Syrian Rebels Break Siege Of Aleppo, But What Happens Next?

August 8, 2016
Left: Syrian rebels bring fruit to Aleppo. Right: Russian airstrike hits MSF hospital in Idlib province

LIVE UPDATES: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

After The End Of The Siege In Aleppo, Russia Bombs Hospitals While Rebel Groups Provide Fruit To Civilians

Roy Gutman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former McClatchy Middle East bureau chief who is currently a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

Since July 28 he has been relaying reports from sources inside besieged Aleppo. Here are his last two updates:

Aleppo siege update – Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016 Day 27

REBELS BREAK ENCIRCLEMENT: In a stunning reversal after a month of setbacks, rebel forces inside Aleppo Saturday overran government lines to link up with moderate rebel forces advancing through the southern suburbs, thus breaking the government’s encirclement of the city that began July 10. Rebels claim to have killed 150 regime and allied militia fighters and to have captured dozens of armored vehicles. Amid heavy fighting, it was unclear whether the siege of rebel-held quarters in Syria’s biggest city had been broken to the point that supplies and citizens could again flow in both directions. But it could allow for reinforcement of rebel forces in Aleppo. Rebel leaders declared the advance to be a turnabout in fortunes and announced their aim now is to isolate government-held west Aleppo and liberate the population. Designating the Al Hamadnya neighborhood as a military zone, rebel leaders urged civilians to leave; opposition activists claimed large numbers of civilians have begun to do just that. Meanwhile, official Syrian news media reported just the opposite — that rebel forces were retreating, even as they advanced.

EAST ALEPPO CELEBRATES: Civilians in Aleppo took to the streets to celebrate the rebel breakthrough, and there were reports of street celebrations elsewhere in rebel-held Syrian and in major towns in southern Turkey now packed with Syrian refugees. Anas Alabdah, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, just a week ago voiced fears that Russia and the regime would turn west Aleppo into a 21st century Grozny. On Saturday, he said their advances would help liberate all of Syria from the Assad regime. “Glory and praise be to the heroes who are writing a new chapter in Syria’s history with their blood and paving the way for the birth of a new Syria as the homeland of all the free Syrians,” he said.

MORE REGIME, RUSSIAN AIRSTRIKES: Regime or Russian warplanes targeted civilian districts inside rebel-held East Aleppo as well as rebel frontline positions, killing three civilians and damaging one hospital. Regime or Russian forces also destroyed a hospital in Sarmin in nearby Idlib province with a ballistic missile, rebel commanders said. The heaviest airstrikes Saturday rained down on Saraqeb, the town on the Aleppo-Damascus highway held responsible for the capture of the bodies of the five Russian pilots whose jet was downed in the area five days earlier. The Syrian regime sent cell phone messages telling residents of Saraqeb to surrender and hand over the bodies of the five Russian soldiers. The opposition Masar News agency said 30,000 civilians fled to the countryside to avoid the air attacks.

Update from Aleppo Sunday, Aug. 7. Day one post-siege

REBELS WILL ‘LIBERATE’ ALL OF ALEPPO: One day after breaking the government siege of rebel-held East Aleppo, the Islamist-led Fateh Army [Jaish al-Fateh — The Interpreter] umbrella group Sunday pledged to attack government-held neighborhoods until it can raise the victory flag over the ancient citadel. The group called on regime troops to defect, while giving safety assurances to Muslims and Christians provided they haven’t collaborated with the regime. The first convoy of fresh produce since July 10 entered rebel-held neighborhoods via the newly liberated Ramoussa road, triggering street celebrations. But rebel officials said it would take several days before the road will open to civilian traffic. A Fateh spokesman said rebels had seized 40 square kms (15 sq. miles) of territory from the regime.

LAST REGIME BASE SOUTH OF ALEPPO FALLS: Rebels Sunday morning captured the Air Force Technical Academy, the last of a series of regime bases, and said they had seized armored vehicles, weapons ammunition, and detained many regime troops, including one general officer. Russian or regime warplanes raided rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo including Ramoussa as well as the military academies that are now under rebel control. Six civilians were reported killed in the airstrikes. Russian or regime warplanes also raided villages in southern Aleppo and used cluster bombs on the village of Tall Hidya, rebel spokesmen said. 

ISLAMISTS TAKE CREDIT FOR OFFENSIVE: Just a week after Jabhat al-Nusra changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and announced it was severing its affiliation with Al Qaeda, the militant force and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamists claim they spearheaded the attacks from inside besieged Aleppo and the linkup with militants from the southern suburbs that ended the siege. 

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ALEPPO BREAKTHROUGH: If rebels carry off their threat to isolate government-held Aleppo, it would be the third crippling blow to the Assad regime since the Syrian national uprising began in 2011. In 2012, as the government appeared close to collapse, Iran’s deployment of thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah militia fighters reversed the tide. In September 2015, after the regime lost Idlib province to rebel forces, Russia intervened with massive airstrikes and appeared until this weekend to have rescued the regime. Today the regime lacks the ground troops to stop the rebels or to regain lost territory and is heavily reliant on Hezbollah and other Iranian-led militias. Short of a massive escalation by these militias, Iranian or Russian ground forces, Damascus may be out of options. But the U.S. will also find it hard to seize the moment for a political settlement, because the Islamist-led forces that prevailed this weekend have the momentum to press on and little reason to pay heed to Washington’s wishes.

Any sense of jubilation among the Syrian opposition after the breaking of the Aleppo siege has been tempered by a wave of devastating air strikes on rebel-held Idlib.

Having conducted nightly air strikes on the al-Atareb area last week, last night saw Russian or Syrian air force jets bomb the provincial capital itself with incendiary munitions, creating hellish scenes.  

— Roy Gutman

Pictures have now been released showing the rebel food convoys reaching previously-besieged areas of Aleppo described by Gutman above. 

Meanwhile, famous opposition journalist Hadi Abdullah, who is in Aleppo and recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt, has downplayed the involvement of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra: 
However, videos of the assault show Jabhat Fateh al-Sham using suicide “inghimasi” shock troops to blow apart pieces of regime military infrastructure, literally opening the door to the Ramouseh artillery college with suicide bombers and vehicle-born improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), as well as tunnel bombs dug under regime positions. Even if the role of Jaish al-Fateh, the Salafist umbrella organization, has been overplayed, their media blitz has portrayed them as the main contingent of the battle. As a result, this rebel victory could have serious consequences by further empowering jihadist elements. 

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Syrian Rebel Victories At Ramouseh Come With A Price

Just one week ago, the rebels who controlled the last few neighborhoods of Aleppo that remain in opposition hands found themselves surrounded and running out of time. Today, the situation is very different. But this battle comes at a price — a key Al-Qaeda-linked group has helped spearhead the attack on the city.

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Aug 08, 2016 22:15 (GMT)

While Syrian rebels brought fruit to the people of Aleppo, Russia brought more bombs, dropped on civilian neighborhoods and hospitals Aleppo and Idlib. Even worse, the Russian propaganda network Sputnik took to Twitter to brag about the bombings: 

Sputnik reports:

On Sunday, it was reported that Russian and Syrian forces undertook a heavy bombing campaign in the city of Idlib only miles away from the besieged city of Aleppo which has become a critical combat zone between pro-Assad forces and opposition rebels. The strike comes in the wake of the rebels breaking through a Syrian Army siege in Aleppo and successfully seizing several key strategic points including multiple military colleges and artillery bases.

The rebel forces victory appears to be short lived with Russia intensifying its bombing campaign in and around the city of Aleppo in order to root out the radical Islamic extremists with ties to a multitude of known terror organizations.

They also posted this video of the bombing. The video is labeled “Syrian aviation pours its anger on the city of Idlib in revenge for losing Aleppo”:

And yet, while Russia is bragging about bombing terrorists, Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reports that airstrikes have hit another hospital in Idlib province:

A busy hospital that served as a reference center for pediatric patients in the town of Millis, in Syria’s Idlib governorate, was destroyed by aerial bombing on Saturday, killing 13 people and depriving 70,000 people of essential medical care, according to the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provides support to the facility.

Two aerial strikes hit the hospital directly and two hit the immediate vicinity at about 2 p.m. local time, killing four hospital staff members and nine other people, including five children and two women. Six other members of the hospital staff were wounded.

The bombing destroyed the hospital’s operating theater, intensive care unit, pediatric department, ambulances, generator and about 80 percent of the medical equipment, forcing the facility to close. Specializing in pediatrics, the hospital provided essential care for around 70,000 people living in Millis and the surrounding area, where a considerable number of displaced people have moved to escape fighting elsewhere in northern Syria.

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Syria: MSF-Supported Hospital in Idlib Governorate Destroyed by Bombing

BRUSSELS/NEW YORK, AUGUST 8, 2016-A busy hospital that served as a reference center for pediatric patients in the town of Millis, in Syria's Idlib governorate, was destroyed by aerial bombing on Saturday, killing 13 people and depriving 70,000 people of essential medical care, according to the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provides support to the facility.

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Aug 08, 2016 22:32 (GMT)

The contrast in imagery is striking — while the jihadists help to bring fruit to civilians the Russian government is bragging about bombing them. That imagery may only help to bring radical groups to power. Again, we see how Russian actions in Syria, under the ruse of fighting terrorism, have helped make the situation on the ground so much worse.

James Miller, Pierre Vaux