Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Opposition Forces Launch Offensive to Break the Siege of Aleppo

By Genevieve Casagrande with Jennifer Cafarella  

Key Takeaway: Pro-regime forces accomplished Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s longstanding objective to encircle the opposition in Aleppo City on July 28, with support from Russian airpower and Iranian ground reinforcement. The regime will now carry out a prolonged siege and starve campaign against the estimated 250,000 - 300,000 civilians in Aleppo City in an effort to force the submission of the Aleppo-based opposition. The fight for Aleppo City entered a new phase as opposition forces, including Salafi jihadist groups, launched a counteroffensive to break the regime’s encirclement of opposition-held neighborhoods on July 31. The groups chose to focus on reopening a supply line into Aleppo City from its southwestern outskirts in an effort to take the fight into urban terrain to offset the asymmetric advantages Russian and Syrian airpower provides to pro-regime forces. Aleppo is one of the largest strongholds of acceptable opposition groups in Syria. Their defeat in Aleppo would ensure the dominance of Salafi jihadist groups in northern Syria and deprive the U.S. of options to defeat ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria in the long term.

The Syrian regime, backed by Russian airpower, completed the encirclement of opposition-held neighborhoods of Aleppo City on July 28, solidifying its hold over the siege of an estimated 250,000 -300,000 civilians in the city. Pro-regime forces previously severed the opposition’s last remaining ground line of communication (GLOC) into Aleppo City on July 26 after blockading the Castello Road north of the city. The regime had already established fire control over the road after seizing a nearby hill on July 8. Opposition forces launched a number of operations in an attempt to lift the siege by reopening Castello throughout July, but were ultimately unsuccessful. 

The Syrian regime and Russia intend to defeat the opposition in Aleppo City, which remains one of the largest strongholds of armed opposition factions that are acceptable to the West. The regime and Russia will pursue a protracted “siege and starve” campaign in order to force the submission of these remaining acceptable groups, solidifying the dominance of the Salafi jihadist opposition in northwestern Syria. Pro-regime forces have previously used prolonged sieges against opposition-held pockets entrenched within urban terrain in Homs City and Damascus. Both the Syrian regime and Russia can also use the siege of Aleppo as leverage to procure concessions during future negotiations over the Syrian Civil War

The Syrian regime and Russia have been setting conditions for the siege of opposition-held districts of Aleppo City since October 2015. ISW forecasted the regime’s intended encirclement of Aleppo as early as April 2015. Russian airstrikes primarily focused on opposition-held villages in the city’s northwestern outskirts throughout the first five months of the Russian air campaign in order to facilitate regime ground offensives and preclude the arrival of opposition reinforcements through their main GLOCs into the city from Turkey. Russia later shifted its air campaign to intensify airstrikes within Aleppo’s densely-populated urban neighborhoods from April - July 2016 after numerous attempts to complete the encirclement failed. Russian and regime airstrikes during this period increasingly targeted critical civilian infrastructure in opposition-held neighborhoods. The onslaught of airstrikes likely sought to drive refugee flows and prime the civilian population for eventual surrender. Russia and the Syrian regime also opened humanitarian corridors for civilians in Aleppo City in late July in another attempt to further depopulate opposition-held terrain. Local administrative bodies in opposition-held Aleppo, however, have accused regime forces of using the corridors to capture or kill civilians and opposition fighters attempting to leave the city. 

The opposition has responded with an effort to reset the conditions of the siege of Aleppo City, shifting the fight for control of GLOCs from northern to southern Aleppo. The opposition decided to take the fight into Aleppo’s urban terrain rather than attempt to break through the encirclement north of the city. Opposition groups from Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama Provinces launched a concerted counteroffensive on July 31 to break the siege on the city through its urban southwestern outskirts. Jabhat Fatah al Sham – successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra – and other members of the Idlib-based Jaysh al Fatah coalition advanced into the city’s southern outskirts, surrounding the Ramouseh Artillery Base from the south and west after seizing the neighboring Al Nasr District and the village of Al Shurfa on July 31. Opposition forces continued to advance into the city on August 2 despite reported increased airstrikes and regime reinforcement to the area, seizing regime-held areas of the Ramouseh District. These advances position opposition forces within approximately 1.5 kilometers of breaking the encirclement and establishing new GLOCs within the urban terrain in southern Aleppo City.

The Syrian opposition refocused its fight to break the siege through urban terrain in southwestern Aleppo City in an effort to offset asymmetric advantages Russian and Syrian airpower provides to pro-regime forces. The completion of the regime’s northern encirclement on July 28 exploited the comparative advantages that Russian air power and the regime artillery provide in flat, rural terrain to force the opposition to defend Aleppo City on unfavorable terms. Russian and Syrian airstrikes will be unable to achieve these same substantive battlefield effects against the opposition inside urban terrain, however. Russia can inflict great structural damage on opposition-held neighborhoods of the city, but cannot achieve fidelity when attempting to strike opposition targets. Opposition forces will therefore be more able to mount an effective defense of a potential supply route through the urban terrain in southern Aleppo City. Pro-regime forces even with airpower and superior armor and artillery would have difficulty expelling the opposition from this dense urban terrain.

The opposition will be able to take advantage of the regime’s force posture in Aleppo in a long and drawn out fight. Pro-regime units occupy well-fortified military positions across regime-held areas of the city that are difficult for armed opposition forces to penetrate without taking high casualties in a frontal assault. These positions are readily identifiable to Syrian armed opposition commanders, however, enabling opposition factions to dedicate considerable time and energy into softening their targets. The use of suicide bombers by Jabhat Fatah al Sham – successor of Jabhat al-Nusra – is a highly effective tactic in rural terrain, but is alone insufficient to penetrate these targets. The opposition maintains an active network of tunnels underneath various portions of Aleppo City for resupply as well as to detonate explosive devises under identified regime positions. The ability of opposition forces to dedicate months of preparation to these tunnels is in part a product of the static nature of the regime’s force posture. Al Fawj al Awl – a U.S.-backed TOW anti-tank missiles recipient and member of the Fatah Halab operations room— detonated a tunnel bomb in the Ramouseh District in southern Aleppo City on August 2 that facilitated the opposition advance into the district. Opposition forces have likely prepared additional tunnels to both resupply and maintain a tactical advantage in the coming weeks as the fight to break the siege of Aleppo continues.

The above photo shows opposition commanders designing their campaign plans with the help of a tabletop model of the Old City of Aleppo. The ability of opposition commanders to plan with a mock-up of the city itself demonstrates how the stalemated nature of the urban fight inside Aleppo City enables the opposition to design military plans based on known positions and predictable regime counterattacks

An urban fight in Aleppo would require the regime to sustain high levels of attrition. The regime has a large military force in Aleppo Province, but has difficulty replenishing its ranks for offensive operations from other front lines because of its overall manpower shortage. The regime has tried to offset this deficit using Iranian-backed militia forces. A substantial influx of Iranian and Iranian proxy fighters enabled the regime’s advance north of Aleppo City in early February 2016. The regime initially deployed hundreds of Iranian backed Afghan militiamen in addition to an increased deployment of Hezbollah fighters in a failed attempt to complete the encirclement of Aleppo City in early 2015. A second major influx of Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters later helped the regime advance south of Aleppo City starting in mid-October 2015 with the support of significant Russian airstrikes. Iran’s casualties in opposition operations south of Aleppo city throughout April and May were high, including the death of 13 IRGC forces and the wounding of 21 others in Khan Touman in early May, forcing the unit to redeploy back to Iran. The remaining forces are enough to encircle and besiege opposition-held neighborhoods, but will not enable the regime to retake terrain if opposition forces are able to establish a foothold in the regime-held southern districts of Aleppo City. It is likewise important for Iran and the Syrian regime to demonstrate progress in order to maintain political support domestically. Iranian officials as well as the Iranian public are currently supportive of operations in Syria. The Syrian opposition, however, could take advantage of a prolonged stalemate in Aleppo City to erode popular support for Iran’s intervention in Syria and limit Iranian will to continue providing manpower for the regime.


The opposition in Aleppo will face an existential threat if they are unable to break the regime’s siege on the city. The possible defeat of the Aleppo-based opposition by the Assad regime and Russia would fundamentally alter the nature of opposition forces in northwestern Syria, posing a direct challenge to U.S. interests in Syria. The collapse of acceptable armed opposition groups in Aleppo would not only solidify the staying power of hardline opposition factions in northwestern Syria, but would also ensure a continued Salafi jihadist safehaven in Idlib Province. The U.S. remains at risk of losing some of its last remaining acceptable partners from within the armed opposition in northern Syria that remain capable of challenging al Qaeda’s influence in the country. Al Qaeada’s Syrian affiliate’s recent rebranding as Jabhat Fatah al Sham does not preclude the group from continuing efforts to transform the Syrian opposition. Rather, the group’s reported split from al Qaeda will likely allow the group to further network itself within the armed opposition, which remains one of Jabhat Fatah al Sham’s – successor of Jabhat al Nursa – largest source of strength in Syria. A regime victory in Aleppo would allow the group to deepen ties with the opposition and further its own strategic vision of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria.

The encirclement of the city remains the largest source of leverage for Russia and the regime over the international community during negotiations over the Syrian Civil War. Syrian President Bashar al Assad will likely continue to leverage the worsening humanitarian crisis in Aleppo caused by his own siege of civilians in order to extract concessions that will further his own legitimacy. Moreover, the Syrian armed opposition will be less likely to participate in future negotiations as Salafi jihadist groups, who reject political settlement, become increasingly dominant on the battlefield. The encirclement of Aleppo will further protract the Syrian insurgency and inhibit a legitimate settlement to the Syrian Civil War, securing the long-term staying power of U.S. adversaries in Syria.