Why The Battle For Aleppo Is So Important

Oct 4, 2016
Originally published on October 11, 2016 12:27 pm

For two weeks, a battle has raged in Aleppo, generating tragic images of injured civilians amid the rubble.

The city — once Syria's most populous and a commercial hub — is a key prize in the civil war. For four years, it has been divided between government and rebel forces and was in effect a military stalemate.

Russia is among the supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. supports rebel forces. They were talking to try to find a way to calm the violence in Syria, but the negotiations collapsed this week.

With a diplomatic solution a distant prospect, attention has shifted to the battlefield and the possibility that the Syrian military could capture Aleppo, the last major city where rebels have a real presence.

"The battle of Aleppo is the culmination of many years of fighting," says analyst Jennifer Cafarella with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War. For four years, she says, Assad's forces and regional allies fighting alongside them have planned to recapture the whole of Aleppo city and the surrounding countryside.

The last two weeks have seen significant advances around the city by pro-regime ground forces. This is largely because Russia has stepped up its air support of Assad's offensive. Residents of eastern Aleppo describe bombs that destroy buildings down to the basement and incendiary weapons.

More than 300 civilians have died in the last two weeks on the rebel side of the lines, according to the opposition-leaning Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The aid group Doctors Without Borders and U.N. agencies also count hundreds of civilian deaths there. The observatory tallied 15 civilian deaths on the government-held side of the city, killed by rebel shelling.

"The opposition and the civilian population have not been able to withstand it," says Cafarella of the Russian-led bombardment.

But even with this air campaign, pro-Assad ground forces will probably not immediately be able to storm the urban terrain held by the rebels. That would require street-to-street fighting against thousands of rebel forces who have had years to dig in, even building tunnels.

But the regime has managed to cut off supply lines from Turkey to the rebel area. That means food and medical aid can't get to the opposition enclave, and neither can ammunition. This siege has been in place about a month now.

Residents say they fear either that Assad's forces will advance, retake eastern Aleppo and massacre civilians — or that they will maintain a siege which will, maybe after months or years, force a surrender.

So how are the rebels responding? They've staged some offensives elsewhere, apparently as diversionary tactics.

And Cafarella notes, "They also do seek to break the siege, actually, and to reopen either the northern or the southern entrance to the city."

NPR reached a commander with one rebel faction, who wouldn't give his name because he's not an official spokesman.

"The battle to open a path is first," he says. "To make a path and break the siege for our people in Aleppo city."

He complains that countries supporting the rebels — including the U.S. but also Turkey and the Gulf countries — have refused to supply them with anti-aircraft weapons. The rebels have long sought the arms but the U.S. and other allies fear they would fall into the hands of extremist factions, including a group with links to al-Qaida.

"Really, if we got anti-aircraft weapons to fight the regime, God willing, it would be defeated," he said.

For the commander, this is existential. After five years of war, this chunk of eastern Aleppo city is the last significant bit of urban territory controlled by rebels.

Without holding some of Aleppo city, the rebellion looks much less like an legitimate alternative to Assad and more like a rural insurgency. And that is a far less threatening prospect for Syria's embattled — but surviving — president.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

For weeks now we have seen the tragic images of people caught in a battle that's been intensifying in Aleppo, Syria. Government and rebel forces have divided that city of more than a million people in half. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is supported by Russia. Some of the rebels are backed by the United States. Talks between the U.S. and Russia about how to bring peace collapsed this week, so that leaves just the fighting on the ground. NPR's Alice Fordham looks at what the two sides are aiming for in the battle.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Aleppo is a key prize in Syria's civil war. For centuries it's been one of the Arab world's great metropolises. It is or was Syria's largest city and its commercial hub. But it's been divided during the civil war. Rebels hold Eastern Aleppo. President Assad and his allies have launched an offensive to take it back.

I Skype with analyst Jennifer Cafarella with the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War and ask what the regime's tactics are. She says this battle has been a long time coming.

JENNIFER CAFARELLA: Pro-regime forces have intended to recapture Aleppo city after large portions of the city and the surrounding countryside fell to opposition forces beginning really in 2012.

FORDHAM: She says now Assad's ground forces have been able to advance somewhat because Assad's ally Russia has stepped up an air campaign.

CAFARELLA: The opposition and the civilian population have not actually been able to withstand it.

FORDHAM: Hundreds of civilians have died in the last two weeks. But probably even with this aerial bombardment, ground forces won't immediately be able to storm the urban terrain held by the rebels. That would require street-to-street fighting against thousands of rebel forces who've had years to dig in, even building tunnels.

But the regime has managed to cut off supply lines from Turkey to the rebel area. That means food and medical aid can't get to the opposition enclave, and neither can ammunition. This siege has been in place about a month now. Residents say they fear either that Assad's forces will advance, retake Eastern Aleppo and massacre civilians or that they will maintain a siege which will maybe after months or years force a surrender. So how are the rebels responding? They've stage some offensives as diversionary tactics and, as Cafarella notes...

CAFARELLA: They also do seek to break the siege of Aleppo, actually, and ultimately to reopen either the northern or the southern entrance to the city.

FORDHAM: NPR reached a commander with one rebel faction who wouldn't give his name because he's not an official spokesman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) The battle to open a path is first, to make a path and break the siege for our people in Aleppo city.

FORDHAM: He says it's hard because their allies aren't as committed as the regime's allies. The rebels have long sought anti-aircraft missiles, but the U.S. and other allies have refused to supply them, fearing they would fall into the hands of extremist factions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Really, if we got anti-aircraft weapons to fight the regime, God willing, it would be defeated.

FORDHAM: For him, this is existential. After five years of war, this chunk of Eastern Aleppo city is the last significant bit of urban territory controlled by rebels. Without holding some of Aleppo city, the rebellion looks much less like a legitimate alternative to Assad and more like a rural insurgency, a far-less threatening prospect for the embattled but surviving president. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.