What is left of the Syrian “moderate” opposition is deeply embittered. As far as they are concerned, the US and its allies have thrown them under the bus, unwilling to give them the firepower or protection necessary to resist a resurgent Russian-backed regime now pushing into Aleppo, a critical opposition redoubt.
“For the last year we haven’t received anything. The US is preventing everyone from supplying the opposition with weapons out of fear they will fall in the hands of Islamic State,” says Bassam Hajji, a political officer in a CIA-backed rebel group in Aleppo.
Since last week, Russian airstrikes and regime troops have cut off rebel supply lines from the Turkish border to Aleppo. Tens of thousands of city residents have fled towards the border in fear of a protracted siege, raising tensions with Turkey, a key backer of Syria’s opposition. The rebels’ battlefield setbacks have shone a spotlight on an apparent pullback by their international supporters ahead of failed UN-led peace talks last month to resolve Syria’s conflict.
Mr. Hajji, who spoke by phone in Turkey, says his group, Nour al-Din al-Zinki was one of the few CIA-vetted factions to receive highly prized TOW guided anti-tank missiles, which are easy to transport and use. But the supply dried up before it could significantly alter the balance of power on the battlefield. And that was before direct Russian military involvement in Syria. The group is now struggling to get anything beyond small arms and ammunition.
“You can’t fight Russian jets and all the firepower of these foreign militias with a couple of TOWs – we don’t even have enough TOWs for the purposes of a wedding celebration,” Hajji says.
The Russian-backed offensive in and around Aleppo has killed more than 500 people this month, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization. Since 2012, the city has been divided into a government-controlled section in the west and rebel-held areas in the east. Up to 400,000 residents in the east – equivalent to the population of New Orleans – risk being trapped without access to food. After three years of bombing, much of the city is already rubble; now it’s being described as Syria’s Stalingrad.
Chris Kozak, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, says it will be difficult for the opposition to turn the tables in and around Aleppo barring a quick escalation from regional allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have said they could send ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State – a move that could also allow it to prop up its allies. But few see this happening anytime soon since Saudi forces are already overstretched in Yemen.
Turkey is “likely to consider some high risk options to this renewed offensive, including providing MANPADS and anti-aircraft systems to try and counteract the advantage Russian aircraft has given,” says Mr. Kozak.
Risk of escalation between Turkey and Russia
In the past, Turkey has called for the creation of a buffer zone along the border on humanitarian grounds. But any such intervention by Turkish forces would probably lead to rapid escalation with Russia. The two countries are already at odds over the downing last November by Turkey of a Russian warplane that entered its airspace.
“Without the direct support of the US and NATO, I think (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan will be hesitant to take such a dramatic intervention step as a direct military intervention in Syria,” says Kozak.
One consequence is that beleaguered rebel groups are likely to deepen their collaboration with more Islamist-oriented factions seen as more effective fighting forces. These include Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Nusra Front, which has been a tactical partner of US-backed rebels both in the north and the south. The overlap between groups has long been contentious, as the US fears indirectly arming rebels that aren’t vetted.
Jihadists are said to have a small presence in Aleppo City and have joined other rebel formations from the northwestern province of Idlib to reinforce the city’s defenses. Rebels in northern Aleppo Province are under massive pressure from regime forces in the south, Kurdish-led factions in the west, and the Islamic State in the east.
While Hajji describes the factions in northern Aleppo as strictly Free Syrian Army – what the West considers moderate rebels – he adds “everyone has had to work with Al-Nusra” at some point or another. Rebel commanders argue that such alliances were born not out of ideological affinity but necessity. They blame the international community for allowing the Syrian regime to kill civilians with impunity over the past five years.
Yasser Abdul-Rahim, a rebel commander in Aleppo Province, complained that no support is being delivered to the opposition at this time of crisis. For the West, he had one question: “Have you sold out the Syrian revolution?”