Aleppo, Syria’s commercial powerhouse and a symbolic rival to the capital Damascus, has been under siege for most of a civil war that is well into its sixth year.
But the intense fighting there now, where the rebels that once dominated the city are fighting to stave off the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, is of a different order.
The outcome, many regional experts say, likely won't end the complex and devastating war that has cost more than 300,000 Syrian lives, displaced millions, and spawned an epic flow of humanity to European shores. But it is likely to determine both the course of the war and the political prospects of both the regime and Syria’s opposition.
“If the regime is unable to retake Aleppo, that will demonstrate that they are unable to retake all of Syria,” says Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria and United States policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If the opposition suffers defeat and is routed from the city, it’s a sign the revolution has lost.”
Put simply, “Aleppo could be a turning point,” adds James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Even in defeat, the rebel forces in Aleppo would not disintegrate, Mr. Phillips says. But a defeat would echo far beyond just a loss of a key city.
“Even if [the rebels] lose Aleppo, they would survive as a guerrilla force and continue as a sharp thorn in Assad’s side,” Phillips says. “But it would be a hugely demoralizing blow for them, and Assad knows it,” he adds, “which is why the regime and the outside forces that have come to its rescue are putting everything into the fight.”
Russian jets continue to bomb the rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the city, while Iranian forces and Shiite militias from outside the country are also part of the siege.
The Syrian Army would be incapable of taking Aleppo on its own, experts say. Phillips calls the Army a “basket case.”
It regularly targets the civilians in rebel-held sectors with weapons meant to terrorize and demoralize the local population – like the barrel bombs that were dropped on the Aleppo neighborhood of Al Sukari Wednesday, sending shrapnel through a market, killing seven.
There are also indications the regime continues to resort to chemical attacks, despite a 2013 US-Russia initiative that was supposed to have rid the regime of its most horrific chemical-warfare agents.
The latest report came Tuesday, when two barrels of a “shocking agent” that smelled strongly of chlorine were dropped on Al Sukari, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations.
“All the military entities involved in the fight are seeing in Aleppo a political endgame,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a British think tank, in a recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.
A 'game changer'
Each group involved sees the outcome as a “game changer,” she said. For example, if the Islamist militant group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, held off Syrian forces, it could “assert itself as the leading rebel group in the country.” Fatah al-Sham changed its name and dropped its affiliation with Al Qaeda in July as part of an effort to appear more Syrian.
Indeed, the inability of the regime to defeat the opposition in Aleppo could ultimately force it to pull back to Damascus and Syria’s western provinces, she said. An opposition that holds on in Aleppo could connect to Idlib, another opposition stronghold, and secure crucial supply lines into Turkey.
So far, all parties are having difficulty taking the city definitively. “What that tells me is that each side has very limited manpower to achieve its objectives,” Mr. Tabler of the Washington Institute says. “When any side does take a step forward, they seem to have a limited ability to hold on.”
The rebels’ limited ability is an indictment of the Obama administration, says Phillips.
The US has pulled back on providing military supplies to the rebels as Secretary of State John Kerry struggles to reach an agreement with Russia to establish humanitarian supply lines into Aleppo and revive a “cessation of hostilities.” Those efforts appeared to crumble last weekend.
Phillips says the US has been hoodwinked by Russia. The effort has “amplified the demoralization of the rebels” and “confirmed that the Russians were doing it just to buy time for Assad and help him tighten the noose around Aleppo.”
He adds: “The Obama administration’s efforts to establish some type of cooperative diplomatic arrangement with the Russians have gone nowhere, but they have had a deep impact in the fight for Aleppo.”