What’s at Stake in Syria’s Battle for Aleppo: QuickTake Q&A

Syrian government forces gather in the largely deserted Palestinian refugee camp of Handarat, north of Aleppo, on September 24, 2016 after they captured the area following multiple Russian air strikes.

Photographer: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP via Getty Images

Even a war as pitiless as Syria’s can have a low point. The battle for Aleppo has produced carnage, civilian suffering and, according to some, war crimes on a scale rarely surpassed in the five-year conflict. Backed by Russian airstrikes and militias supported by Iran, forces belonging to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are fighting all-out to definitively defeat rebels who have held on to eastern parts of the city. Trapped there are an estimated 275,000 civilians in increasingly dire circumstances.

1. Why is Aleppo important?

Before the Arab Spring uprising against Assad began as peaceful protests in 2011, Aleppo was Syria’s economic capital and its most populous city. After armed conflict broke out, the country divided increasingly along sectarian lines. Aleppo, with its Sunni Muslim majority, became a symbolic center of the insurgency seeking to topple Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Northern Syria, including Aleppo, was the target of an early offensive to expel government forces by the Free Syrian Army, led by officers who had defected from the military. That failed, and Aleppo has been divided ever since. That neither side could prevail in the city has symbolized the larger stalemate in the conflict. A government victory there would put all the major population centers under Assad’s control and free up regime forces to focus on remaining opposition strongholds, including around the capital Damascus.

2. What’s the state of play?

Government forces and their allies, notably Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, have been closing in on rebel positions on the ground and unleashing fury from the air. According to reports, they have dropped barrel bombs, unguided weapons made of metal containers filled with explosives and possibly chemicals; cluster munitions, which contain hundreds of small bombs that explode over a large area; incendiary bombs; and bunker-buster bombs, which destroy underground shelters.

3. How are civilians faring?

Diplomats and human rights groups say the Assad regime, and perhaps the Russians, have violated international law by deliberately targeting schools, hospitals and other civilian buildings and possibly by using chemical weapons. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the strikes on hospitals war crimes. The rebels, some of whom are backed by the U.S., have no air force, though they have killed civilians on the other side with mortar fire. But in the east, the onslaught is so brutal, no place is safe for civilians or aid workers. According to the UN, food and water in eastern Aleppo are scarce, and medicines for even common ailments are unavailable. The World Health Organization said there were fewer than 30 doctors remaining in the area at the end of September. Ostensibly, the strategy is to punish the population to the point that the rebels feel compelled to surrender. 

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

4. How did the regime get the upper hand?

Russia’s entry into the war in September 2015 in support of Assad -- ostensibly to help defeat Islamic State, which attacks both sides in the civil war -- swung the fight in his favor. When Russia announced in March that it was withdrawing some forces, hopes grew that it was seeking to push Assad toward concessions that would make a diplomatic conclusion to the war possible. Instead, military victories emboldened the regime. The government is also supported by forces from Iran, a Shiite-majority country; Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite organization; and militias from other countries including Iraq.

5. Wasn’t there supposed to be a ceasefire?

Several Syrian ceasefires have come and gone. In the latest effort to establish one, the U.S. and Russia agreed in September to work together toward cementing a truce. But the fragile diplomacy behind that deal soon fell apart. Within days the two sides were feuding after the U.S. bombed Syrian troops -- it said by mistake -- and either Syrian or Russian planes -- the Russians denied blame -- bombed a humanitarian convoy.

6. What would Aleppo’s fall mean for peace prospects?

On and off peace talks have never gone far. A victory in Aleppo likely would further reduce any interest in them on the part of Assad and his Russian backers. Conceivably, a demoralized opposition could be more inclined to sue for peace under terms Assad would accept. In past discussions, the rebels have insisted on a transitional government in which Assad played no part. The U.S. also insisted for years that Assad must go but has softened that position as the ruler in Damascus proved his staying power. If Aleppo becomes his, it will become increasingly difficult for anyone to demand that Assad steps down as part of a peace deal.

The Reference Shelf

  • The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, reports casualties on both sides of the conflict.
  • The Syrian Accountability Project’s website has interactive battle maps.
  • A blog on Syria from the Institute for the Study of War.
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