Whilst attention is fixed on US Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Moscow and the heavy Russian air strikes near Palmyra, the key battle in Syria is being fought for the city of Aleppo.
The fighting in and around Aleppo is attracting (for the moment) little international attention because it is mainly positional. Since the Syrian army’s breakthrough in the area round Aleppo in February – which finally enabled the Syrian military to establish road links to the city – the Syrian army has gradually tightened its control of the countryside around Aleppo. The objective has been to open more land routes to the city, whilst cutting off the rebels’ supply lines to Turkey.
This has involved tough attritional warfare, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. However because advances occur incrementally, with the Syrian army also suffering occasional reverses, it does not have the drama of the rapid advances that were being achieved in February and March, and which still occur occasionally further east.
The latest information however suggests that the Syrian army has been able to bring artillery close to the Castello road, the main rebel supply route to Aleppo, effectively closing the road to rebel traffic. Over the last few days the rebels have launched a series of counterattacks to try to drive the Syrian army away from the road. All these attacks up to now have failed, with the rebels suffering heavy losses. The Iranian Fars news agency – an information portal whose reports from the Syrian battlefield are generally accurate but which nonetheless needs to be treated with some care – is reporting a rebel commander as saying that further attempts to dislodge the Syrian army from the forward positions it has established near the road would be “madness” and would merely result in heavy casualties.
Meanwhile other reports suggest that the transfer of rebel fighters to try to dislodge Syrian army positions from near the Castello road have weakened the rebel forces within Aleppo itself, enabling the Syrian army to make inroads there.
The situation in and around Aleppo remains extremely fluid and it is impossible to say that a decisive breakthrough has been achieved. However the balance of advantage does appear to be tilting increasingly in the Syrian army’s favour and it is possible that such a breakthrough could be achieved before long. Perhaps not coincidentally Fars is also reporting increasing infighting between the rebel groups in Aleppo. Whilst such infighting is by no means uncommon it does now appear to be approaching startling levels of intensity, suggesting angry recriminations amongst the rebels there.
If the Syrian army does finally complete the encirclement of the rebels in Aleppo it would not automatically end the fighting there or cause rebel resistance in Aleppo to collapse. Rebels in other parts of Syria who have captured city districts or even whole towns have been able to go on fighting for long after they were surrounded. Workshops within the rebel held areas of Aleppo could probably provide for at least some of the rebels’ needs for arms and ammunition, whilst the Syrian government – despite Western media claims to the contrary – would almost certainly not prevent food, medical supplies and gasoline getting through since doing so would threaten a humanitarian disaster and would be a war crime.
The rebels would however be cut off from reinforcements and from supplies of heavy and advanced weapons – like US TOW anti-tank missiles – which up to now have been reaching them from Turkey, and which have been central to their ability to wage the war. If the Syrian government were able to maintain the siege then the rebels would before long find it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves, and beyond a certain point their position in Aleppo would become desperate.
No-one should be in any doubts as to the importance of this battle. A rebel collapse in Aleppo would be the deciding event in the whole war. Before the war Aleppo was Syria’s biggest city and its commercial capital. If the whole city were brought fully under the government’s control then not only would the rebels have suffered a major military and psychological defeat. The government would have decisively re-established itself as in control of all of Syria’s major population and economic centres. The rebels would be reduced to certain enclaves – like Raqqa and Idlib – and empty desert. The prospect of a final rebel victory in the war would be forever gone and the whole rebellion would be facing collapse.