Latest reports from Aleppo confirm that whatever talks are underway between the Jihadis and the Russians in Ankara, they are having no effect on the fighting in the city.
Yesterday the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo once again reaffirmed their intention to go on fighting. They also announced that they had agreed a new command structure bringing together all the Jihadi factions in eastern Aleppo.
Since the Jihadis have already had a unified command structure in the city – one moreover dominated by Al-Qaeda – it is not clear whether this is simply an exercise in public relations – possibly intended to restore morale amongst the Jihadi fighters in the city – or whether it is a genuine reorganisation provoked by the loss of 40% of the Jihadi controlled districts of eastern Aleppo over the course of the week, which must have caused a sharp fall in confidence on the part of the Jihadis in their commanders. On balance it is more likely to be the first.
The Jihadis also launched a counterattack over the course of yesterday, which appears to have briefly recovered some ground, though the very latest reports suggest they have again been driven back.
This counterattack also looks more like an attempt to restore morale amongst the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo rather than being a serious attempt to reverse the situation there. Al-Qaeda’s commanders surely know that reversing their losses of the last few days is simply beyond their power.
The priority of the Syrian military command in Aleppo will be to consolidate its sudden gains of this week. Already there are reports of civilians returning to the Masaken Hanano district, which was recaptured from the Jihadis at the beginning of the week, and of schools reopening there.
Only once the newly recaptured districts of eastern Aleppo have been fully secured will the Syrian army resume its attack on the rest of the Jihadi held pocket. Given the extent to which it has now been reduced in size, and its isolation from the rest of the country, it is debatable how defendable it now is, and for how long it can hold out when the Syrian army resumes its advance.
The ebb and flow of the fighting in Aleppo has been the source of much confusion, with the widespread belief that the repeated ceasefires and humanitarian pauses have worked to the advantage of the Jihadis by giving them time to reorganise and re-equip, whilst breaking the momentum of the advances of the Syrian army.
Whilst there is some truth to this, the Syrian army’s lack of a decisive manpower advantage and logistical constraints means that that there has almost certainly been no real alternative but to take this incremental approach, with the Syrian army also needing pauses – like the one underway now – so as to reorganise and re-equip before it can undertake further advances.
As more and more of the countryside around Aleppo has been brought under the Syrian army’s control – causing the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo to become increasingly isolated – it has become clear that the incremental ‘stop-go’ approach has worked more to the advantage of the Syrian army than to the advantage of the Jihadis.
As has been mentioned on some of the threads to my previous articles, this incremental ‘stop-go’ approach has also made it possible for Russian and Syrian intelligence to acquire an exceptionally detailed picture of the number of Jihadis in eastern Aleppo, of their command structure and equipment, and of the location of their bases,supply stations, workshops and strong points. Indeed the Russians have actually admitted as much, saying that they have an almost complete picture of the situation in eastern Aleppo.
Some of this information has undoubtedly been obtained by human informers or spies – with the civilian population of eastern Aleppo almost certainly playing a much bigger role in this than infiltrators – but the decisive role in this information gathering will have been played by electronic tools – ie. by drones and signals intelligence.
It is a virtual certainty that the Russians are able to listen to all Jihadi radio and telephone communications – including those which use landlines – and that they have broken all the Jihadis’ codes, and by using drones (some of which are barely visible to the human eye) they are able to check the information they obtain in this way.
At least as important in obtaining information is analysing it properly. The Russians have some of the best military intelligence analysts in the world, but again it will have taken them several months to process and analyse all the intelligence they have received in order to build up a comprehensive picture of the situation in the city.
In summary, it is precisely because the Syrians and the Russians have taken an incremental approach to the battle of Aleppo that they now stand so close to success, and have moreover managed to achieve it at what seems to be an acceptable cost.
By contrast a rushed attempt in the spring or early summer to storm the Jihadi held eastern districts of the city before they had become fully isolated from the surrounding countryside and without a proper intelligence picture of the Jihadi forces there would have courted disaster.
Before completing this summary of the current situation in Aleppo, I will touch on a question one of our readers – Simon – on one of our threads
“A genuine question for The Duran analysts and its forum;
The Syrian Govt offer amnesty or evacuation to jihadi terrorists (of Syrian citizenship). Some disagree but I am not questioning that – rather the evacuation option is always and ONLY to Idlib Province.
So has Syria effectively abandoned Idlib ? There are reports that there were jihadi extremists and trouble there many years before the war kicked off in 2011. Is the choice of Idlib just a temporary dumping ground borne by necessity or something more significant long term?”
The answer to this question is that the Syrian government has made it clear that it intends to recapture every inch of Syrian territory, and that of course includes Idlib. In no sense has it abandoned Idlib.
Whilst it is true that Idlib – or rather the rural areas around it – are often said to have been penetrated by Wahhabi infiltrators and Wahhabi ideas before the start of the 2011 uprising, Idlib itself was only captured by the Jihadis – after repeated failed attempts – in March 2015, and one should be careful before assuming that most of its people support the Jihadis. Our contributor Afra’a Dagher, who is Syrian and who writes from Syria, absolutely denies that this is the case.
Idlib and Raqqa are however the two provincial capitals in Syria which are under Jihadi control. Al-Qaeda controls Idlib and ISIS controls Raqqa. Since most of the Jihadi fighters in western Syria owe allegiance to Al-Qaeda rather than ISIS, it makes sense when negotiating their surrender in other districts which Al-Qaeda controls to agree for them be evacuated to Idlib.
Though Idlib is an important provincial centre which the Syrian government obviously eventually wants to recapture, it is far less important to the Syrian government than those areas of Syria which make up Syria’s heartland – the countryside Damascus and the countryside around it, the towns of Homs and Hama, Latakia province, and Aleppo – control of which for the Syrian government is an existential issue. If the price of recovering control of these areas is to let the Jihadi fighters retreat temporarily to Idlib, then it is a price the Syrian government is willing to pay.
Once the Syrian heartland is fully secured, the Syrian army and security forces can deal with these Jihadi fighters in Idlib at leisure.
Having said all this, it is far from certain that all the Jihadi fighters evacuated to Idlib from the rest of Syria are all actually still there. It is likely that Al-Qaeda sent many of them to fight and die over in last summer’s and autumn’s counter-offensives aimed at breaking the Syrian army’s siege of eastern Aleppo. Jihadi casualties in that fighting are known to have been very high, and it is likely that many Jihadi fighters evacuated to Idlib from elsewhere in Syria met their deaths there.
Back on 17th August 2016 I explained how by becoming a battle of attrition the fighting in Aleppo was working to the long benefit of the Syrian government
“This is not a stalemate. It is a battle of attrition. Though the fighting in southwestern Aleppo is very intense with only very small movements achieved by either side in the last 2 weeks, in a battle of attrition such as this is it is the rebels who are losing….In a battle of this sort the only chance the rebels would have had of victory would have been if they had achieved it quickly and decisively. ….The one thing the rebels cannot afford is to suffer heavy losses by battering themselves to pieces at the gates of Aleppo. With their advance stalled on the outskirts of Aleppo that however is precisely the prospect the rebels are now facing.”
It is precisely because the Jihadis chose to get bogged down in a battle of attrition in Aleppo that they could not afford and which they have now lost that their position not just in Aleppo but elsewhere in western Syria is now collapsing. I suspect the same will also prove to be true in Idlib when the Syrian army eventually attacks it.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.