Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Military Situation in Syria’s Aleppo Province

December 30, 2015
By: Jennifer Cafarella, Genevieve Casagrande, and Jodi Brignola

Capturing Aleppo City remains a primary objective for both pro- and anti-regime military forces in Syria. While no key terrain in Aleppo changed hands in 2015, the aggregation of numerous pressures on rebel defensive lines could enable Syrian regime forces to finish the encirclement of Aleppo City in 2016. Pro-regime forces supported by Russian airstrikes have made important gains south of the city, but have failed to advance on key front lines to its north. Pro-regime forces have also advanced against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) east of the city, notably securing the besieged Kuweiris military airbase on November 10, but largely remain focused on Syrian rebels despite Russian propaganda to the contrary.

Russian and ISIS military actions against rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside are nevertheless compounding pressures that threaten to undermine the rebel defense of the city itself. Russia increased its aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas in Aleppo following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey on November 24, and continues to target rebel supply lines and key infrastructure necessary to support the continued defense of Aleppo City. ISIS continues to attack rebel forces supported by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in an effort to seize control of the border town of Azaz and the adjacent Bab al-Salam border crossing. Frequent skirmishes between Syrian rebels and JN against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) in northwestern Aleppo Province further draw resources away from crucial front lines. This delicate military balance is unlikely to hold under current conditions, which could enable either or both the Syrian regime and ISIS to advance.

The following maps depict regime gains facilitated by Russian airstrikes in Northern Syria and the combination of military pressures that threaten to overwhelm rebel defenses in Aleppo City. 

This map shows gains made by pro-regime forces on two key front lines since Russian airstrikes began: Southern Aleppo Province and Northeastern Latakia Province. The map also depicts one rebel advance north of Hama City. Gains by pro-regime forces in Damascus and Dera’a Provinces are not depicted here, but are similar in scale.

This map depicts the military objectives of the Syrian regime and ISIS, areas frequently targeted by Russian airstrikes, and the key towns and military infrastructure in Aleppo Province in order to show the aggregation of pressures on Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo. 
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) released its own map of Aleppo Province in an effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Russian air campaign in bolstering regime operations. The maps contain disinformation that exaggerates the progress made by pro-regime forces with Russian support. The map appears to claim that the regime secured its positions in the southeastern countryside of Aleppo with Russian air support, although these areas have been held by the regime since November 2013. Furthermore, regime control lines in Eastern Aleppo, as portrayed by the Russian map below, are notably exaggerated as the regime has yet to clear the entirety of the supply route running from Aleppo City to Kuweires Airbase. Although the pressures on the opposition have increased, it is important not to overstate the territorial gains that pro-regime forces have made. The regime and Russia seek to undermine rebel will to continue to fight in order to achieve greater leverage at upcoming negotiations between the regime and select opposition members in Geneva on January 25.

This map, released by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), exaggerates the gains made by pro-regime forces with Russian assistance in Aleppo Province. ISW added the yellow ovals and call out boxes to highlight the Russian overstatements. The other symbols and captions appeared on the MoD map. A zoomed out version of this map released by the Russian MoD map dates the interior control line as September 30, 2015, the start of the Russian aerial campaign in Syria. ISW reproduced the dates for the control lines on this map.