Russian Power Takes Assad to Gates of Rebel Stronghold: Q&A

  • Regime successes are making it harder to resume peace talks
  • Refugee clampdown means those fleeing have no route to safety

Syrian rebels are attempting to break the government’s siege of Aleppo city, where defeat could dictate the overall direction of the five-year conflict both on the battlefield and at any future peace negotiations.

Trapped behind front lines are as many as 275,000 civilians, with only a few hundred reportedly fleeing along safe routes. Even if they manage to escape, the clampdown on refugees entering neighboring countries as well as Europe means “people have genuinely nowhere to go,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

“Aleppo is the most important city controlled by rebel forces and its fall could signal the demise of the opposition and the entire movement against Assad,” she said. Here are five key issues regarding the city and the battle.

Why is Aleppo important?

Before the Arab Spring uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in 2011, Aleppo was Syria’s economic capital and one of the region’s most important Sunni Muslim-dominated cities. As armed conflict broke out, it became a symbolic center of the insurgency seeking to topple Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The Free Syrian Army, led by officers who had defected from the military, in 2012 launched an offensive to expel government forces from northern Syria. That failed, and Aleppo has been divided ever since. Its proximity to Turkey and the coastal region means it would play a central role in rebuilding a post-war economy, especially as a likely route for future oil and gas pipelines, said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

What would defeat mean for rebels?

Russia’s entry into the war in September in support of Assad -- ostensibly to help defeat Islamic State militants -- swung the fighting in his favor. An outright government victory in Aleppo would have far-reaching repercussions, though analysts expect a protracted siege.

“This is the one area in northwestern Syria where non-jihadi groups have generally maintained an upper-hand” over Islamists such as Nusra Front in the fight against Assad, said Noah Bonsey, senior analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group.

The fall of Aleppo would shift the balance of power within the opposition further in favor of Nusra, which announced last week it was changing its name to Fath al-Sham after severing ties with al-Qaeda. That’s crucial because the absence of influential non-jihadi groups means that the “war will continue between the regime and a jihadi-dominated insurgency, with no means of resolution or de-escalation in sight,” he said.

For the latest on Russia’s military involvement in Syria, click here

For Assad, pieces fall into place

Seizing Aleppo city -- the rebels are encircled in eastern districts -- would add to the momentum behind Assad’s army and his Iranian and Russian backers. It would “free up resources to finish off the insurgent pocket in northern Aleppo province,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Controlling Aleppo would also hinder efforts by Kurdish fighters to link their self-declared autonomous cantons of Kobani and Afrin, he said, and give “the regime a staging point for broader offensives into ISIS-held Raqqa province.” With Russian aerial firepower, Assad has already rolled back Islamic State, evicting them from the historic city of Palmyra.

That said, “even if the government regains control of much of Syria -- as Assad has promised -- and Islamic State militants are pushed back, he needs buy-in from the population,” said Yahya of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The government doesn’t have the manpower to coerce people into submission.”

For a QuickTake explainer on the roots of Syria’s civil war, click here

And what of peace efforts?

When Russia announced in March it was withdrawing some forces from Syria, hopes grew that it may be seeking to push Assad toward peace talks and the concessions needed to keep them going. It hasn’t happened, and military victories emboldened the government in Damascus.

Claiming Aleppo would deepen the intransigence of Assad’s government and the Russians, said Itani of the Atlantic Council. “But merely reviving the talks is easy to do, so long as the Russians are willing and able to control the level of regime violence somewhat.” The UN wants to resume talks at the end of August.

How bad is the humanitarian crisis?

Aid workers in Aleppo report “horrific conditions for casualties and health workers” following a weeks-long bombardment of rebel-held eastern districts, according to Save The Children. Food and medicine are in short supply, and shelling makes it dangerous to evacuate the injured.

Sonia Khush, the charity’s Syria director, says the so-called humanitarian corridors are an “excuse to continue the siege.” Four hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders were bombed this month, it said.