Al Jazeera speaks to two Syrian analysts about why Aleppo matters
Kheder Khaddour is a senior researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. His research focuses on issues of identity and society in Syria. He is the author of Assad’s officer Ghetto: Why the Syrian Army Remains Loyal.
Ammar Waqqaf worked originally in management consultancy in the UK. He recently founded Gnosos, an organisation that focuses on the lesser-known views in Syria and the Middle East.
Can you explain why is it crucial for the Syrian regime to retake Aleppo? What is so important about the city politically and militarily? And what consequences would such an event have on the potential settlement?
Kheder Khaddour: Aleppo is not a goal in itself, but territorial gains are limited to the aim of fragmenting the opposition forces before any political settlement is reached. The regime and its allies know that it would be impossible to defeat the armed oppositions and reclaim all the Syrian territory.
They have opted for a strategy which isolates rebel-held areas from one another. By consigning the opposition to “islands”- isolated pockets of rebel-held territory surrounded by regime-held territory - the regime makes opposition forces vulnerable to repression and siege and dependent on regime allies to access further humanitarian supplies.
This strategy is systematic and coordinated at the highest levels within the regime. A military headquarters, called the United Center of Operation for the North, is managing a variety of regime-affiliated forces, including militias led by regime figures and Iranian advisers. It leads operations in Idlib, Aleppo and the north of Latakia, with the help of Russian air strikes.
Beginning February 2, the headquarters moved to systematically confine rebel forces to the territories they control by cutting off their supply lines between the borders into the interior. This prevented them from being able to receive external military support.
Rather than focusing on attacking Idlib, an opposition-held stronghold, the military headquarters has prioritised cutting off roads between opposition-held areas on the outskirts of Aleppo, isolating the northern countryside from both the eastern countryside and the city’s centre. The regime has also directly benefitted from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) advances along the Syria-Turkey border, which are further challenging the opposition’s ability to receive military and humanitarian supplies.
This strategy is not specific to Aleppo, but is also being employed by the regime in Deraa in southern Syria. There, the regime and its allies have also created islands of rebel-held territory, preventing them from controlling any areas bordering Jordan.
Ammar Waqqaf: Apart from Aleppo being the largest city in Syria and the economic capital, whose recapturing would be of a military and psychological significance, liberating this particular city would be a boost to the Syrian government’s popular legitimacy. The people of Aleppo, who are predominantly Sunni, had stubbornly refused to get dragged into the “revolution” and, as a consequence, have suffered a lot. Therefore, a win in Aleppo would not only vindicate their steadfastness and sacrifices, but would be a win against the alternative project that is backed by regional players.
A win for the government in Aleppo would convince the armed rebellion that its fall is not imminent. People on the opposition side would be bound to ask questions on the sanity of continuing a fight and a suffering with no achievable goal on the horizon, which should lead to them attending the negotiations table with more realistic demands.
Is the regime fighting to take over Aleppo or just to gain more territory to take back to the negotiation table?
Kheder Khaddour: Taking back Aleppo is not a question of territorial gain per se, but is part of the regime and its allies’ strategy to foster the further fragmentation of the already-fragmented rebel factions so as to begin the political negotiations from a position of strength. As this strategy unfolds, pockets of rebels will remain on the ground, but they will be so divided and disconnected one from one another that the regime can negotiate ceasefires on a case-by-case basis. This will allow the regime to remain the strongest player in any future negotiation.
Ammar Waqqaf: I don’t believe that the Syrian government views gaining back territory as a negotiating card in terms of percentages. Perhaps it is more preoccupied in proving that the tide has turned and that the more the armed rebellion continues with its struggle, the fewer the options they’ll have every time they sit at the table.
Can you explain who the forces fighting in Aleppo are? We understand there are areas under regime control and areas under opposition, but who are the key fighting forces and where are they located in the city?
Kheder Khaddour: A mosaic of forces is deployed around Aleppo, each one entertaining a different relationship with the regime and with different aims. Regime forces are deployed on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, with several Syrian army units and armed militia groups under the command of Syrian Air Force General Suheil al-Hassan. These are the only regime forces keeping a frontline against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Their presence - although marginal to the overall struggle in Aleppo - allows the regime to claim legitimacy as one the players engaged in the fight against terrorism.
Iraqi militias, supported by Iran and led by [its] Revolutionary Guards, hold the frontlines north and west of Aleppo.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are also deployed in the northern outskirts of Aleppo, close to the border with Turkey. This group is dominated by the Kurdish YPG and occupies an ambiguous place in the conflict.
Despite the fact that they are not part of the regime operation rooms, they are advancing in heavily Kurdish Afrin (immediately to the north of Aleppo). They also indirectly fulfil the regime’s aim to deprive the opposition of control over borders, thereby preventing the opposition from receiving supplies from its foreign backers.
Ammar Waqqaf: I believe that trying to find out who is who, in specific, is somewhat a waste of time. The belligerents can be roughly divided into those who prefer the current Syrian setup to a new untrusted one and those who wish to overthrow it at any cost in order to establish a new setup that would be based on different terms.
The divide between the fighting groups can be drawn along rural versus urban lines, which is very evident in Aleppo itself, as much as it can be drawn along the lines of those who wish for a state in which all citizens can be first-degree citizens versus those who wish for a state in which citizens would be treated as per their tribal affiliations.
The Russians called for a ceasefire, but would that include Aleppo as well? And if not, then how viable would that ceasefire be?
Kheder Khaddour: Russian air strikes pave the way for these diverse regime-affiliated ground forces to create a new reality on the ground before reaching any ceasefire agreement. The fact that rebel-held territories are now scattered and isolated will shape the conditions and content of any ceasefire agreement.
Rather than freezing the hostilities altogether, Russia might now advance the proposal of agreeing on ceasefire over specific rebel-held areas, case-by-case. Individual ceasefires could appear to be a success for the international community, but would paradoxically serve the regime’s interests by allowing it to continue the offensive against certain rebel-held areas in Aleppo while consuming others step-by-step through siege without even necessarily fighting them.
Ammar Waqqaf: It is hard to believe that the Syrian government and its Russian ally would stop hostilities in areas where designated religious extremists are present. Part of their logic is that these groups won’t stop fighting anyway because they’re doing so for reasons of ideology. What makes this particular issue a bit complicated is that groups who are not necessarily al-Qaeda-affiliated are so intertwined with such groups, like al-Nusra Front, which is an al-Qaeda branch in Syria, that it would be hard to separate them into mini frontlines on which ceasefires could actually be maintained. Take the Army of Conquest, for example, which is a merger of fighting groups whose backbone are al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, which is a Salafi group that almost fully adopts the al-Qaeda intellect but is not officially affiliated with it.
This army is spread in all areas of the province of Idlib and in most areas of the province of Aleppo, and there are no clear lines of territorial control between the various groups. It would also be hard to strike a deal with one of its lesser-weight groups, who might wish to do so for the sake of saving their people some hardship, as they could easily be attacked by the more radical ones.
All in all, cessation of hostilities would be a real challenge, but there could be an opportunity in areas where the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are either non-present or lightly represented. Progress on both the military and humanitarian fronts could be made in such areas, and, therefore, the situation is not all doom and gloom.
What do you make of the Saudi military intervention and will it be confined to air strikes or will ground interventions take place? How plausible is that given the many actors already involved in the Syrian quagmire?
Kheder Khaddour: Saudi Arabia cannot rely on a network of allied affiliated forces as the regime and its backers do. Yet, the strategy of putting boots on the ground looks increasingly unlikely to succeed, considering that rebel forces are becoming more scattered and localised on both the northern and the southern front; without some on-the-ground forces to link up with, a Saudi intervention is not likely to achieve much. Whether the Saudi government will attempt such an intervention is difficult to say, however.
The only way Saudi Arabia might counter the growing strength of the regime and its allies in Syria, therefore, is not by channelling support to the rebels, but by attempting to claim leadership in the fight against ISIL. The regime has already secured a swath of territory on the frontline against the jihadis - the front managed by Suheil al-Hassan, whom I mentioned earlier - allowing it to claim that it is combating ISIL. Saudi Arabia might look for a means to outdo the regime in this respect and challenge this claim to legitimacy.
Ammar Waqqaf: There are reasons to believe that the Saudi/Turkish direct military intervention in the Syria crisis had been put on the table since early on in the crisis, as an option to secure their objectives, should attempts to bring down the Syrian government through the rebellion fail.
The current intensive talk about this sort of intervention indicates that these regional players are running out of options. However, it is highly unlikely that they would enter Syria without an explicit backing from the United States and NATO, which doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon.
NATO seem to have grown unease as of late with Turkey’s handling of the Syrian refugees crisis, including the exodus towards Europe, as a means to force a free hand in Syria.
NATO, and especially the United States, also feel a bit suspicious about Turkey’s real intentions towards a possible future ally in the region, i.e the Syrian Kurds.
On the other hand, it could well be the case that the Russian/Syrian/Iranian alliance have calculated such a move and have some sort of a counter measure up their sleeves.
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