Aleppo has been part of human history for some five thousand years. It was at one end of the ancient Silk Road, and a major metropolis in the many empires that conquered and ruled the region. The Battle of Aleppo, which since 2012 has pitted the despotic government of President Bashar al-Assad against an array of disorganized opposition rebels, now appears to be over. A deal to allow the safe passage of the last opposition fighters, their families, and any civilians who want to leave—an end to the agony—was brokered Tuesday by Russia and Turkey.
The battle – the largest context
The Battle of Aleppo was a major military confrontation in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, between the Syrian opposition (including the Free Syrian Army and Sunni fighters, such as the Levant Front and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front), against the government of Bashar al Assad, supported by Hezbollah, Shiite militias and Russia and against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. It is important to understand the broader context of these claims. The regime lost the eastern half of Aleppo to militants in 2012. At any point of the conflict, it sheltered a large majority of Aleppo’s more than two million residents. The militants’ initial plan was to capture the whole of the city. But they were stopped halfway by regime forces, and from 2012 there was a stalemate, though both occasionally attacked each other, killing fighters as well as civilians. The balance of the conflict changed only after Russia intervened in favour of the regime in September 2015. Government forces launched a massive operation early this year, assisted by the Russian air force, fighters from Hezbollah and Iran-trained militias.
Coalitions of opposition groups
Eastern Aleppo soon became a key base for al-Nusra. In early 2016, when the Syrian regime launched an operation to retake the eastern city, militants were divided into three blocs — Aleppo Conquest, Ansar al-Sharia and Euphrates Volcano. Of this, the Euphrates Volcano largely comprised Kurdish militants not directly fighting the regime but the IS. The other two, the real anti-government forces on the ground, are dominated by al-Nusra Front, aka al-Qaeda. The major militant groups in the Aleppo Conquest are Jama’at (a sub-unit of al-Nusra), Fajr al-Khilafa Brigades and Ahrar al-Sham (both are allied with Nusra). Ahrar al- Sham, which wants to overthrow the Assad regime and build an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia, is believed to be financed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Aleppo Conquest has been accused of war crimes. The other coalition, Ansar al-Sharia, was formed by al-Nusra in July 2015. As of October 2015, the coalition had 11 militant groups as its members, including the Qaeda branch. Their common goal was to seize all of Aleppo and impose Sharia. In the last days of the conflict, the remaining fighters in Aleppo are members of this coalition. There were reports that the rebels prevented civilians from fleeing the city even after the government opened humanitarian corridors. On December 14, the UN Commission for Inquiry for Syria referred to allegations that “opposition groups are preventing civilians from leaving as well as opposition fighters embedding themselves within the civilian population”. By political ideology or actions, these groups are not substantially different from the IS. While the IS wants to establish a caliphate across the borders, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham want to turn Syria into a theocratic state. They share common views on non-Sunni sects, women and the future of the Syrian society.
who are these “moderate rebels” the Syrian government is fighting in Aleppo?
In the initial days of the conflict, it was the Free Syrian Army (FSA), largely composed of rebel soldiers and helped by Turkey, which fought the regime forces in Aleppo. But as the civil war turned uglier and spawned jihadist groups, and FSA lost its influence, its fighters either withdrew to Turkey or merged with local militant factions. One of the most dominant jihadist groups was Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria founded by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, a former lieutenant of Abu bakr al-Baghdadi, now the ‘Caliph’ of the Islamic State. When he was leader of al-Qaeda of Iraq, Baghdadi sent Jolani across the border to join anti-government forces in the civil war. The ideologically-charged, ferocious two competing movements of the jihadist project in Syria.
The fall of Aleppo is the biggest victory for Assad in the complex six-year war, which has killed more than four hundred thousand people and left more than half of Syria’s population, originally twenty-two million, dependent on international aid for daily survival. The odds were always against the rebel groups, which were outnumbered and outgunned by a government with airpower—and Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Shiite forces to back it up. In the final days in the east, they basically collapsed. The Assad dynasty’s conquest of Aleppo is a boon to the Russians, who covet Syria as their prime Arab ally—and for its Mediterranean port. The loss of Aleppo is, in turn, a huge setback for the West, Turkey, and the Gulf monarchies, which supported several rebel factions with arms, training, or funds. Assad’s army surrounded Aleppo and cut off its roads to Turkey, which had allowed the rebels to resupply and rearm. It will be much more difficult to do that in Idlib, on the Turkish border.
Even if there is eventually some kind of peace, it would be fragile, given the political animosities and human desperation produced by this conflict. There will be little of Syria left, physically, for its people to return to—not an environment offering much hope for real reconciliation.
Faculty, North East Institute of Advanced Studies