The recent fighting in and around southern Aleppo has attracted an enormous of attention, with those fascinated by military affairs now familiar with places like the apartment building complex 1070, the cement factory, Al-Ramousseh roundabout, the “artillery base” (actually a complex of military schools and technical colleges) etc. Scholars of the fighting in Stalingrad in 1942 will be very familiar with this sort of thing.
Whenever battles like the one currently being fought in and around Aleppo are discussed it is essential however to keep in mind the big picture and to focus too much on the fighting for particular strongpoints.
Briefly, by the middle of last year the rebels controlled roughly a quarter of Aleppo, had captured the thermal plant cutting off electricity to most of the city, and had cut the city off from the rest of the government controlled areas of the country by cutting the roads leading to it.
A series of government offensives, which began in the autumn of last year, and which relied heavily on Russian air support, gradually reopened the roads. Progress was slow because the Syrian army lacks manpower. Also the offensives had to repel repeated rebel counter-attacks and were interrupted by ceasefires negotiated by the US and the Russians.
These ceasefires have come in for much criticism, including by Iran. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has now admitted in a news conference following his talks in Yekaterinburg with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier that the rebels took advantage of the ceasefires to rearm and regroup.
However the Syrian army also may have needed the ceasefires to rest and regroup given how severely it is overstretched and what a heavy strain fighting places on the troops.
By late July the Syrian army backed by the Russian air force and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies succeeded in ending the siege and encircled the 5-10,000 rebel fighters holding eastern Aleppo, by capturing the Castello road, which was the main rebel supply route to Turkey. At that point the besiegers became the besieged.
The rebels then counter-attack by attacking south-western Aleppo. The militant Jihadi group Jabhat Al-Nusra led the counter-attack. The purpose of the counter-attack was to break the siege of the rebels in eastern Aleppo. However it seems also to have been intended to recapture the main road to Damascus. Some rebel leaders have spoken in even more wildly ambitious terms of capturing the whole city.
The total rebel force appears to have numbered upward of 7,000 fighters (an unprecedentedly large concentration of rebel fighters in this war in such a small area) brought together from various rebel groups but led by Jabhat Al-Nusra. It appears to be coordinated by a joint headquarters, located in the southern Turkish city of Antikiya (“Antioch”).
It has used large numbers of captured armoured vehicles including tanks, as well as anti-tank and shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles (“MANPADS”) provided by the Gulf states and ultimately by the US.
The rebel counter-attack succeeded in storming the Syrian army’s defences in a small area of southwestern Aleppo, capturing the so-called “artillery base”. A narrow corridor was thereby opened to the rebels in eastern Aleppo. The counter-attack has however since stalled.
No significant further advances have been made in the last 2 weeks. Latest indications speak of the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies regaining some of the ground they lost in the initial attacks. The fog of war however lies heavy over Aleppo and such claims of advances should be treated with caution.
The small corridor the rebels punched through the Syrian army’s defences has however proved of no real value to the rebels since it is too narrow and too heavily contested for the rebels to be able to send large numbers of men and supplies through it.
As for the claim that the seizure by the rebels of their narrow corridor means that the government controlled areas of Aleppo are cut off from resupply, that is simply untrue.
With the government in control of all of the main roads leading to Aleppo – including the Castello road where the Syrian army’s best units continue to be concentrated – the Syrian government can still send supplies by road to the city, and is in fact doing so.
This is not a stalemate. It is a battle attrition. Though the fighting in southwestern Aleppo is very intense with only very small movements achieved by either side in the last 2 weeks, in a battle of attrition such as this is it is the rebels who are losing.
In order to sustain their offensive they have concentrated large numbers of men and equipment in a small area outside Aleppo where they are ready targets for the Russian air force.
The large majority of rebel fighters who are being killed are being killed there, in the bombing outside Aleppo, not on the front line where bombing cannot place and where the number of casualties suffered by each side seems to be roughly even.
Though the number of rebel fighters who have been killed can only be estimated even the rebels now admit that their losses are very heavy. The Russians, who are probably the best informed about the state of the battle because of the means of surveillance at their disposal, said a few days ago that the rebels had lost 1,000 men killed in the course of just 4 days.
In a battle of this sort the only chance the rebels would have had of victory would have been if they had achieved it quickly and decisively.
The one thing the rebels cannot afford is to suffer heavy losses by battering themselves to pieces at the gates of Aleppo. With their advance stalled on the outskirts of Aleppo that however is precisely the prospect the rebels are now facing.
The question is what do the rebels do next? One option is to try to send even more men and supplies to try to get the advance into Aleppo restarted. The risk that runs is that the Russians are intensifying their bombing, deploying heavy TU22M3s bombers to bomb rebel positions near Aleppo.
There are reports that the Russian fleet is also being readied to launch more cruise missile strikes on the rebel forces concentrated near Aleppo.
Ultimately the Russians can always far outmatch whatever level of escalation the rebels attempt, and that is what we are seeing happening now.
Doubling down on a failing counter-offensive risks increasing rebel losses even further, reducing the rebels’ future ability to defend such places as Idlib.
Nonetheless, with the alternative option of retreat apparently ruled out, doubling down appears to be what the rebels intend to do.