In the space of a few weeks, the Syrian battlefield has been transformed
The Assad regime has severed the main road from Aleppo to the Turkish border
A defining battle for Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, seems imminent
The images from Aleppo, Idlib and Syria’s border with Turkey can be described in one word: despair.
Tens of thousands of people have fled the relentless bombing and shelling that has paved the way for dramatic battlefield gains by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its allies. Hundreds of thousands more remain trapped, awaiting their fate with trepidation.
In the space of a few weeks, the Syrian battlefield has been transformed, the balance of forces pulverized and the prospects for peace talks – already dark – virtually extinguished. Another tide of displaced civilians converge on the Turkish border, trapped by the advance of regime forces.
Last week, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iranian and Lebanese Shia militia, severed the main road from Aleppo to the Turkish border, a narrow corridor through which the rebels and NGOs alike moved supplies. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that several villages in the area were hit by airstrikes on Sunday.
A defining battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, seems imminent. Regime forces and their allies on the ground, supported by Russian bombers in the air, are tightening the noose around the eastern half of the city, still held by a coalition of rebel groups. It’s estimated some 320,000 people still live, or subsist, there – under continual bombardment.
Shortages of diesel and food are reported, but many people simply don’t dare or can’t afford to leave. One civil defense worker told the Guardian newspaper: “They think, ‘We can die in our own homes, we don’t need to go to other places to die.’ ”
Beyond the humanitarian catastrophe that looms, the plight of Aleppo symbolizes the rapid transformation of the Syrian battlefield since the regime, Iran and Russia came together. For much of 2015, Assad’s forces were on the defensive, as rebel groups consolidated and took major towns in Idlib, the Aleppo countryside and began to attack regime strongholds in Latakia.
It was the very real possibility of regime collapse that prompted Russian intervention in September. Russian airstrikes and Iranian militia have since bolstered regime troops and reversed the tide. Aleppo is their most prized target.
“Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011,” says Emile Hokayem in Foreign Policy.
The Institute for the Study of War says a successful regime offensive around Aleppo would “shatter opposition morale, fundamentally challenge Turkish strategic ambitions and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community.”
Rebel groups have made desperate appeals for help in defending the city.
The notoriously fractious resistance groups are declaring alliances to bolster their collective resistance. One of the most important groups, Ahrar al Sham, announced at the weekend: “We extend our hands to all factions of the Syrian revolution … and we announce our acceptance for unity with them without any prerequisites.”
But even briefly united, they can’t shoot down planes, and they don’t have T-90 tanks.
Since Russia began its air campaign, most of its strikes have been on cities and towns held by the rebels in western Syria. The aim: to link regime-held territory from the capital to the coast. These are not areas where ISIS has much of a presence; al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and elements of the Free Syrian Army are the main groups.
Resistance has been fierce, but the sheer scale of the assault has gradually pried one town after another – or rather their ruins – from rebel hands.