With Jihadi counter offensives crushed, the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo trapped, and the US out of options, the Syrian government backed by Russia is on the brink of winning ‘the Great Battle of Aleppo’ and restoring its full control over Syria’s biggest city.
Whilst all the attention is focused on the diplomacy, the fighting in Aleppo progresses steadily towards what is now starting to look like an inevitable government victory.
A review of the key events in the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ – likely to be the decisive battle in the Syrian war – is in order.
At the time of the start of the Russian intervention a year ago, Aleppo – which contrary to what the Western media says is mainly government controlled and overwhelmingly loyal to the government – had become almost completely surrounded by the Jihadi rebels who in 2012 had managed to capture its eastern suburbs.
The key to the crisis the government faced in Aleppo was the Jihadi capture in March 2015 of the provincial capital and most of the western province of Idlib.
This enabled the Jihadis to threaten the government’s heartland of Latakia, and put them in a position where they could threaten the roads linking Aleppo to the government controlled areas in the south. At the time of the Russians’ arrival the roads to the south of Aleppo had been cut, so that Aleppo could only be resupplied by air through the airport, which remained under government control.
In the months that followed the arrival of the Russians in September 2015, Russian air support enabled the Syrian army to take the offensive.
By the time of the first ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement in February of this year the roads leading to Aleppo from the south had been reopened. The Jihadis in eastern Aleppo however still retained control of the Castello road to the north of the city so that their supply routes to Turkey were still open.
It is now clear that both sides used the period following the ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement in February to resupply and reorganise.
On the part of the US and its allies this involved combining the various Jihadi groups (including Jabhat Al-Nusra) and putting them under the command of a single headquarters (or “operations room”) whilst resupplying them with weapons including it seems heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery, allegedly drawn from ex-Libyan army stocks.
Though the objective of this planned offensive was (naturally) never made public, it is clear that it was aimed at capturing (or “liberating”) Aleppo.
Presumably if Aleppo had been captured an alternative Syrian government would have been set up there, which the US, the European powers, Turkey, and the Arab states of the Gulf, would have recognised as Syria’s true or legitimate government.
With President Assad having lost control of what was once Syria’s largest city, and the area under the control of his government reduced to Damascus and a belt of territory to its north, that would have made the demand for his removal almost irresistible.
By May US Secretary of State Kerry was issuing threats that the Russians only had until August to agree to a “political transition” in Syria (ie. President Assad’s removal from office). Though what would happen in August if this did not happen Kerry left unsaid, with hindsight it is clear that it was the Jihadi offensive that was in preparation that he had in mind.
As previously discussed by The Duran (see here and here) Kerry followed up this threat with negotiations with the Russians in which he appears to have offered the Russsians a junior place in the US coalition against ISIS in return for their agreement to President Assad’s removal from power.
In the event the Russians rejected this offer, whose acceptance would have contradicted the fundamental principles of their whole foreign policy.
Before the Jihadis were in a position to start their offensive, the Syrian government and the Russians got their blow in first.
Further advances by the Syrian army backed by the Russian air force resulted in the capture in July of the Castello road, cutting off the supply route to the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo from Turkey, and encircling them.
The result was that when the Jihadi offensive against Aleppo finally got started at the end of July it found the Syrian military and the Russians prepared and waiting for them.
As a result, though the Jihadis were briefly able at the start of their offensive in August to punch a hole through the government lines by capturing the territory of what is sometimes called ‘the Aleppo artillery base’ and the Ramousseh district in Aleppo’s south western suburbs, their offensive – as The Duran predicted – quickly stalled, causing the Jihadis to suffer heavy losses at the hands of the Syrian army and the Russian air force.
By the beginning of September the Jihadi force attacking Aleppo from the south west had spent itself, allowing the Syrian army – apparently with help from Russian Special Forces – to recapture the ‘Aleppo artillery base’ and the Ramousseh district, thereby plugging the hole the Jihadis had punched through the government’s lines at the start of their offensive in August.
In passing I would say that this particular episode casts an interesting light over Western media coverage of the war.
The brief Jihadi capture of the ‘Aleppo artillery base’ and the Ramousseh district were widely trumpeted by the Western media as a great victory in banner headlines that appeared on the front pages of Western newspapers. There was much breathless talk of how ‘the siege of Aleppo’ had been “broken”, and of how this would open the way to the capture or “liberation” of the government controlled area of Aleppo.
The Western media has by contrast barely reported the Syrian army’s recapture of the grounds of the ‘Aleppo artillery base’ and the Ramousseh district in September. It would require very close reading of Western news reports to know it had happened.
Less observant watchers of the Syrian war who take all their news from the Western media might be confused why a siege which was ‘broken’ in August is intact now.
Whilst the fighting continued around Aleppo, the diplomacy continued as well.
The failure of the Jihadi offensive in August led to the US proposing a new plan whereby the Syrian military would withdraw from the Castello road purportedly to allow the movement of humanitarian convoys into the city.
This was first proposed at a time when the Jihadis were still in control of the territory of the ‘Aleppo artillery base’ and the Ramousseh district and were thus in a position to threaten Aleppo’s communications to the government controlled areas to the south.
The inducement the US this time offered the Russians was a US offer of joint operations against Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat Al-Nusra.
As discussed before, this plan – had it ever been accepted – would have put the government’s communications and supply routes to Aleppo at grave risk, threatening its control of the city in the event of the (inevitable) collapse of the ceasefire.
Unsurprisingly the Russians proved unreceptive to this plan, especially as they probably always doubted that the US would act on its offer of joint operations against Jabhat Al-Nusra – all the more so since Jabhat Al-Nusra actually constitutes the bulk of the Jihadi forces fighting the Syrian government in and around Aleppo.
By the time the plan was formally presented by Obama to Putin at the G20 summit in Hangzhou the whole premise of the plan had however collapsed following the Syrian army’s recapture of the territory of the ‘Aleppo artillery base’ and of the Ramousseh district, securing the government’s supply lines to Aleppo from the south.
The result was that the meeting between Obama and Putin at the G20 summit ended in acrimony, with the US accusing the Russians of supposedly “backtracking” on things that had already been agreed upon (almost certainly this reflects US anger at the Syrian army’s recapture of the territory of the ‘Aleppo artillery base’ and the Ramousseh district).
Following the defeat of the Jihadi offensive against south west Aleppo at the beginning of September, and the conclusive completion of the encirclement of the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo, their fate was in all practical terms sealed.
The ceasefire plan that subsequently emerged was an attempt by the more realistically minded officials in Washington – who presumably include Obama and Kerry – to save the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo and to preserve them as a coherent fighting force by getting the Russians to agree to their withdrawal from eastern Aleppo via the Castello road.
Though the opening of the Castello road as part of this ceasefire plan was presented as intended to make possible the delivery of humanitarian supplies to eastern Aleppo, in reality the agreement quite clearly refers to the withdrawal of Jihadi fighters together with their equipment from eastern Aleppo by way of the Castello road. The relevant term of the agreement reads as follows:
“Any Syrians can leave Aleppo via Castello Road, including armed opposition forces with their weapons, with the understanding that no harm will come to them and they can choose their destination. Opposition forces leaving Aleppo with weapons must coordinate ahead of time with UN representatives as to the time they will be using Castello Road and the number of personnel and weapons and military equipment departing.”
(bold italics added)
The ceasefire ultimately collapsed because the hardliners in Washington and the Jihadis on the ground in Syria could not in the end bring themselves to accept the surrender of eastern Aleppo to the government by agreeing to the withdrawal of Jihadi fighters from eastern Aleppo by way of the Castello road.
The loss of a Jihadi presence in Syria’s biggest city – and with it the loss of any realistic prospect of the city’s eventual capture – would end the possibility of setting up an alternative government in Aleppo, and with it any realistic prospect of achieving regime change in Syria.
Though there is now some talk of setting up an alternative government in Turkish controlled Jarablus, doing so in a small town on the Turkish border under the protection of the Turkish army five years after the war started is not a viable alternative, and cannot compare with the setting up of such a government in a Jihadi “liberated” Aleppo.
Since the surrender of eastern Aleppo means the abandonment of any realistic possibility of achieving regime change in Syria, the proposal to do so encountered bitter resistance from the hardliners in Washington and from the Jihadis on the ground in Syria. That is why the ceasefire plan in the end failed.
The problem is that having ruled out a withdrawal from Aleppo the hardliners have no realistic alternative to offer.
The Russians have made clear since the collapse of the ceasefire that any idea of sending ‘humanitarian supplies’ into eastern Aleppo via the Castello road must now be abandoned, ending any hope of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo being resupplied by that route.
Russian troops are apparently still located there, whilst the collapse of the ceasefire means that Syrian troops, who had briefly withdrawn from there, have reoccupied their former positions there, and are indeed carrying out further advances in the area. That means that the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo can no longer obtain reinforcements or fresh supplies by way of the Castello road.
Since the Castello road was the last remaining resupply route of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo, that means they can no longer receive reinforcements or fresh supplies, and are reduced to trying to hold off the attacks of the Syrian army with only what they have. By contrast the Syrian troops pressing in on them from the north and south can be resupplied and reinforced continuously, which is what is apparently actually happening.
The result of all of this, with the ceasefire having collapsed and with the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo trapped and facing defeat, is that the US is left thrashing around looking for something it can do.
There is again talk of supplying Jihadi troops, presumably in the area around Aleppo, with shoulder held surface to air missiles (‘MANPADS’) (the Saker has explained why this would not be effective) and of the US pulling out of negotiations with the Russians (it is not obvious why the US thinks that would scare or impress the Russians) but the truth is that with a head on clash with the Russian military in Syria categorically ruled out by the US military, the US has no real cards left to play.
This is the reason for all the overblown rhetoric of Russian “barbarism”, of Russia becoming a “pariah nation”, of the death threats against Russian servicemen and civilians in Syria and elsewhere, of the talk of the US bombing of Syrian military bases in eastern Syria (this clearly refers to Deir Ezzor), and of the hints of imposing further sanctions (“coercive measures”) on Russia (a non-starter), and of expelling Russia from the UN Security Council or diluting its power of veto there (ditto).
In the absence of any viable alternative strategy this talk is intended to embarrass or scare the Russians into calling a stop on the Syrian military’s offensive in Aleppo, or – if that doesn’t work – in concealing behind a smokescreen of angry words the extent of the US’s humiliation in Aleppo . The Russians however are obviously unimpressed and are paying no attention, and are pressing on.
None of this talk can change the military situation in Aleppo. Though the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo are – as is to be expected – putting up a fierce fight, as they are now cut off from any hope of reinforcement or resupply in what continues to be a battle of attrition, their strength every day dwindles. The result is that with every day that passes news comes of further Syrian army advances in the city.
Unless the Jihadis’ foreign sponsors are prepared to escalate beyond anything we have seen up to now – which since it would risk a head on clash with the Russians seems very unlikely – the eventual outcome of the fighting in Aleppo is no longer in doubt.
The Syrian army’s eventual recapture of eastern Aleppo would not end the war in Syria.
Jabhat Al-Nusra would still be in control of Idlib province. ISIS would still be in control of Raqqah and of much of the desert region in Syria’s east. In addition the Turkish military has been busy over the last few weeks carving out its “safe zone” for the Jihadis in north east Syria.
It is not impossible – indeed it is highly likely – that the fall-back plan is to regroup the Jihadi forces in this Turkish controlled “safe zone” so as to launch fresh attacks on Aleppo from there in the future.
Another option apparently once again being discussed is the old one of partitioning Syria by carving out a Sunni Jihadi state in eastern Syria.
In my opinion neither of these options is realistic or sustainable over the long term.
Having failed in the course of four years of war to capture the whole of Aleppo before the Russians arrived, and having been comprehensively defeated there since, I cannot see the Jihadis succeeding in capturing Aleppo in the future against a revitalised Syrian army that has the backing of Russia.
Nor do I think it sustainable to preserve indefinitely what would in effect be Jihadi emirates in poor peripheral regions of Syria like Idlib or Raqqah, or in a Turkish occupied “safe zone” in north east Syria, against the opposition of Syria, Iran, Iraq, the Kurdish militia, and Russia. Not only would that be politically difficult, but with the Syrian government securely in control of Damascus and Aleppo, and with regime change in Syria definitely off the agenda, there would seem to be no point in doing so.
In saying this I should say that I know of the talk of Western plans to build pipelines from Qatar to Europe through this area in order to bypasss Russia. However I cannot imagine that happening whilst this area remains a fought over contested zone, which with neither the Syrian government in Damascus nor the Kurds accepting the existence of these emirates is what it would be.
Moreover following the capture of eastern Aleppo the Syrian government’s priority is likely to be the recapture of Idlib. Though Idlib is in difficult country and will doubtless be fanatically defended (as Raqqah will be) the US can no more prevent its recapture by the Syrian army than it can prevent the Syrian army backed by Russia from recapturing eastern Aleppo.
If the Syrian army recaptures Idlib after it recaptures Aleppo then the Syrian government will have finally secured control of the whole of Syria’s populous western regions, all its main cities, and of its Mediterranean coast. At that point the preservation of the remaining pockets of Jihadi control in the poor and unpopulated areas of eastern Syria would seem to have even less point.
It is unwise to underestimate the fanaticism and bloody-mindedness of some people in Washington. Unfortunately that always leaves open the possibility of some sort of dramatic escalation in Syria. However with the Syrian army close to winning ‘the Great Battle of Aleppo’ it is increasingly looking as if Syria has finally turned the corner.
By Alexander Mercouris