Though inevitably it has been overshadowed by the US election, the situation on the ground in Syria continues to develop with further advances by the Syrian army being reported on all the fronts in western Syria in which it is engaged.
In the key battle ground of Aleppo the Syrian army, having repulsed the latest attack by the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis, appears to be preparing for a major advance in south west Aleppo.
Following the end of Friday’s ‘humanitarian pause” – which as expected the Jihadis ignored – the Syrian air force has been back in action, bombing Jihadi positions in south west Aleppo. The Syrian army has also made inroads in the strategically important 1060 apartment complex (the very latest reports suggest it may have captured it entirely).
There are also reports – so far unconfirmed – that the Russian Aerospace Forces have been in action again, attacking Jihadi positions in south west Aleppo in conjunction with the Syrian air force (the Russian Defence Ministry is however denying reports that the Russian Aerospace Forces have been in action against Jihadi supply lines west of the Aleppo battlefront in Al-Qaeda controlled Idlib province).
The Syrian army’s Chief of Staff – Lt. General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub – has recently inspected Syrian army positions in Aleppo, apparently in preparation for the offensive, and the Iranian news agency Fars is reporting that it will take place within the next few days.
The Syrian army’s battle strategy in Aleppo is dictated by one overriding factor – its lack of any decisive numerical advantage over the Jihadis it is fighting.
According to the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura there are 8,000 Jihadis trapped inside eastern Aleppo (though he claims absurdly that only 900 of them are Al-Qaeda connected Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters). According to Russian, Syrian and Iranian news agency reports, around 16,000 Al-Qaeda led Jihadis attacked south west Aleppo during the last two Jihadi counter offensives. That would make for a total of 24,000 Jihadi fighters fighting the Syrian army in and around Aleppo during the recent fighting.
No similar breakdown of the total number of Syrian and allied troops in Aleppo has ever been provided, save that a few weeks ago there were reports that 8,000 Shia militia for Iraq had joined the Syrian troops there. A Daily Telegraph report in September however put the number of Syrian troops in Aleppo at about 15-20,000.
It seems therefore that the two opposing forces fighting in Aleppo have roughly equal numbers. If the highest estimates for the number of Jihadis (24,000) and the lowest estimates for the number of Syrian troops (15,000) are both true, then it is not impossible that the total number of Jihadi fighters fighting in and around Aleppo actually outnumbers the total number of Syrian and allied troops fighting there.
Compare this situation with the one in Mosul, where US intelligence claims that there are between 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul itself supplemented by a further 1,500 to 2,000 ISIS fighters in a zone outside the city, pitted against a coalition force consisting of Iraqi troops and anti-ISIS forces whose total number is put at anywhere between 40,000 to 100,000.
It is this lack of a decisive manpower advantage that explains the incremental strategy the Syrian army has been obliged to follow in Aleppo. Quite simply, the Syrian army has never had the numbers to storm eastern Aleppo in a single operation. Its strategy, undoubtedly planned with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, has instead been to advance to its goal step by step: first by re-opening and securing its supply lines to government controlled western Aleppo, and then by isolating the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo until their position becomes so untenable that they can put up little resistance when the Syrian army eventually attacks them.
What that means in practice is a strategy of first surrounding the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo, then of repulsing Jihadi counter-offensives to break the siege of eastern Aleppo, whilst at the same time pursuing a strategy of continuously recapturing more and more of the countryside around Aleppo in order to isolate even further the Jihadi controlled pocket in eastern Aleppo to the point where it loses all connection to its hinterland.
It is the Syrian army’s steady recapture of the surrounding villages and strong points in the Aleppo countryside which explains why each successive Jihadi counter offensives is having diminishing success. As the Jihadi fighters during the intervals between their offensives incrementally lose positions in the Aleppo countryside, they lose the bases from which they launch their attacks. As a result their attacks are increasingly failing to gain traction.
In time, as eastern Aleppo becomes completely isolated, the expectation is that cut off from all hope of supply or reinforcement it will fall easily into the Syrian army’s hands like a ripe fruit when the moment comments for it to be stormed.
That is the strategy. What it involves in practice is gruelling attritional warfare, with long pauses – which the Syrians and the Russians make use of politically by calling them ‘ceasefires’ and ‘humanitarian pauses’ – as each side replenishes and consolidates in preparation for the next round.
The planned Syrian offensive in south western Aleppo is a continuation of this strategy. It is in this area that the Syrian army is most vulnerable since it is there that its main supply lines to southern Syria are located.
By gradually driving the Jihadis away from this area the Syrian army is not only securing its main supply lines, but it is further isolating the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo by reducing the prospects of a Jihadi breakthrough there.
Ultimately, since there is little to no prospect of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo ever giving up, the area will eventually have to be stormed. However until its positions in south west Aleppo are fully secured, the Syrian army is not in a position to do this.
The fighting in western Syria is of course not only confined to Aleppo.
Reports of the fighting elsewhere speak of the Syrian army making rapid advances. In recent months it has cleared most of the countryside around Damascus of Jihadi fighters, with just a few pockets of resistance left in eastern Ghouta, whilst the Syrian army is now reported to control 85% of the territory of Hama province.
As I have discussed previously, the Jihadis’ transfer of fighters from other Syrian fronts to Aleppo is causing their positions elsewhere in western Syria to collapse.
As to why the Jihadis are doing that, it was recently again explained by no less a person than Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who the Iranian Fars news agency reports as saying
“If we succeed, having won Aleppo, which I’m sure we will do, the West will have to rethink its mistake.”
In other words if the Syrian army recaptures Aleppo any possibility of regime change in Damascus is gone. For that reason that the Jihadis in Aleppo will hold on in eastern Aleppo at any cost, even if by doing so they are hastening their eventual defeat in the war.