World·Analysis

Deadly siege of Aleppo 'a political endgame' for both sides: Brian Stewart

The battle of Aleppo in Syria’s civil war has ground on for so long, destroying so many lives through one rebel or government offensive after another, there’s a risk of it simply fading in awareness to the outside world. Brian Stewart examines the reasons for a bloody standoff.

Civilians snared in a grinding battle of attrition for the strategically essential Syrian city

A cemetery sits in the heart of an Aleppo housing complex. Most of the headstones are marked with 2015 as the year of death, for the many residents who were killed during a year of particularly ferocious fighting. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The battle of Aleppo in Syria's civil war has ground on for so long, destroying so many lives through one rebel or government offensive after another, there's a risk of it simply fading into sad and incomprehensible background noise to the outside world.

Widespread fuzziness about Aleppo even caused  a rare moment of humour in the U.S. presidential campaign when puzzled Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could only shrug "What's Aleppo?" when pressed for his solution to the siege there.  

It is, however, a place of immense importance — both the fiercest battleground in the 5½-year war and, according to the International Red Cross, "one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times."

This site of immense human misery could well become much worse, as 250,000 civilians trapped in rebel-held east Aleppo are running out of their last emergency supplies of food and medicine. 

According to the United Nations, they may face "a real killer" of mass starvation this winter without the relief that is still not getting through. 

So we need to view Aleppo clearly. Granted, that's not easy given the confusing collection of forces battling for control there, but some salient points can help.

Strategically essential

In one sense, the Aleppo battle drags on relentlessly because as formerly Syria's largest city — two million before the war and capital of Aleppo province —  it is simply too large and prestigious for either side to give up.

It also has the misfortune of being strategically placed in northwest Syria, only 50 kilometres south of the Turkish border.

This places it right on the main rebel supply route flowing in via Turkey from Sunni backers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey  and Qatar. Some weapons and medical supplies also arrive from the U.S.
This apartment complex of 1,070 units was built to house refugees back in 2012. Now its residents have become double refugees. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The loss of Aleppo would be a massive propaganda disaster for the rebel coalition opposing Bashar al-Assad, and it would also mean a significant reduction of the area under its control along with a potentially fatal disruption of supplies.

On the other hand, if the Syrian regime were driven out, despite help from its vital backers Russia and Iran, the momentum of war could swing against Assad once more, causing those allies he utterly depends on to rethink their support. 

"All the military entities involved in this fight are seeing Aleppo a political endgame" says Lina Khatib, Mideast expert with the U.K. Chatham House think-tank, which is why she expects fighting to escalate still further despite humanitarian suffering.

Grinding standoff

Another factor to consider is that while Aleppo is too large for either side to just give up, it is also too massive for either one to successfully capture. So both are locked into a slow, grinding, and merciless battle of attrition with no quick end likely.

Both sides have serious weaknesses. The rebels under the umbrella group called the Army of Conquest are actually a barely united mixed force of no more than 7,000 in Aleppo, and casualties have been high.

The rebels have anti-armour shoulder-fired missiles and heavy mortars, sufficient if used skilfully for stubborn defence, but only short and temporary advances.
The recent bombing campaign in Aleppo has damaged hospitals, a blood bank and several residential neighbourhoods in the city. The UN is concerned the city's food supply may run out soon. (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets/Associated Press)

Their political problems are also serious as unity is weak. The lead group in Aleppo is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly called Jabhat al-Nusra, itself a direct offshoot of al-Qaeda, which has left it distrusted by Western capitals and fellow rebels as well. It's why Russia still claims it's only bombing "terrorists" when it attacks this group near Aleppo.

Both sides have fought ruthlessly by firing indiscriminately on civilian areas. The government acts have caused the most international outcry, however, as it has cut food and medicine supplies and blasted civilian neighbourhoods with barrel bombs and heavy artillery and also called in airstrikes by Russian bombers. 

The damage to Aleppo is appalling, but such attacks from air and distant artillery should not mask the Syrian army's own weakness. It has advanced little into the city, too exhausted and under-strength after a half decade of fighting to take on extensive urban fighting against a dug-in foe.

Weary troops are reluctant to advance without close armour, but inside Aleppo tanks usually don't get far.

"Our battle is street warfare, these are our buildings, and we know where to go in and out," Yasser al-Youssef, a rebel group official, recently boasted to the Wall Street Journal. "A tank in our city is not worth much. It cannot turn quickly … it becomes a stationary target we can hit easily."

Even though Assad and his allies seem unable to retake Aleppo by force, they likely feel they have the rebels where they want them, fully committed to a destructive war of attrition that will steadily eat up their numbers. They show every sign of being content to let the battle rage.

Diplomatic stalemate

This week, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told the Tass news agency that Moscow is not expecting a resumption of Syrian peace talks in "the foreseeable future," and he accused rebels linked to al-Qaeda in Aleppo of being responsible for blocking aid channels and prolonging fighting.

So even as fighting is unlikely to end the siege, little can be expected of diplomacy either, which raises fears all the more for the people of Aleppo.
CBC went to a neighbourhood on the front line known as the '1070 Apartments District,' held by rebels until just days ago. The neighbourhood itself is an eerie skeleton of its likely former self. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)
  

Even before the U.S. election, Washington had little leverage over Moscow to try to force peace  on Assad. Now with the arrival of president-elect Donald Trump, who believes Russia may even serve a useful role in Syria, the famous fog of war is joined to a thick mist of diplomatic uncertainty.  

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