News of the capture by Jihadi rebels led by Jabhat Al-Nusra on Saturday morning of a Syrian military technical college in the outskirts of Aleppo in what the rebels are now calling ‘the Great Battle of Aleppo’ has led to a rush of claims in the media that the siege of Aleppo had been broken.
These reports reflect a misunderstanding of the fighting around Aleppo. As I discussed previously the Syrian army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies simply do not have the numbers to mount a siege of eastern Aleppo similar to a medieval siege. Here is what I said before:
“Here it is important to make some qualifications. This is not the sort of siege that used to happen in the Middle Ages when an army would surround a town or castle whose garrison and population would then be completely cut off from the outside world. The Syrian army does not have the manpower to besiege the rebels in Aleppo in that way. It cannot control every inch of the territory around Aleppo and there are still plenty of ways for rebel fighters both to enter and exit the area of the city they control.”
To conduct the sort of encirclement of eastern Aleppo some people in the media has been talking about the Syrian army and its allies would need a force of more than a hundred thousand men, which is probably more than the total number of men the Syrian army has under arms across the whole of Syria.
Given this lack of manpower it is inevitable that the Syrian military will face periods when it becomes overstretched and has to make tactical retreats in the face of overwhelming rebel attacks. This happened on several occasions during the Syrian military’s offensive in February when rebel counter-attacks for brief stretches of time succeeded in closing the road links to Aleppo. It happened again in March when rebel offensives near Aleppo led by Jabhat Al-Nusra temporarily recovered some ground.
If it is true that as many as 10,000 rebel fighters have been involved in the rebel offensive in south west Aleppo over the last week, then it is a certainty that the Syrian military in the area of the technical college has been heavily outnumbered. This was almost certainly the case even if the number of rebel fighters was much lower, closer to the lowest figure given, which is 3,500. Probably the total number of Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters defending the technical college numbered no more than a few hundred men at most, with the greater part of the better units of the Syrian army that are located in and around Aleppo still positioned in its northern outskirts where they recently closed the Castello road.
When thousands of rebels stormed the college late on Friday night – apparently with the help of seven suicide bombers driving trucks laden with explosives – the Syrian troops and their Hezbollah allies defending the college kept themselves alive (and therefore able to fight another day) by sensibly retreating first to the northern part of the college and then by withdrawing from the college completely on Saturday morning. To have done otherwise would have invited a mass slaughter to no purpose, with the practice of the Jihadi fighters being to take no prisoners. As Frederick the Great is reputed to have said, he who defends everything defends nothing.
The point is that this is almost certainly an ephemeral victory achieved by the rebels at horrendous cost. The rebels cannot use the small corridor they have punched through the government lines to re-supply the rebels in eastern Aleppo to any great degree, since the corridor can be easily bombed and shelled by the Syrian military and the Russian air force. Any rebel units stationed at the college will quickly become a target for Syrian and Russian bombing and shelling, and reports say that this is already happening.
More important still is that in order to maintain the momentum of their offensive the rebels are having to pull in men and supplies from across Syria and to concentrate them in a confined space where they are becoming easy targets for the Russian air force. It is a common myth that the rebels can always replace their losses because they have unlimited numbers of jihadi fighters at their disposal. If that were true the rebels would have won the war in Syria long ago. In reality as previous wars in Chechnya and Iraq show the pool of such people is actually relatively small. If the rebel losses the Syrians and the Russians are claiming are anywhere close to being true, then the rebels simply will not be able to sustain this effort for very long. As the rebel effort slackens, repeating the pattern of previous battles fought in Syria over the last few months, the Syrian military will counter-attack, recovering all the ground it has lost (including the technical college) and gaining more besides. Already there are reports of Syrian army units and Hezbollah fighters being redeployed to the area, probably precisely in preparation for the launch of such a counter-offensive.
The essential point is that what is being fought in and around Aleppo is a battle of attrition, which without external intervention the rebels cannot win.
In addition the rebel offensive has demonstrated something else, which is politically important in the context of the continuous dialogue the Russians are having with the US and – perhaps even more importantly in the aftermath of the coup attempt – with President Erdogan of Turkey. At the time of the “cessation of hostilities” agreement in February the US agreed that Jabhat Al-Nusra is a terrorist organisation and that the rebels in Syria should dissociate themselves from it. This agreement – and therefore this demand – were subsequently enshrined in a Resolution of the UN Security Council, and is therefore binding on the Turks.
Not only have the rebels in Aleppo completely failed to dissociate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra but over the last few days they have enthusiastically joined an offensive in which Jabhat Al-Nusra under its new name has provided the leadership. The reason for that is of course that all the rebels in and around Aleppo either belong to Jabhat Al-Nusra or to groups associated with it and are all Jihadis. The “moderate rebels” supposedly holding out in Aleppo against overwhelming odds simply don’t exist outside the imaginations of certain Western politicians and Western writers.
The US and the Turks will of course try to counter that what has supposedly driven the “moderate rebels” in Aleppo to unite behind Jabhat Al-Nusra is the Syrian offensive and the Russian bombing. That is however a threadbare argument and in their private discussions with the Russians Kerry and Erdogan and their diplomats will both find that following the rebel offensive their argument has just been made weaker.