Monday, October 24, 2016

Syrian Opposition Plans Operation to Break Aleppo Siege

by: Jennifer Cafarella

Syrian armed opposition groups are preparing a counteroffensive to break the siege of Aleppo for a second time since the regime initially imposed a siege on July 28, 2016. Russia instituted a "humanitarian pause" in Aleppo City from October 17-23 and ceased airstrikes on opposition-held areas of the city. Russia and the Syrian regime called on acceptable opposition groups and civilians to evacuate the city's besieged eastern districts through six "corridors". Opposition groups rejected the offer, equating it to a "surrender" to the Syrian regime, and continued their preparations for an offensive to break the siege. The Jaysh al Fatah coalition, an alliance of opposition groups under the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al Sham - al Qaeda's successor in Syria - and Syrian Salafi-jihadi group Ahrar al Sham, will lead the counteroffensive.

Russia paused its aerial attacks on Aleppo for reasons of self-interest rather than humanitarian concerns. The pause followed a series of meetings between US, European powers, and regional states over Syria, after which the US and UK proposed imposing additional sanctions on Russia and the Syrian regime in response to war crimes in Aleppo City. The United Nations Human Rights Council also opened a Special Inquiry into war crimes committed in Aleppo City on October 21.  Russia feigned receptivity to international concern over the Aleppo siege while shifting air assets to target other opposition-held areas outside of Aleppo. Russia may also have used the pause to complete some maintenance on its air frames in Syria.

Opposition sources announced an upcoming attack on October 21 and are mobilizing for the battle. The military commander for the Jaysh al Fatah coalition announced the battle would begin "within hours" in a video uploaded to YouTube on October 23. The opposition will likely focus on breaking through the regime's siege in the southwestern districts of Aleppo City, where the urban terrain favors the opposition. The opposition initially broke through this area on August 6, temporarily lifting the siege before pro-regime forces reinstated it shortly after. Pro-regime forcesresumed their offensive to recapture besieged areas of the city after the "pause" expired on October 24, seizing a hill south of Aleppo City to buffer the siege against a counter-attack. Opposition forces shelled regime-held areas of the city, but have not yet attacked.

Rumors indicate the leader of Jabhat Fatah al Sham, Abu Mohammad al Joulani, will announce the start of the battle soon. If he does, he will likely use it as a platform to rally support for opposition unity under the shared leadership of Jabhat Fatah al Sham and Ahrar al Sham. The battle will require close coordination between the two groups and, if successful, could help Joulani restart negotiations over a "grand merger" of opposition forces. Joulani will also undoubtedly condemn the US for failing to prevent Russian war crimes in Aleppo and characterize the fight for Aleppo as a struggle against the enemies of Sunni globally in order to fuel the growing alienation of Syrian civilians and opposition fighters from the US.

Turkey is likely providing covert support to enable the upcoming battle to break the Aleppo siege.  Turkish military bulldozers entered Syria on October 19 to establish a new, fortified border crossing north of the official Bab al Hawa crossing, west of Aleppo City. Turkey has been transporting Syrian opposition fighters from Western Aleppo and Idlib Province, through Turkish territory, and into northern Aleppo Province via an unofficial border crossing north of Bab al Hawa at the border town of Atmeh in order to help Turkey and opposition forces defend against ISIS attacks targeting the opposition reinforcements. Turkey may also intend to use the crossing to resource the upcoming Aleppo City battle. Turkey created a similar border crossing northwest of Idlib City in order to funnel weapons and equipment to the Jaysh al Fatah coalition in the lead up to the offensive that captured Idlib City in March 2015.

Turkey will most likely remain focused on fighting ISIS and blocking gains by Syrian Kurds while providing covert support to opposition forces attempting to break the Aleppo siege. Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed opposition fighters participating in Turkey's "Operation Euphrates Shield" are operationally positioned to advance south to seize the ISIS-held town of al Bab after clearing the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey is "obliged" to retake the ISIS-held town of al Bab after seizing the symbolic town of Dabiq from ISIS on October 16. Turkey also seeks to use its gains against ISIS to block the Syrian Kurdish People's Defense Forces (YPG) from establishing a contiguous zone of control along the Turkish border. The U.S. relies heavily on the YPG as a component of its Syrian Democratic Forces, the local anti-ISIS partner supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. Turkey opposes the US' reliance on the SDF and is negotiating with the US over the composition of forces that will retake Raqqa.

It is possible Turkey will play a direct role in the upcoming Aleppo battle, however. Turkish-backed opposition forces have shifted their focus west to confront the YPG north of Aleppo City after the YPG started advancing eastward in an apparent "race for al Bab," trying to take the town before Turkish-backed forces do. Turkish-backed opposition forces declared their intent to recapture from the Kurds the town of Tel Rifat, north of Aleppo City, on October 21. YPG forces seized Tel Rifat from the opposition with Russian air support in February 2016. Turkey conducted airstrikes against YPG positions in the area amidst local clashes between YPG-led forces and Turkish-backed on October 20, prompting the regime to threaten to shoot down Turkish planes over Syrian airspace. Turkey has since conducted extensive shelling of YPG positions and deployed additional tanks to the area. The YPG's positions north of Aleppo City buffer the regime's encirclement of opposition-held areas of the city. Turkish-backed opposition forces participating in Operation Euphrates Shield have stated their intent to attack the regime's encirclement of Aleppo from the northern countryside. These opposition forces could seek to transition Turkey's support against the YPG into an attack against pro-regime forces in support of an operation to break the siege.

A successful operation to break the siege of Aleppo could enable the United Nations to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to over 250,000 starving civilians. It would also have negative second order effects, however. It would further limit the already constrained policy options available to the next U.S. president by cementing the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al Sham and Ahrar al Sham over Syrian opposition groups that were previously reconcilable to US interests. Russia and the Syrian regime will use growing support for Jabhat Fatah al Sham and Ahrar al Sham to legitimize continued war crimes in opposition-held areas such as the intentional targeting of hospitals and use of improvised chemical weapons. Turkey's role in the upcoming battle will also signal the trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations in Syria, which are currently characterized by a primarily economic détente despite incompatible strategic goals in Syria and the region. Finally, an escalation between Turkish -backed opposition forces and the YPG north of Aleppo City risks fracturing the unity of effort the US is attempting to negotiate in order to make a Raqqa operation possible in the near term.

**CORRECTION: A previous version of this blogpost incorrectly stated that the YPG seized Tel Rifat in "late 2015." The correct date for the YPG's recapture of Tel Rifat is February 15, 2016.