It’s advantage al-Assad for now. And for the rebels, the game is almost over, as casualties mount
Syrian government troops are on the cusp of victory in Aleppo. They have already captured more than 90 per cent of the eastern parts of the city, which had been held by rebels and jihadists since 2012. While the government of Bashar al-Assad claims it’s “liberating” the city from terrorists, its regional rivals as well Western powers are accusing Assad of committing war crimes. The UN Security Council’s efforts to end the war failed as both Russia and China vetoed a resolution brought in by the West. Given the battlefield advances of the Syrian government, it’s only a matter of days before the regime fully recaptures Aleppo.
Aleppo was Syria’s largest city, with a population of 2.3 million, before the civil war broke out in 2011. It was the country’s economic and commercial capital, also known for a 13th century citadel and the 12th century Great Mosque. When protests against the regime of al-Assad turned violent in 2011, Aleppo remained relatively calm. But in 2012, rebels, aided by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, captured the eastern parts of the city that share border with Turkey. The rebel plan was to use Aleppo as a launch-pad for more attacks against the regime. They put in place a parallel government in areas they controlled. The Assad government was relatively weak in its response to the civil war during this phase. Evidently, it lost many territories to rebels and jihadist groups such as al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and the Islamic State. It was under crippling sanctions imposed by the West and fighting on multiple fronts as its regional rivals came together to bankroll the anti-regime rebellion. But the Russian intervention in September last year altered the balance of power in favour of the regime.
Even when the regime was weaker, the rebels in Aleppo could not advance their early gains. Much of the city’s population moved to the Western parts of Aleppo that was under government control. When Syria started a massive operation to retake Aleppo early this year, the western city had a population of over two million, while the rebel- held parts had about 275,000 people living there. The plan was to first disrupt the rebel supply lines through aerial attacks and send in ground troops. Russian and Syrian jets started a relentless bombing campaign and the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah fighters and Iran-trained militias, moved in from the western and northern sides of the city. By August, the government troops had surrounded eastern Aleppo, taking control of the Castello Road in north, the only route into the rebel-held territory.
To be sure, the humanitarian cost of the operation was terribly high. Hundreds of people were killed in bombings and thousands were displaced. Still there are holes in the popular narrative of the battle for Aleppo. The prominent anti-Assad group in the eastern city was Fateh al-Sham, which was an al-Qaeda branch till four years ago. They changed their name in August only to make them more appealing to the outside world, to fit themselves well in the western narrative that it’s a ‘brutal regime versus people-loving rebels’ in Aleppo. But ties between Qaeda and their Syrian branch are much deeper than what name they choose in the battle. At the end of the day, the Syrian troops are fighting al-Qaeda as well in Aleppo. Also, over the past few months tens of thousands of people have fled rebel-held territories. If the eastern city’s population was 275,000 in August, it came down to 100,000 in December. The regime had opened humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee. The Russians were in touch with rebels under Turkish mediation to reach a retreat deal. But they not only refused to retreat but also prevented the last trapped civilians from leaving the city that’s under attack.
For rebels, the game is over in Aleppo, at least for now. For the regime, it’s the most decisive victory in the civil war. It will now have control over all major city centres in Syria and could even seal the supply points on the Turkish border side. The rebels will find it extremely difficult to turn the tide of the civil war against President Assad.