Aleppo pays dearly in Syria’s unwinnable war of attrition
David Gardner in Beirut
4 August 2016
Political solution might emerge when there is little left to destroy
The ferocious fight for Aleppo, started with Russian air strikes and a ground offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s forces four weeks ago and met this week by a huge rebel counter-offensive, is shaping up as the biggest battle of a piteous civil war now well into its sixth year. Begun with high regime hopes it could recapture Syria’s largest city and turn the tables on its opponents, the struggle is settling into a pattern of attrition as Aleppo, historically the country’s commercial hub, is pounded to dust.
Wave upon wave of Russian jets bomb the rebel-held east of the city, supplemented by barrel bombs rolled out of Syrian army helicopters. Rebel sappers meanwhile have detonated a vast tunnel bomb under Assad loyalist headquarters in the west of the city. An estimated 300,000 civilians, running out of food, medicine and fuel, are trapped in the fighting, mistrustful of so-called “humanitarian corridors” the regime opened for them supposedly to escape.
The regime is reliant on Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia paramilitaries, and Iran’s revolutionary guards, to spearhead its ground forces. On the rebel side, the main strike force is the jihadi group that last week severed its links with al-Qaeda and rebranded itself from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Levant Conquest Front). Though Nusra had almost no presence inside Aleppo, for this operation it has closed ranks with mainstream rebel forces — some of them backed by the US and its allies — to push through from south of the city and lift the regime’s siege.
Yet it is not clear either side really expects Aleppo, great prize and morale barometer though it is, to be decisive. The battle looks to be more about each side cutting the other’s supply lines. The regime is trying to separate the rebels in Aleppo from their adjoining stronghold in Idlib and, above all, from the border with Turkey and its resupply pipeline. The rebels, as well as trying to break the siege, want to cut regime lines westwards. Aleppo may be another chapter in the baleful story of bloody stalemate in a nevertheless shape-changing civil war.
The Assad regime’s forces “can continue taking ground but they can’t hold it”, says one western official involved with Syria. Conversely, “the opposition will lose ground but the army will not be able to move freely”.
Put another way, while President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria 10 months ago undoubtedly salvaged President Assad when he was at risk of succumbing to the rebels, the regime has so far been unable to take full advantage of the ferocity of Russia’s air force with commensurate advances on the ground. Seizing and holding ground, after all, needs troops, and Mr Assad’s army is severely depleted — often reliant on Iran and Hizbollah, and the militia networks they have created.
The lack of numbers and cohesion applies to the fragmented opposition, too, but on the government side, Mr Assad’s patrons look dismayed by the fighting ability of the Syrian army after five years of war.
Russian officers, who inherit a long army-to-army relationship over almost half a century of Assad family rule, are said by Arab and western officials to be shocked at the condition and morale of Syria’s regular forces. There also seems to be doubt about their reliability in Iranian and Hizbollah circles, whose forces are taking growing casualties, including senior officers and operatives.
While all this may amount to little more than murmuring now, it does not suggest Syria’s patrons will provide the ground forces to reconquer, as Mr Assad regularly pledges, every inch of the country. The calculation of regime and rebels, therefore, may come down to judging at what point attrition favours them in negotiation.
Diplomacy, led by a US now fixated on fighting Isis and a Russia determined to restore its superpower status, has failed Syria. A political solution may start to look more urgent once the two external actors realise that while neither side can win on the ground, everyone can keep losing. Aleppo, tragically, could be a step along that road.
Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!