News about the shooting down of a helicopter supposedly carrying relief supplies to Aleppo with the death of 5 Russians has drawn attention away from the progress of the battle around the city.
The rebels responded to the encirclement of 5 – 10,000 rebel fighters (accounts of the precise number differ) in the eastern suburbs of the city by launching a large-scale counter-attack intended to break the encircling lines. According to most reports as many as 5,000 rebel fighters, mostly belonging to Jabhat Al-Nusra or to groups allied with it, were involved in the assault.
The rebel counter-offensive in its early hours seems to have gained some ground. However it predictably brought down on itself the weight of the Russian air force. Round the clock bombing by Russian air force bombers seems to have blunted the rebel assault, with latest reports saying that the Syrian military has regained some of the ground it initially lost.
The Russians are saying that as many as 800 rebel fighters together with 14 tanks, 10 infantry fighting vehicles, and more than 60 technical vehicles with mounted weapons were destroyed. If true these would be devastating losses with almost a fifth of the rebel fighters involved in the assault killed. Such claims, though made in this case by the Russian military, should be treated with caution. However if they are even approximately true then the rebels have suffered a devastating defeat, incurring some of the heaviest losses they have suffered in any single day in the course of the whole war.
Meanwhile the rebels besieged in eastern Aleppo have tried to make aerial bombing of their positions more difficult by burning tyres. Reports from the city speak of its eastern districts being obscured by dark smoke.
This is a desperate tactic. Against the Russian air force, which uses advanced electronic sighting systems, it is ineffective. Against the Syrian air force it amounts to an implicit admission that previous Western and rebel claims of indiscriminate bombing (“barrel bombing”) were exaggerated or untrue. As it happens the Russians deny that their air force has carried out any bombing raids over the city. What the smoke from the tyres will do is not help to defend Aleppo. It will make it more difficult for rebel fighters to target and shoot-down any Russian or Syrian aircraft (including helicopters) flying over the city, whilst making the life of the people of eastern Aleppo (including the trapped rebel fighters) all but unendurable. Probably it is intended as nothing more than a publicity stunt.
With time running out for the rebels in Aleppo – and for the whole Syrian rebellion – their backers in the West are becoming increasingly desperate. All sorts of bizarre ideas are being floated, such as the completely crazy one recently suggested in the Washington Post of the US launching bombing raids in Syria on the pretext of attacking Hezbollah there.
Whilst it is true that the US considers Hezbollah (a Shiite Lebanese group allied to Iran which is fighting in Syria alongside the Syrian army) of being a terrorist group, it is inconceivable the Russians would ever agree to such bombing raids, which it would see as no different to bombing raids on the Syrian army. Any attempt to bomb Hezbollah in Syria would therefore risk a confrontation with the Russian air force, and it is all but inconceivable that in the run-up to the US Presidential election, with US public opinion strongly opposed to intervention in Syria, anyone in the Obama administration is seriously contemplating it.
The truth is that with the window for a negotiated solution to the conflict now having closed because of the intransigence of the rebels and their Western backers, all the indications are that the Syrians and the Russians are now aiming for a knockout blow in the crucial battle for Aleppo before the US Presidential election in the autumn.