What's at stake in the battle for Aleppo?

Syria's largest city is contested by various rebel groups, including anti-US jihadists. A UN envoy is trying to broker a temporary cease-fire so that humanitarian aid can reach civilians.

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
Civilians and civil defense members inspect the damage at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Qadi Askar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, today.

The battle for Syria’s largest city is intensifying, as are UN-led diplomatic efforts to arrange a local cease-fire. UN envoy Steffan De Mistura is trying to broker a halt to fighting in Aleppo between an array of Islamist and moderate rebels and the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Jihadist extremists also have their sights on the city, which is divided into rebel and regime enclaves.

On Wednesday, rebels launched an attack on a Syrian Air Force intelligence base in Aleppo with heavy losses of life on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The assault began with an explosion in a tunnel. Fierce fighting continued Thursday around the base in western Aleppo, which has been targeted previously by anti-government forces. At least 18 people died after regime forces dropped barrel bombs in rebel-held districts.

Mr. De Mistura, the third in a series of UN envoys tasked with trying to resolve the conflict in Syria, wants to broker a humanitarian pause in fighting to allow for urgent relief to reach Aleppo. He sees such a move, which sidesteps any attempt at political negotiations, as a model that could be replicated elsewhere in Syria, which is nearing a fifth year of civil war. So far there are no signs that rebel or regime forces are ready to lay down arms.

What role has Aleppo played in the Syrian revolution?

Aleppo initially stayed out of the national protests that erupted in March 2011 against President Assad. As such it was spared the security crackdown imposed on other protest hubs in Syria. But as the crisis escalated into civil war, Aleppo became a center of armed opposition activity by the summer of 2012.

From the start, Islamist rebels had better access to funding and weapons than their moderate counterparts. Among the Islamist militia were Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which attracted foreign jihadists eager to fight the regime. Until now, the self-styled Islamic State (IS) has played a relatively minor role in Aleppo.

The city has been divided since 2012 with neither camp able to gain the upper hand. The regime has sought to pummel the city into submission by using conventional and barrel bombs against civilians in the rebel-held east of the city. At least 6,000 civilians have died in this bombing campaign, according to monitoring groups, and more than a million people have lost their homes.

Who are the rebel factions on the ground?

A new alliance of Islamist and moderate forces called the Levant Front is trying to bring together the fractured opposition ranks. The group has absorbed several groups with links to the United States, including the Nureddin Al-Zinki Brigades, Jeish Al-Mujahiddin, and Harakat Hazzm.

The coalition excludes Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which the US considers as terrorist organizations. Al Nusra rejects the notion of a ceasefire with the regime and refuses to cooperate with the West in the fight against IS, which emerged from the ranks of Al Nusra.

IS entered Aleppo Province in July 2013 and has maintained a presence in the area since. Its fighters have attacked rebels positions from the east, with recent clashes around the town of Al-Mareea. Fighters and analysts say that its recent defeat in Kobane and troubles in Iraq have distracted it from making a more concerted push into Aleppo. IS also holds positions on the northern outskirts of the city, and much of the territory further north towards the Turkish border.

But rebels say IS militants aren’t taking on Assad’s forces, despite being in a strong position to menace their supply lines into the city. “When they first showed up, they claimed that they would lead the revolution to victory against the criminal regime, but then they turned on us in order to establish their so-called caliphate,” says Free Syrian Army fighter Hassan al-Halebi, who is fighting IS near the village of Telalin. 

He says rebel forces have been “split into two camps: one dedicated to fighting the regime and the other dedicated to fighting IS. We’ve lost many fighters.” He adds, “IS has killed the revolution in every area that comes under their control.”

What is at stake in Aleppo?

The outcome of the battle for Aleppo will likely determine who emerges victorious in a war that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced nearly half the population. Before the war, Aleppo had nearly 3 million residents and was Syria’s commercial capital. 

“If the rebels were able to oust Assad from Aleppo – that doesn’t seem to be happening but if they were – then they would have a good case for saying he is no longer president of Syria. You can’t be president of Syria and not control Aleppo,” says Syria analyst Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Yet the opposite may be more likely. Bolstered by Shiite militia from Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, the regime has been gaining ground in the northern and southern outskirts of Aleppo. Last month its troops embarked on a new offensive to tighten their siege on the city and relieve two Shiite villages, long surrounded by rebels.

Defeat in Aleppo would be devastating for the credibility of rebels. And that, in turn, would render their struggle against Assad, and their demands that he must leave power before any peace talks can begin, something of a lost cause, says Mr. Lund. “If the rebels do not have Aleppo, they have nothing. They have just countryside, small villages and small towns. They’ve lost the only really valuable thing that they've captured for the course of the entire war.”

What is the UN initiative and why did rebels reject it?

De Mistura has said that Syria’s government in Damascus is willing to halt aerial bombardment and artillery shelling for a period of six weeks in Aleppo. Rebels, in turn, would have to suspend all rocket and mortar fire. The regime allowed a UN act finding mission to travel to the city this week.

While the De Mistura plan could help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, opposition activists and rebels in the city appear united in rejecting it.

“The blood of our brothers, in Daraa, Ghouta, Homs and the rest of Syria is not less important than our blood in Aleppo,” they said Sunday in a joint statement, vowing to hold no further meetings with De Mistura unless there is a “comprehensive solution to the Syrian tragedy,” on the table.

Many rebels feel that the De Mistura initiative is in the interest of the Assad regime, which is trying to drive rebels away from the capital, Damascus. By pausing the fighting in Aleppo, the regime could put more pressure on the southern front, they argue. “It is poison in the guise of honey,” says Orwa Kanawate, an activist who has organized sporting events in rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

Backers of the UN plan stress that, absent a formal cease-fire and peace negotiations, there are no viable ways to get essential supplies to civilians trapped in Aleppo and to relieve the besieged city.

But the opposition argues the regime has manipulated previous local cease-fires to make tactical gains. Another sticking point was De Mistura’s characterization of Assad as “part of the solution.” While he later clarified that he was referring only to a reduction in violence, suspicions remain.

“Even after the clarification, we believe that Assad is the source of all violence in Syria. He is the one who pushed this country into real war,“ says Ward Furati, a spokesman of the Levant Front.

What is the historic significance of Aleppo?

Aleppo, or Halab in Arabic, is among the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited cities. The archives of the ancient city of Ebla mention it at the end of the 3rd millennium BC as the site of a temple dedicated to Haddad, an ancient Semitic deity associated with storms.

Nestled between the eastern Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates Valley, Aleppo is a trading crossroads. Hittites, Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Ottomans all left their stamp on the white city. The civil war has taken a huge toll on its cultural heritage. Regime forces are ensconced in a medieval citadel that overlooks the Old City’s Byzantine souk and the Ummayyad Mosque.

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