Aleppo, once Syria’s industrial and economic hub, has emerged as the civil war’s latest high-stakes battlefield as the warring parties pour in all of their military might to strike a definitive blow against each other.
In the first year of the revolution, Aleppo saw neither the large-scale protests nor deadly violence that shook other towns and cities. However, it suddenly became a key battleground in July 2012 when rebel fighters launched an offensive to oust government forces and gain control over northern Syria.
Aleppo has been divided since then between the government and the rebels with the Assad government holding the west and rebels controlling districts in the east and much of the surrounding countryside of the governorate. Even some parts of the city are changing hands on a daily basis.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the battle of Aleppo is one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times. There has been massive damage to the city’s basic infrastructure. With water and electricity supplies cut or severely reduced, the population is at risk from untreated and unsafe water. Humanitarian organizations have begun trucking drinking water as an emergency measure.
Recently, Assad’s regime tightened the siege around Aleppo to force the rebel fighters to surrender but rebels hit back by breaking the siege. One vital question that arises is why Aleppo has become so crucial for both the Syrian regime and the opposition.
As Aleppo used to be the largest city in Syria, its recapture would be a military and psychological victory for the Assad regime. Its liberation would be a boost to the Syrian government’s legitimacy.
On the other hand, Aleppo is the last major urban holding of the mainstream armed opposition in Syria. If the political process is to amount to anything other than a regime victory in all but name, the rebels have to hold Aleppo City. Both sides are throwing everything they can at the four-year battle for the city — a fight that has come to define the Syrian civil war — because each believes the fate of Aleppo will decide the outcome of the conflict.
The Syrian government has organized a good number of forces through the participation of its own regular Syrian Arab army, Hezbollah and Shia militias which are supported by Russian air power. On the other hand, rebels have also mobilized a number of groups including Free Syrian Army, Jaysh al-Fateh, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham.
Like the opposition, President Bashar Al Assad and his inner circle are convinced that taking Aleppo will effectively end the civil war, break the morale of the opposition and condemn it to a marginal existence as a rural insurgency that can no longer claim to represent the large sections of Syrian society.
By bringing all the country’s major cities under his control, Assad can ward off the threat of a new Syrian settlement that does not include him as leader.
Moderate members of Syria’s opposition fear that the Aleppo siege is aimed not just to force the rebel fighters to surrender but also to polarize further a war that Assad has always cast as a battle between himself and jihadists.
In Aleppo, a race for reinforcements is going on between the government and the opposition. It is difficult to assume how long the battle will last. This will depend on the speed of transfer of reinforcements.
In the coming months, it will be a test for the government forces and opposition fighters. If the government is able to take full control of Aleppo, it will have control over all major urban centres of the country including Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus.
It would then allow them to free up forces to go on the offensive elsewhere, directly into Idlib province, most likely, and then eventually into the south. After that, they could turn their attention finally to Islamic State’s de-facto capital Raqqa.
But all of these would take probably months or even years.
If the Syrian regime and its allies are going to resolve the Syria crisis by taking control of all key cities, recapture of Aleppo will be a major step in that direction.
Damascus may be viewing insurgents’ defeat in Aleppo as a precursor to the collapse of the armed rebellion against Assad’s rule.
The author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of the geo-political news agency ViewsAround. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.
Copyright Manish Rai 2016