One of the great problems in understanding the course of the Syrian war is that it is so completely misreported, the battle in and around Aleppo being a case in point.
The real situation in Aleppo is not of a threatened government attack on a city under rebel control.
It is of repeated attempts by the rebels to capture a city that is overwhelmingly loyal to the government and of a long and bitter siege of that city when those attempts have been unsuccessful.
As for the latest fighting, reports show that in recent weeks it is not the government that has been on the offensive in and around the city. It has been the rebels as they have sought to reverse the government’s recent gains.
Before the war Aleppo was Syria’s biggest city and its largest commercial centre. Though a predominantly Sunni city it initially held aloof from the protests which began in Syria in 2011. Those tended to be centred on in urban centres further south such as Hama and Homs. Media reports from Aleppo at the time of the protests confirmed that the people of the city tended to support the government, as did the people of Damascus, Syria’s capital, further south.
Aleppo was however the focus of a major rebel offensive in 2012, which did succeed in capturing a district in the east of the city.
Western media reports sometimes speak of “rebel-held eastern Aleppo”, which they contrast with “regime-held western Aleppo” conveying the impression of a city evenly divided into government and rebel controlled areas.
This is a misrepresentation. The area of the city under rebel control consists of roughly 25% of its territory and 300,000 of its people out of a total population of roughly 2 million. It is a district of the city not half of it.
Despite the fact that only a part of the city is under rebel control in recent months the trend in Western media reporting has taken the level of misreporting a step further by referring to the rebel held district of eastern Aleppo as simply “Aleppo” giving the completely wrong impression that the whole city is under rebel control and that it supports the rebels.
This in turn has made it easy to misrepresent the fighting in and around the city as a government attack on the city whereas in reality it is the government which is defending it.
There is also constant misrepresentation of who the rebels in Aleppo actually are. They are consistently misrepresented as “moderate rebels” supposedly opposed to both the Syrian government and the Islamic State/Daesh. This despite the fact that reports from the city show the rebel fighters in the city are overwhelmingly jihadi Islamists affiliated to terrorist organisations such as Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) and the Islamic State/Daesh.
All of this leads to the nature of the fighting in and around the city being completely misunderstood.
Within the city itself the front lines are essentially static and they have basically been so since the end of the rebel offensive in 2012.
Both sides routinely shell and bomb each other. Whilst the focus in media reporting has been on the bombing of the rebel-held quarter carried out by the government there has been little reporting of the constant shelling of the government controlled areas of the city by the rebels even though it is at least as indiscriminate.
The most important fighting however has not been happening in the city but in surrounding countryside where support for the rebels is stronger than it is in the city itself.
What is called the battle of Aleppo is essentially the story of a siege as the rebels over the course of the previous three years have sought to cut the city’s communications with the other government controlled areas of the country.
By the late summer of 2015 this process was essentially complete with all the main roads linking Aleppo to the rest of the country cut by the rebels and the government obliged to ferry supplies into the city by air.
The rebels also managed to gain control of Aleppo’s thermal power plant which enabled them to cut the city off from most of its electricity supply. Repeated negotiations to persuade the rebels to restart the electricity supply were unsuccessful despite the fact that this caused severe hardship to the civilian population of the city whilst being of limited military use.
What has changed in Aleppo over the last few weeks is that the siege has been broken though not yet fully lifted.
A combination of Russian air support and Russian arms supplies have enabled the government to reopen one of the main roads to the city and to recapture the thermal power plant. Supplies to the city can therefore once more be sent by road whilst the electricity supply to the city has been partially restored.
This is not the complete lifting of the siege. The rebels remain entrenched in the district of eastern Aleppo which they continue to control. Other roads into the city remain cut. Shelling still continues.
The rebels have also made repeated attempts to reverse the government’s recent gains. The largest rebel group in the area appears to be Jabhat Al-Nusra – Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate – which is not part of the cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the Americans and Russians. It sought to capitalise on the cessation of hostilities agreement and the partial Russian withdrawal by launching its own counter-offensive. Whilst this has since been repulsed the danger from this group and from other rebel factions remains.
Recent western media reports that the ceasefire around Aleppo was on the brink of collapse were true. However, as has been consistently the case since the start of the conflict, they have been placing all the blame on the wrong party. It was the rebels who broke the ceasefire agreement by launching an offensive not the government.
The government for the moment is not seeking to storm the eastern district of Aleppo held by the rebels. Its priority is to secure its gains by consolidating its control of the area around the road it has recaptured and by gradually reopening more of the roads into the city. Only once the siege is fully and completely lifted will the government be in a position to take the offensive to recapture the part of the city under rebel control.
It is the rebels who have been undermining the ceasefire through the various offensives they have launched to try to reverse the government’s gains.
What is now happening is that the failure of those offensives is causing the rebels and their backers to reverse their position on the ceasefire. Since the failure of their offensives has left them in a weaker position than they were in before the offensives began they have now suddenly discovered the advantage of a ceasefire they had previously violated.
This is the background to the renewed ceasefire that is being declared in Aleppo.