Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Siege of Aleppo?

by Charlie Caris

The Assad regime has exploited intense rebel infighting in Aleppo to make new gains in Syria’s largest city. After having reestablished a presence southeast of Aleppo in November, 2013, pro-regime forces are now posturing to encircle Aleppo, raising fears that its neighborhoods will soon be subjected to the type of sieges seen in the Damascus suburbs and Old Homs. However, the Aleppo battlefront is distinctly more challenging for regime forces. Rebels have mounted strong response to the regime offensive with a number of their own initiatives, making further regime gains in Aleppo difficult and costly.

Much has happened in Aleppo since we last provided a blog update on the situation. Late in 2013, regime forces recaptured an alternate southeastern supply line into Aleppo city in addition to an important barracks known as Base 80 which protects the entrance to Aleppo International Airport. After failing to progress further into Aleppo’s eastern rebel-controlled neighborhoods, the regime reportedly replaced its commander in charge of the Aleppo campaign and changed tactics in December. For the next month, and continuing into 2014, the regime initiated a barrel bombing campaign against Aleppo city, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties. This progression has been well-documented in Isabel Nassief’s recent report, entitled The Campaign for Homs and Aleppo.

Beginning on January 3, 2014, tensions between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other rebel groups came to a head, resulting in ISIS’s expulsion from many areas of Aleppo and Idlib provinces. Although the campaign to push back against ISIS achieved initial success in Aleppo, it came with a price. In addition to thousands of deaths among rebel forces in northern Syria, the decision of whether or not to fight against ISIS caused cleavages among previously unified groups and alliances. New groups such as the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF) and Jaysh al-Mujahideen formed in part to combat ISIS, but other groups such as Liwa Dawud broke away from their parent organizations to join new coalitions.

The regime capitalized on the rebels’ disarray and initiated a renewed ground offensive on Aleppo city, its most important northern target. On January 11, 2014, the regime achieved a breakthrough victory – its most significant ground victory in at least three months – by seizing Naqqarin, which lies on the outskirts of eastern Aleppo near the airport. Continuing on a northern path around the edge of Aleppo, the regime next sought to seize the Sheikh Najjar industrial area, a rebel stronghold and one of the last remaining rebel supply lines to Aleppo. Regime forces claimed victory in the area on February 18, but their victory was short-lived; rebels reported taking the area back the following day. Clashes have continued to intensify in the area, with rebel forces allegedly killing the regime’s commander in Sheikh Najjar, Captain Suleiman, on March 4. Based on the regime’s stated operational objectives, its pattern of seizures, and its current northern trajectory, its intent in the province is to break the rebel blockade on Aleppo Central Prison and reinforce besieged troops in the area in order to surround most of eastern and northern Aleppo city. By reestablishing a strong presence at the prison, which is a two kilometer-wide facility, the regime will have a staging ground from which to seize supply lines to al-Bab, further north near the Turkish border. It is likely that a longer-term goal is to initiate a siege on rebel-held Aleppo. This tactic, dubbed “starvation until submission” by regime officials, has proven successful in other areas of Syria such as the Old City of Homs and the suburbs of Damascus.

No doubt cognizant of this fact, rebels responded by organizing three coordinated efforts in Aleppo city and the surrounding areas on February 6, 2014. The first effort, announced by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (HASI), is an operations room in Aleppo city known as “The Promise of Truth Approaches” [w-Aqtarib al-Wa’d al-Haq]. The released statement warned civilians to stay away from checkpoints and regime military areas over the next 24 hours and was signed by five groups: HASI, Fajr al-Sham Islamic Movement, Liwa al-Tawhid, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and Tajamu’ Fastaqim Kama Umirat. No further information has been released about the operations room since February 6, but the timing of its announcement suggests it may be helping to coordinate some of the other initiatives.

The next effort, likely the largest of the three, focused on Aleppo Central Prison. Announced by JN and HASI, the raid was called “Liberation of the Sufferer” ([Fek al-A’ani ]* and was initiated when a British national fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) detonated a large Suicide Vehicle-Borne Explosive Device (SVBIED) carried by truck against the main gate of Aleppo Central Prison. The raiding party was reportedly led by Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), a Chechen foreign fighter group allied with Jabhat al-Nusra under the command of Sayfullah al-Shishani (who was killed in the initial attack), and a Latakia-based Chechen foreign fighter group called Junud al-Sham under the command of Muslim al-Shishani. After the initial SVBIED and ground raid, there were numerous follow-up attacks including one on February 20 involving the detonation of two suicide vests (SVESTs) inside the prison grounds, but the offensive ultimately failed to overrun the prison.

A third effort, reportedly coordinated with the Aleppo Central Prison raid, was entitled “Do Not Divide” [Wa La Tafaraqu], and aimed to seize Kuweiris Airbase in eastern Aleppo province. Like Aleppo Central Prison, rebel forces have surrounded Kuweiris for more than a year but have not yet overrun it. Six jihadi groups initially participated in the battle: Suqour al-Izz, JN, ISIS (which has played a major role maintaining the siege on Kuweiris), Katibat al-Khadra’, Jaysh Muhammad, and Ansar al-Mahdi. However, as rebel infighting with ISIS intensified, ISIS apparently left (or was forced off) the battlefield and a new logo without its name was posted online by another brigade. The “Do Not Divide” raid appears to be ongoing, but many competing claims exist as to the situation on the ground. Regardless, the attack has not yet succeeded in capturing Kuweiris Airbase.

An important rebel unification effort took place on February 24 with the announcement of the “Joint Operations Room for the People of Aleppo.” The new operations room, henceforth called the Ahl al-Sham Room, combines a number of the strongest forces in Aleppo, namely the Islamic Front, JN, and newly-formed Jaysh al-Mujahideen (which includes the two strong Aleppo-based groups the Ansar Brigade and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Brigades, among others). Given the fractured nature of opposition groups in northern Syria currently, the Ahl al-Sham room is a significant achievement in terms of rebel coordination efforts. Unlike “The Promise of Truth Approaches” Operations Room, the Ahl al-Sham Room has released many public statements and has established social media accounts and a unique logo. It remains to be seen whether the room can effectively prevent further regime advances in the medium term, but in recent days it has achieved a measure of success. On March 11, the Ahl al-Sham room reported seizing Majbal, an area in Sheikh Najjar, during a surprise raid against regime forces.

Two other rebel operations are worth mentioning in the context of the battle for Aleppo. One is a battle announced by Islamic Front brigades on February 14 entitled Aleppo Earthquake [Zilzal Halab] that focused on regime targets in Aleppo’s Old City. The first attack in the battle occurred the same day, when Islamic Front members destroyed the Carlton Hotel, which abuts the Aleppo Citadel in the Old City. Reportedly, explosives were planted inside extensive tunnels dug by rebels underneath the hotel, which had previously served as a regime base. The Islamic Front conducted a follow-up attack on February 19 by blowing up another nearby regime building known as the al-Alam building.

Fajr al-Sham Islamic Movement Another announced another rebel effort, known as the “Coming Victory” [al-Fath al-Mubiyeen] Operations Room, to strike the regime in the southern countryside of Aleppo. Other groups involved are HASI, JN, and the newly-announced Harakat Hazm. Clashes are still ongoing, and as recently as March 10 rebels claimed to have made progress, especially in Aziza, a small village just south of Aleppo city. The village is important because it is near the rebels’ southern supply line out of the city. If regime forces were to capture Aziza, in addition to Sheikh Lufti and Sheikh Saeed which lie closer to the southern road, they could cut off rebel-held areas in southern Aleppo city.

Looking at these various rebel initiatives collectively, rebel operational design appears to be relatively sophisticated when it comes to the defense of Aleppo, especially with regard to JN and HASI, who are known to work closely together and were involved in coordinating all the major battles and operations. Not only are rebels fighting the regime in Sheikh Najjar and Aleppo Central Prison, where it appears the regime is making its most significant push, but rebels are also confronting the regime on the Aleppo city front lines and on the southern outskirts of the city, where the regime has likely allocated fewer soldiers. It may be that these offensives arose nearly independently of each other, in response to threatening regime gains in the province. However, based on the fact that all three rebel initiatives were announced on February 6 and that many of the groups named participated in more than one offensive, a more likely explanation is that the offensives are coordinated. The attacks on Kuweiris, Aleppo’s Old City, in southern Aleppo may even be a concerted attempt to draw regime forces away from the main battlefronts in Sheikh Najjar and Aleppo Central Prison.

For now, rebels have halted regime momentum, with the regime as yet unable to reinforce its embattled forces inside Aleppo Central Prison. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported regime airstrikes and ground engagements on March 12, 2014 both in Sheikh Najjar and in areas around Aleppo Central Prison. However, even if the regime were to seize Sheikh Najjar and reinforce Aleppo Central Prison, imposing a siege on rebel-held Aleppo would be a difficult task. First, Aleppo presents many more logistical challenges for the regime, especially for pro-regime groups such as Hezbollah, who would prefer fighting closer to Lebanon. Second, rebels control more terrain in Aleppo than in other cities, so effectively cutting off access would be more difficult. Third, rebels have a strong presence in the countryside and around the border crossings with Turkey. Consequently, there is reason to believe any regime siege on Aleppo city, even a piecemeal siege as suggested by unnamed regime military sources, would be a considerable challenge to impose, despite the success of the tactic in other cities such as Homs or the Damascus suburbs.

*an alternative name for what was likely the same operation was Wa-Mu’tasimah, in reference to a famous story in Islamic literature.