The Battle of Aleppo and Turkey’s escalation of the Syria Civil War
The Syrian city of Aleppo has a historical heritage that spans millennia. Its streets have been trodden by the Hittites, Hurrians, Hellenic Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, various Arab dynasties and the Ottomans. This long and fascinating history is being destroyed brick by brick as Aleppo has become a fiercely contested battle ground between the forces and allies of Bashar al-Assad and various rebel factions.
While Aleppo is being effectively razed to the ground, its importance remains. Prior to the civil war it was the largest city in Syria (through death and migration that may no longer be the case) and whoever controls it, controls the important northwestern region of Syria. The Battle of Aleppo could very well decide the outcome of the Syrian Civil War and whether the conflict escalates into a regional or even world war scenario.
The encirclement of Aleppo
Aleppo has been fought over since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War with the military situation seesawing repeatedly, either in favor of the Syrian regime or the rebels. But recently Assad’s forces have gained the ascendency. Backed by Hezbollah’s troops and Russia’s air power, they have encircled the city, cutting off the 35,000 rebels troops within from their crucial northern supply lines to Turkey. The rebels trapped in Aleppo are mainly from Jabat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, but there are also some from other smaller groups.
This is not the first time that Aleppo has been completely surrounded by regime forces, but what differs from 2014 is that Assad is now aided by Russia’s formidable air power, with the latter unhesitant in unleashing this firepower as evinced by their reported usage of cluster bombs. Since the encirclement of Aleppo it has been reported that over 500 people have killed, including 89 civilians and 274 rebel fighters.
The Syrian government is confident in the outcome of the battle. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said, “These battles are not easy, but the day will come, God willing, when all Aleppo–its rural areas and the occupied part of the city–will return to state authority” and “I do not expect the battle of Aleppo to go on long.” Already there are reports by Russian officials that in the vicinity of Aleppo there has been mass desertions of rebel fighters, who are attempting to blend into the civilian population to escape the fierce Russian aerial bombardment
Undoubtedly the rebel fighters trapped in Aleppo are in a dire situation. Pounded by Russian bombers and Syrian artillery, and with supplies dwindling with each passing day, their fate may be sealed. If Aleppo is retaken by the Syrian regime than this will be a crushing blow to the rebel movement, particularly to Jabat al-Nusra, as they will have lost a strategically important city and their supply lines to Turkey will no longer be secure. At the very least the capture of Aleppo will give Assad control of Western Syria and will enable him and his Russian patrons to advance to the east of the country and focus their efforts on ISIL’s capital Raqqa.
The foreign response
How do we know that Assad’s forces are on the verge of a crucial victory in Aleppo? Partly from the foreign response to this situation. The anti-Assad powers, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc. have not been very pleased with the situation.
Right around the time that Syrian forces were tightening their noose around Aleppo, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Russia’s use of “dumb bombs … has to stop.” Then Kerry urged that “Russia’s targeting change” as the “vast majority” of their airstrikes have been “against legitimate opposition groups.” President Obama has reiterated this call for Russia to stop bombing “moderate” Syrian rebels. The UN has also called for a complete halt in Russian airstrikes on Aleppo over humanitarian concerns.
It is interesting that just at the moment that Russian airstrikes are bearing fruit, that the US and UN have intensified their calls for Russia to restrain their airstrikes. And just as Assad vowed that he will regain control of all of Syria–a difficult, although possible feat–a US State Department spokesman called Assad “deluded if he thinks that there’s a military solution to the conflict in Syria.”
The Turks have also adversely responded to the situation in Aleppo. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has claimed Assad’s forces are conducting “ethnic cleansing” in Aleppo province. In the most recent migrant crisis agreement between Germany and Turkey one of the agreed upon provisions was a diplomatic initiative to stop the siege of Aleppo, which Davutoğlu characterized as being “on the verge of a new human tragedy.”
Erdoğan has reiterated his long held desire for a no-fly zone to be implemented in Syria saying that if Russian airstrikes continue 600,000 new Syrian refugees will be created. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has stated that “If Russia continues its attacks in the region under the cover of fighting terror then a permanent cease-fire will not be established as the humanitarian aid will also not reach those in need.”
So it appears that the Turks are cognizant of the importance of the battle of Aleppo and that if the city falls to Assad then Turkey’s geopolitical machinations vis-à-vis Syria will be greatly undermined. For this reason Turkish officials are attempting to conflate the siege of Aleppo with the migrant crisis and are attempting to denounce Syria’s and Russia’s actions as precipitating a humanitarian crisis and as being a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The Turks are not alone among Middle Eastern states concerned with the situation in Syria. The Saudis have stated, through Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and General Ahmed Asseri, that they are willing to send ground troops (special forces) to Syria. According to Jubeir the deployment of Saudi troops to Syria is awaiting the go ahead from the US. The UAE and Bahrain are also willing to send troops to Syria.
Again it is interesting timing that now that the rebels are on the back foot in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, that the anti-Assad foreign powers are increasing their rhetoric against Russia’s aerial campaign in Syria and that some of them are talking about direct intervention within Syria. If we are to be fair and apply the logic of President Obama, who described Russia’s intervention in Syria as born “out of weakness,” then Western protestations and Saudi talk of direct intervention are also born “out of weakness” and indicate that Assad and Russia are in a position of strength.
The response of Assad and his allies
One can imagine with all of these developments, especially Saudi Arabia’s desire to send ground troops to Syria, that Assad and his allies would have a few choice words. A Russian official said that if Saudi troops did not have the consent of the Syrian regime that it will be an act of war by the Saudis. Such sentiments were echoed by the Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Medvedev who said “the Americans and our Arab partners must consider whether or not they want a permanent war”. He also said that “a ground operation is a full-fledged, long war.”
The Syrian regime was a bit more blunt in their responses. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem warned, “Let no one think they can attack Syria or violate its sovereignty because I assure you any aggressor will return to their country in a wooden coffin, whether they be Saudis or Turks.”
The Iranians have characterized a potential Saudi troop deployment as a political joke and blunder. The statements of Iran’s proxies in Iraq were not so much critical of Saudi policy as threatening. The Popular Mobilization Units promised they will make Iraq a graveyard for Saudi troops. The Hezbollah Brigades warned that if the Saudis intervened in Iraq or Syria this action would “open the gates of hell” upon them. An Iranian general has also stated that if asked by Assad then Iran will defend Syria’s airspace.
To put it mildly it appears that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not welcomed in Syria, or Iraq, and that they should be very pensive about any direct ground intervention in the region.
The pending ceasefire
This whole situation has been complicated by the recent signing in Munich of a ceasefire agreement (more accurately put a “cessation of hostilities”) between the combatants in the Syrian Civil War, which will take effect on February 19. What is odd about this ceasefire is why would Russia agree to it when current developments in the war are to their advantage? At this point in time a temporary peace does not appear to be to the advantage of Russia and Assad.
Well first of all there is still a few more days before the ceasefire takes effect, and it is possible that the Russians and Assad believe they can make significant gains in that period, although it appears unlikely that they will be able to capture Aleppo before the deadline.
Secondly, the agreement contains certain loopholes that are to the advantage of Russia, as it does not apply to “terrorist organizations” such as ISIL and Jabat al-Nusra. It is noteworthy that the latter group is one of the primary rebel forces besieged in Aleppo, meaning that Russia will still be able to bomb them. In other words the siege of Aleppo will not be greatly effected by this ceasefire agreement.
Thirdly, there have been reports, mainly by DEBKAfile that Russia and America have reached a secret agreement to cooperate in the fight against ISIL. Supposedly Russia has been tasked with fighting ISIL west of the Euphrates River, while to the east America will fight ISIL. I do acknowledge the possibility that Obama and company have grudgingly accepted that Russia is securely entrenched in Syria and that they are unwilling to risk a serious confrontation, possibly nuclear, to evict the Russians from Syria. With this possible American realization of the Russian reality in Syria (supported by Kerry’s recent comments) some degree of limited coordination may exist between the two superpowers.
However, I am rather skeptical that such coordination amounts to the secret understanding that DEBKAfile is reporting on. Fortunately, DEBKAfile thesis is refutable, as they have claimed that America, various European nations and Russia are cooperating in a future military intervention against ISIL in Libya. If this intervention does in fact occur, then this will lend significant credence to DEBKAfile’s claim. But until that happens, or other supporting evidence arises, I am rather incredulous towards the prospects that Russia and America are significantly ‘cooperating’ with one another.
Fourthly, it is possible that Putin, being the cunning person that he is, does not expect the opposition and their foreign supporters to uphold the agreement. In other words he does not expect the agreement to hold for very long (therefore it will not greatly disrupt his military efforts) and in the aftermath he can play the role of victim, remonstrating against the violators of the agreement, possibly Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Thus Putin may lose very little militarily by this agreement but under the right circumstances may gain a measure of credibility.
Ultimately, I would not put much stock in the this “cessation of hostilities” in terms of pacifying the situation in Syria. It seems to lack sufficient stringency to even mandate a complete peace and it will most likely fall apart sooner or later.
A Pollyanna may see the Munich agreement as a source for hope and they may dismiss the dire admonitions and bellicose threats that I have cited as just being political and rhetorical talk that will not lead to any real action. Well a few days ago the talk transmogrified into action.
On February 10, Davutoğlu gave a warning to the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a militant Kurdish group operating in Syria, that if they threaten Turkey “then we will do what is necessary.” Apparently what is necessary included the seemingly unprovoked artillery bombardment of YPG targets in northern Syria, including the area of Azaz and the airbase of Minnigh. No reason was given for the bombardment, but we have been reassured that it was “within the rules of engagement.”
The Turkish artillery barrage has continued for a second day as the village of Maryamayn was struck with reportedly two civilians being killed. What is even more alarming is reports, from the Syrian government, that Turkish soldiers have entered northern Syria to assist rebel fighters. At the very least, as reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 350 fighters from the Islamist Faylaq al-Sham group entered the Syrian towns of Azaz and Tal Rifaat. While there may not have been Turkish troops with these Islamists, I highly doubt that such a contingent could cross the Turkish-Syrian border without the knowledge of either the Turkish military or authorities.
It is significant that two days prior to the Turkish cross border attack, Minnigh airbase was captured by the YPG with the assistance of Russian airstrikes. Thus Turkey’s actions were not only directed at the YPG (i.e. the Kurds) but also at Russia, and were most likely an attempt by Turkey to reopen the recently severed rebel supply routes connecting Turkey to Aleppo, which are critical for the survival of the rebel forces besieged there.
The situation is unlikely to calm down any time soon as Davutoğlu’s ultimatum that the YPG withdraw from their positions in Azaz district, was rejected by the YPG, which stated “we are advancing [on Tal Rifaat], we won’t retreat.” Isn’t it interesting that the next target for the YPG, Tal Rifaat, is the town that the Faylaq al-Sham militants entered from Turkey?
So we have an explosive situation brewing on the Turkish-Syrian border. The situation is made even more volatile by the deployment of Saudi warplanes to the Turkish Incirlik airbase, ostensibly to battle ISIL and by Russian reports that there are signs that Turkey is preparing an invasion of northern Syria. Things are getting interesting to say the least.
The battle of Aleppo represents a major turning point in the Syrian Civil War. If Assad is victorious then the tide of war will be in his favor and his survival in power will be solidified for the near future. If his forces can’t retake the city then the outcome will be the perpetuation of the Syrian Civil War with no end in sight as both sides are stalemated. Such a situation could prompt an significant increase in Russia’s intervention in the war.
The battle also represents another turning point pertaining to foreign intervention. How will Turkey and Saudi Arabia, react to the situation in Aleppo? Already Turkey is directly intervening in Syria with artillery fire against Kurdish positions, partly to hinder the Kurds and partly to provide indirect support to the rebels besieged in Aleppo. If the tide of battle continues to favor Assad will they send troops into Syria? If they do, potentially with the direct aid of Saudi Arabia, how will Russia react? To this geopolitical mess one must then add the response of the US. Will they back Turkey in any confrontation with Russia or not?
The Middle East and the world are on the cusp of potentially momentous developments, which could have terrible repurcussions. Most people probably have no clue where Aleppo is on the globe, but the fate of this city may play an important role in their own fate and that of the world.