at which the Jihadis are supposed to excel.
This is only partly true. The fact that the total area of the Jihadi controlled districts of eastern Aleppo is roughly similar to that of government controlled western Aleppo, but that before the war what are now the Jihadi controlled districts of eastern Aleppo had a population of just 250,000 out of a total population for the city of over 2 million, shows that these are far less dense suburban districts, with apparently a significant number of relatively open areas with more built up areas interspersed between them.
It seems that eastern Aleppo is where many migrants from the Syrian countryside settled as they were drawn to Aleppo by job prospects there. These migrants came from more conservative Sunni villages, which accounts for why some of them were willing to accept hardline Sunni Jihadis in their midst, making it possible for the Jihadis to embed themselves there. By contrast, the older and more urbanised districts of central and western Aleppo remained solidly loyal to the Syrian government.
This incidentally is the same pattern as in Damascus, where the central densely populated urban areas have remained throughout the war staunchly loyal to the government, whereas some of the suburbs further out towards the countryside let themselves earlier in the war be overrun by the Jihadis.
Over the last few months the Syrian army has achieved major successes in the Damascus suburbs and in the Damascus countryside, with suburbs and settlements overrun by the Jihadis during their offensive in 2012 now almost entirely cleared and brought back under the control of the government.
Not only has this greatly increased the atmosphere of security and confidence in Damascus, but it has freed Syrian troops for redeployment to other fronts in Syria. Thus, in the case of Aleppo there are reports of a large convoy of Syrian troops arriving in the city in the last few days to take part in operations there.
In Aleppo, because of the much closer proximity to Turkey – the Jihadis’ main backer and arms supplier – and the heavier predominance of Sunni villages in the surrounding countryside, the process is more difficult and is taking longer than in Damascus.
As the Syrian military advances deeper into the Jihadi controlled pocket of eastern Aleppo, the Jihadis are expected to retreat into the more densely built up districts at its centre. On the assumption that there is not a total collapse of Jihadi morale leading to the Jihadis finally agreeing to leave the city – as has actually happened in several of the Jihadi controlled districts of Damascus – fighting will get more bitter and more intense, and the progress of the Syrian army will slow.
Contrary to some claims, four years of intense fighting has provided the Syrian army with a significant amount of experience in urban warfare. However, the Middle East’s acknowledged experts in this sort of fighting are the Syrian army’s allies of the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
It is not therefore a coincidence that as the Syrian army advances deeper into the Jihadi controlled pocket of eastern Aleppo, there are reports of growing numbers of Hezbollah fighters being deployed to the city, and of one of Hezbollah’s senior commanders, Abu Ali Jawad – who is the son in law and head of the bodyguard of the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – being spotted in the city.
Most likely as the Syrian army reaches deeper into the Jihadi pocket of eastern Aleppo, more of the fighting there will be taken over by the highly trained fighters of Hezbollah, with the Syrian troops being redeployed to take part in further offensives in the Aleppo countryside.