Live Updates: Thousands of people are trying to flee the north of the Aleppo region into Turkey as fighting rages between rebel fighters and pro-regime forces. Meanwhile Russian jets have conducted air strikes on rebel-held settlements across the country.
In 2011, my job was to track Syria’s growing protest movement as it spread to literally every town and city in the entire country. As larger and larger crowds took to the streets in more locations, many began to wonder whether Assad had enough popular support to stay in power.
Assad’s main obstacle has always been simple math. His regime, like his father’s before him, relied on empowering the Alawi minority, which made up around ten percent of the prewar population, at the expense of the rest of the Syrian people, particular the Sunni Muslims who made up 75 percent of the population. Since many among of Syria’s minorities also opposed the regime, many suspected that less than ten percent of Assad’s population supported him.
The Syrian people, then, were Assad’s opponents, and he responded to this bleak math by constantly ratcheting up the death and destruction, first in an attempt to frighten his people into submission, and ultimately in an attempt to destroy his opponents bullet by bullet, shell by shell, bomb by barrel bomb by chemical cloud.
By the summer of 2011 it appeared that Assad had killed too many of his opponents to ever reach reconciliation with his own citizens. As the summer turned to the fall, and Assad’s military was heavily bombarding even the “regime strongholds” like Latakia because the protest movement had gained so much traction, it became nearly impossible to imagine that an Assad victory was even possible since so many opposed his rule and had paid for it with blood:
Video from August 2011 taken by the Associated Press which shows the shelling of Sunni neighborhoods in Latakia city:
Fast forward two years, and the Assad regime — fighting perhaps an existential battle for survival in Damascus — unleashed a chemical weapons attack of historic scale against rebel front lines. Two years after that, with the Assad regime having lost control over most of the country and with its back against the wall despite aid from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, Moscow began its air campaign to crush the moderate rebels.
It is now clear that without Russian air support and tanks, Hezbollah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commandos and command & control support, and Iraqi Shia militias, Assad would have lost control of his country long ago.
But just because Assad has no chance of permanent victory in Syria does not mean that the moderate rebels or the anti-Assad pro-democracy movement cannot be defeated. The reality is that in the last several months the anti-rebel coalition, spearheaded by Russian airstrikes, has collapsed the rebel battle lines around Aleppo. What was once Syria’s largest city is now surrounded, and both Assad and Russia are relentlessly bombing its populace.
But experts who have watched this conflict unfold believe that Assad will punish the civilians of Aleppo, depopulate the city, and bury the stragglers in rubble before he will try to capture it.
Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio reports:
Sending troops into rebel-held Aleppo would be a costly move for the Syrian military and its allies, said Firas Abi Ali, the head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at IHS Country Risk in London. Instead, they are likely to attempt to starve out the rebels and civilians inside while using artillery and airstrikes to bring them to their knees. “They’re not going to dedicate the amount of resources required to capture a city of that magnitude. They’re going to go with starvation and bombardment tactics,” he said. “This is the standard military tactic developed by Assad.”
The government has spent years pounding Aleppo with airstrikes, raining chaos down on civilians. It also has notoriously employed a siege strategy in places like Madaya, near Damascus, and the central city of Homs, where starving rebels and civilians eventually agreed to surrender. Yet the potential for civilian suffering in Aleppo is far larger now. “There are still several hundred thousand people in the city and the province. The scale of the suffering here can be much greater,” Abi Ali said. “Assad can do much more damage, and he is willing to inflict enormous pain.”
Rami Jarrah, a Syrian journalist and activist who has worked extensively in Aleppo, said the government plan seemed to be “to promote as much desertion of the city as possible now in build up to performing a total siege of Aleppo. Sieges have proven to be successful in terms of draining the opposition into submission.”
There is plenty of evidence that the people of Aleppo think that this theory is correct. Despite living in a city which has known nothing but intense warfare since the summer of 2012, tens of thousands of people have fled Aleppo in just the last three days. The United Nations reports that there are 20,000 refugees now gathered at the Bab al-Salam border crossing alone, another 5,000 to 10,000 have gathered at the Azaz border crossing, to say nothing of those who are in the process of fleeing or whom may already have moved to other border crossings.
The loss of Aleppo — a city which non-ISIS rebels control — will have further ramifications for both anti-Assad pro-democracy activists and for the moderate anti-Assad rebels elsewhere, particularly in Idlib province so the southwest. Since 2012, Syrian activists have self-governed much of Idlib province, despite constant bombardment from the air by the Assad regime, and now Russia, and the takeover, then defeat, of ISIS which has now been repelled from the region. With the regime coalition making advances in Latakia to the west, Hama province to the south, and now Aleppo to the east, the loss of Aleppo means that the heart of the Syrian revolution in the north will be surrounded on three sides.
Faysal Itani and Hossam Abouzahr report for The Atlantic Council:
Of course, the developments in Aleppo are happening amid a UN-sponsored diplomatic process involving the regime and the opposition. The talks are characterized by mistrust, confusion, and a bit of absurdity. The opposition insists that the other side implement UN resolutions calling for an end to targeting civilians, though as Aleppo shows the war is headed in precisely the opposite direction. Most obviously, given the shifting military balance, it is unclear why the regime would agree to any of these demands, still less make meaningful political concessions. It is even less clear how the opposition and its backers can compel it to do so. Staffan de Mistura, in a move acknowledging the futility of the talks when the regime and Russia refuse to stop bombing the opposition and civilians, today halted the attempts to conduct negotiations.
The opposition is aware of the danger the Aleppo defeat poses. Rebel forces in Aleppo have issued a statement calling on all opposition forces to send fighters and supplies to Aleppo, adding that they are fighting on two fronts: against both the regime and ISIS. Although rebels from Idlib and Hama have responded to the call, it is unlikely to significantly slow down the regime and Russia. Simply, opposition forces do not have an anti-aircraft capability. The United States and its allies will neither provide it nor impose direct costs on regime and Russian forces for aerial bombing, sieges, and other key regime tactics. As of now, with regime forces closing in on Aleppo city, the insurgency simply has no answer to the combination of determined enemies and incompetent or disinterested allies.
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The defeat of the moderate rebels will free up resources for the Assad regime to potentially attack ISIS — Assad, like Russia, largely ignores ISIS and instead focuses on the non-ISIS moderates. But it’s not clear that this is bad news for ISIS. Moderate rebels, not the regime nor the US-backed coalition, have been responsible for ISIS’s largest defeats. Furthermore, the most radical elements in Syria will not be deterred by an Assad military victory, they will simply adopt more traditional terrorism and guerrilla tactics in order to win. Since Assad is almost completely reliant on foreign powers to gain territory, it’s hard to imagine that Assad will ultimately be successful in holding this territory.
ISIS craves power vacuums, and if the moderate rebels are defeated but the Assad regime is not strong enough to take control, that’s exactly what will remain in large parts of northern Syria.
Furthermore, we know what Assad does to those who defy him in areas that he controls:
With Aleppo cut off from the north by pro-regime forces and thousands of Syrians fleeing to the Turkish border, Russian jets have continued to pound rebel-held settlements across the country.
In Talbiseh, one of a small number of rebel-held towns north of Homs, Russian jets reportedly used cluster bombs last night, with devastating effects:
In the southern Daraa province, the Syrian Local Coordination Committees report that regime-allied forces, supported by Russian warplanes captured the town of Atman, just outside the regional capital and only 15 kilometres from the Jordanian border, from Free Syrian Army fighters.
Air strikes were also conducted on Inkhil, to the north:
In Latakia, the Russian Air Force supported regime assaults on the rebel-held town of Ara, north of Salma, which fell to regime and Russian forces last month.
To the east, in Idlib, the LCC report the death of seven people, including one child, in the town of al-Tamanah, after a Russian air strike.
Meanwhile, in Aleppo province, Russian jets reportedly bombed the town of Ihris, as pro-regime forces fight rebel groups to maintain their choke hold on the north of the region.
Heavy fighting took place in this area today, with the LCC claiming that rebel fighters retook the town of Bashkoy, and reports that pro-regime Shiite militia suffered losses in attempts to capture Rityan:
The Turkish authorities have, however, kept the border shut.