The past two weeks have seen large parts of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and a bustling hub of finance and industry, reduced to rubble as an intensified offensive by President Bashar al Assad’s allied forces picks up pace. The former Syrian metropolis has become a symbol of Assad’s determined and bloody grasp for power, as well as the West’s inability or unwillingness to decisively intervene in the yearslong civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions more, and regularly raised charges of war crimes.
With Syrian government forces’ sudden and major advancements into the city’s rebel-held eastern territory in recent weeks, Aleppo’s uncertain fate is starting to crystallize, once again posing two central questions: Why Aleppo, and what next?
Why Aleppo is so important strategically
Just one of several battles raging in the country since 2011 pro-democracy protests transformed into civil war, the four-year fight for Aleppo has become Assad’s central preoccupation in his efforts to remain in power, dominating global headlines. For good reason.
“It’s the New York of Syria,” said Antoun Issa, senior editor at Middle East Institute. “This is a huge battle, and for any changes in the map to have occurred, considering it’s been paralyzed for three or four years, is a massive game-changer.”
Recapturing the whole of the northern metropolis would return all five major cities — the others being Damascus, Homs, Hama and Latakia — under Assad’s regime, badly weaken moderate rebel claims as being a viable alternative, push them further to the country’s rural fringes, and set in motion a tangible, if muddled, path toward an inevitable solution in Syria.
How Aleppo became the symbol of Syria’s civil war
Aleppo replaced Homs, once perceived as the center of the country’s pro-democracy revolution, as the symbol of the Syrian civil war in July 2012 when it was split in two. Rebel forces comprising the Free Syrian Army and its allies sought to wrest control of the city away from government forces in an effort to gain a major urban center and solidify their territorial dominance in the country’s north.
The rebels’ efforts earned them a half-victory later in 2012: They failed to take the whole city and much of its larger metropolitan sprawl, but excised most of the city’s eastern territory.
Since then Syria’s largest city has been paralyzed by a barbaric civil war, with rebels occupying the east and the regime remaining in power in the west.
The territorial stalemate remained largely intact until July when Assad’s forces — heavily reliant on Russian air support and Shiite militia fighters — choked off the last remaining road and supply line into rebel-held Aleppo, and thus began their two-pronged offensive of unfettered airstrikes and orchestrated attrition.
Why the advances in Aleppo are heating up now
Syrian government forces started seeing significant gains in September. Backed by Russian airstrikes and Iran-backed militias on the ground, Assad’s forces intensified their offensive on the city’s rebel-held territory.
Dwindling food and medical supplies along with intensified airstrikes on Eastern Aleppo’s public spaces — including its last remaining hospitals — have since badly weakened the territory, where the U.N. estimates 250,000 people still live.
“Complete neighborhoods have been destroyed in these attacks,” former student Mohamad Shbeeb said from the Al-Mash’had neighborhood in Eastern Aleppo last Tuesday. “It’s very hard to comprehend what has happened. The advances of the regime, what they have achieved in the last three days, has made the situation really bad.”
To experience a glimpse of what this scene is like, Smart News Agency, in partnership with Samsung and VICELAND, produced and distributed a virtual reality documentary about a Syrian led group of first responders, working inside Aleppo.
The urban warfare tactics, imposed attrition, and indiscriminate airstrikes employed during the battle drew an unrestrained response from the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, who described the city as a “slaughterhouse” in late October. And Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called Aleppo “our generation’s shame.”
Following impermanent cease-fires and failed peace talks orchestrated by the U.S. and Russia, and in the absence of badly needed emergency convoys, food and medical supplies have all but disappeared in the rebel-held territory. And with only makeshift, quasi-functional hospistals, the citizens and rebel forces in Eastern Aleppo appear unable to weather the excruciating war of attrition and ceaseless bombardment much longer.
“The only thing that people are thinking about right now is how to survive. They’re not even thinking about tomorrow; they just want to find a place to be safe,” Shbeeb said.
The UN reported last week that 16,000 civilians had fled Eastern Aleppo over the course of a few days as Assad, Russia, and backing militias made major gains in their assault to retake the city. The United Nations Security Council convened for an emergency meeting later last week to orchestrate a seven-day truce in the besieged city. But Russia and China vetoed the resolution on Monday, allowing for further gains by Assad’s forces this week. In vetoing the proposed UN resolution, Russia said it was concentrating on engaging the U.S. in talks regarding a rebel withdrawal from Aleppo.
What happens next
Assad’s Syrian government coalition forces are advancing faster than expected, and now control three-quarters of rebel-held Eastern Aleppo. Firmly on their back foots, rebel forces called for an immediate five-day ceasefire on Wednesday morning, citing a need to evacuate the injured and civilians. They did not indicate any plans to withdraw from their remaining territory in the city.
Last week, a senior official in Assad’s army told Reuters that government forces aim to take the rest of the city before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.
Though a victory in Aleppo doesn’t win Assad back all of Syria — which remains fractured by raging battles elsewhere and growing terror organizations — it does give the embattled ruler a firm grip on all of the country’s major cities and their respective populations.
Uncertainty and inflamed extremism will likely take hold throughout rural areas in the immediate aftermath of an Assad victory in Aleppo, with al-Qaeda and ISIS the first beneficiaries of the country’s depleted moderate rebel forces.
“Rather than stabilize the country,” wrote terrorism and security expert Charles Lister last week, “Assad’s conquest of Aleppo promises the opposite, with 5 million Syrian refugees looking even more unlikely to ever consider returning home.”
The Middle East Institute’s Issa thinks Assad would be pleased to live with such an immediate outcome, with the focus on a longer-term solution: “Once you control all the main cities, all the population centers, and the economic centers, you can go to the negotiating table and say, ‘Look, we’ve got most of the country in our hands, so now we can impose a solution.’”
Assad himself has hinted at such hopes in recent weeks. Such a strategy is supported by Assad allies Russia and Iran, and would ultimately make for a simpler decision by incoming U.S. president Donald Trump.
“By the time he takes office, [Aleppo] may be a fait accompli,” said Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College.
The president-elect has previously stated he is not interested in nation-building but would like to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, a strategy that becomes more plausible with the removal of the moderate rebel forces from Aleppo, where they received on-again off-again backing from the U.S., Turkey, and other allies.
Considering Trump’s previous foreign policy comments and the current tide behind Assad, an eventual Russian-U.S.-led solution in Syria would become the most plausible end to the war, said Issa.
Klare noted the cost of such an eventuality, however. “Essentially he will be seen as having formed an unholy alliance with people we’ve condemned for the past five years.”
But he suspects such a decision would be informed as much by Trump’s domestic policy as by his foreign policy:
“Syria and Iraq are complicated because I see them as much as domestic issues as foreign policy. Trump’s primary foreign policy issue has been destroying ISIS, which is more about reassuring his domestic base,” Klare said. “I think he’s simply looking for any way to achieve his promise of crushing ISIS, and looking for any allies that will succeed in that. So in a sense it’s this kind of pragmatic ‘whatever works’ kind of strategy and it has nothing to do with any previous commitments to anybody.”
For now, experts foresee Syria’s long and bloody war to enter a new stage, with the war playing itself out on various fronts in rural areas, only further complicated by emboldened terror organizations that have their ideal antagonist in Assad.
— Zouhir al-Shimale and Olivia Alabaster contributed reporting from Aleppo and Beirut, respectively.