The Battle for Aleppo – more correctly, eastern Aleppo – is nearing its end game. The Syrian government forces, along with its allies – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – have cut off the rebels in eastern Aleppo for months, and have now launched a fierce attack using air and ground forces. The US and other NATO powers have asked for a unilateral halt to airstrikes on eastern Aleppo. The Syrian government has said that after Jabahat al Nusra – the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate – refused any ceasefire, stopping air attacks will only help the al Nusra led forces. They have also accused al Nusra of holding the civilian population of eastern Aleppo hostage, while offering a clear evacuation path for the civilians wishing to leave the battle zone.
Stefan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy in Syria, offered to accompany the al Nusra forces out of Aleppo, if they were willing to leave. The Russians also backed de Mistura's call for the sake of saving Aleppo. Al Nusra turned down this appeal, making clear that they will continue to hold eastern Aleppo hostage.
Unfortunately, urban war is bitter, enormously destructive of human lives and the cities in which they are waged. It is heartbreaking to see the conditions of the civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo. Food and medicines are in short supply and many of them are dying in the cross-fire of the fighting. While the western media has focussed on the plight of the civilians in eastern Aleppo, they have been remarkably silent on similar attacks by the US airforce in Kobane, Manbij in Syria and Falluja in Iraq. Nor have they found any time on the continuous rebel mortar fire on western Aleppo and its civilian population.
Why is Aleppo important for the Syrian government as well as the rebels? Who are these rebels in eastern Aleppo? What is the role that the US and its NATO allies playing in the mix that is Syria?
Aleppo is the second most populous city in Syria and was its commercial centre before the war. It, along with Damascus, is one of the two oldest continuous urban settlements in the world. Along with the barbarism that has descended in West Asia, much of this ancient cradle of civilisation is being obliterated, along with its history. Aleppo is one of such example.
While eastern Aleppo has been under rebel occupation for the last few years, western Aleppo has been held by the Syrian government. It is much larger and holds a much bigger population. Currently, it has about 1.25 million inhabitants, who have been living under artillery bombardment from the rebel forces in eastern Aleppo. In spite of the war, it has functioning schools, colleges, hospitals, and has a fairly normal life. In contrast, eastern Aleppo under the rebels has seen a collapsing infrastructure, and a large number of its inhabitants leaving Aleppo. While the UN has talked about a population of 275,000 in eastern Aleppo, others estimate that the number could be much lower, and even as low as 50,000.
The Syrian government believes that the US is not serious about fighting al Qaeda – or its Syrian affiliate Jabahat al Nusra. Its arranging so-called ceasefires, are only to give breathing space to its proxy forces in Syria, who are very much a part of the al Nusra alliance. For them Kerry's diplomacy is simply war by other means.
Having decided that the US is not serious about either a ceasefire or fighting al Qaeda, the Syria-Russia-Iran Hezbollah have decided that they now need to take Aleppo back from the rebels. With this, the bulk of Syrian population, will be under Syrian government control. It will leave only Idlib province and some patchwork areas under rebel control in the major populated parts of Syria, who then can be squeezed out. This is what is being termed as essential Syria, containing about 80 % of its population.
The north is now largely with the Kurdish forces, with a small enclave held by the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies. Eastern Syria is under Daesh/ISIS control. Apart from the few population centres such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, and some oil wells, its is largely unpopulated or very sparsely populated desert. Right now, this is not the Syrian government's priority. Their priority is that part of Syria that has the bulk of its population, the essential Syria.
The battle of Aleppo is therefore the key one for the Syrian government. They would like to finish it before the new US President – with all its uncertainties – takes over. Under the Obama administration, it is unlikely that the US would go to war with Russia to fight for the al Qaeda and its allies. With Hilary, who has been calling for no-fly zone over Syria, there is no such guarantee. Trump, while sounding less interventionist on West Asia, is a completely uncertain quantity.
Al Qaeda now controls eastern Aleppo, and the so-called moderates are fighting under their command. The UN Special Envoy for Syria de Mistura informed the UN Security Council, “We have seen information from other sources that tell us more than half of the fighters present in eastern Aleppo are al-Nusra. We have also seen reports alleging the intentional placement of firing positions close to social infrastructure, inside and aside civilian quarters.” AP reports that Mistura, while calling for on Russians and Syrians for a cessation of bombing over Aleppo, has also indicated that he believes that the eastern Aleppo population is being held hostage by the al Qaeda forces.
There are no Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo that is independent of al Qaeda. If it ever was. The FSA was a myth fostered by the US, its NATO allies and the Gulf monarchies to support the anti Assad forces and wage a proxy war against the Syrian government. The proxy war was, and continues to be, waged in collusion with al Qaeda and even ISIS, for achieving the larger geopolitical aim of destroying the Bashar al Assad government. This is why the US opposes the Syrian government forces in their attempt to free parts of the city which are undoubtedly held by al-Qaeda.
It is now public that the earlier ceasefire, brokered by the US and the Russians, led to the US and its allies funnelling an enormous amount of arms and ammunition to the rebels including al Qaeda. This included anti tank TOW missiles, which have given the rebels a much greater punch. Right now, the discussion among the US and its allies is giving the rebels MANPADs, which will allow them to target Syrian and Russian aircraft. The risk, of course, is to all civilian aircrafts in the area. Any of them can be brought down when taking off and landing by a MANPAD.
The well-known defence information service Janes, has analysed various US documents to show that thousands of tons of military equipment including sophisticated weapons, were sourced by the US defence department from eastern Europe and routed to the Syrian rebels via Jordan and Turkey. CIA also ran its own supply line to the Syrian rebels, providing them with weapons including TOW anti tank missiles. The entire period of ceasefire starting from February, 2016 was used to help the crumbling rebel forces in Western and northern Syria to regroup and rearm. Recent reports from unnamed US Green Berets training Syrian rebels show that the trainers were well aware of who they were training. “No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort, and they know they are just training the next generation of jihadis...”, Unnamed Green Beret, (“US Special Forces sabotage White House policy gone disastrously wrong with covert ops in Syria”, Jack Murphy, SOFREP News).
So why should the US support rebels, who are primarily al Qaeda or ISIS or in alliance with them, their avowed enemies in the Global War on Terror? The answer lies in the larger geopolitical picture. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah are linked to the Palestinian struggle and opposed to Israel. Israel – and the US – see Bashar al Assad's government as a link between Iran and Hezbollah. Having been bloodied by Hezbollah, Israel believes that if the Assad government falls, then Hezbollah will lose its lifeline to Iran. This is not an idle speculation, this is what the US Department of State policy note under Hilary Clinton states, “It is the strategic relationship between Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel's security — not through a direct attack, which in the thirty years of hostility between Iran and Israel has never occurred, but through its proxies in Lebanon, like Hezbollah, that are sustained, armed and trained by Iran via Syria. The end of the Assad regime would end this dangerous alliance.”
The die has been cast in Aleppo; the Syrian and the Russian forces together with their allies are waging a war to capture Aleppo within the next two months. The two conduits to the rebels for funnelling arms, money and other help – Jordan and Turkey seem to be now pulling back from the US, NATO and the Gulf monarchies war efforts. The only way the US can change the battlefield scenario is if it enters the war directly. It could be through a No-Fly Zone over Syria – read it no Syrian or Russian aircraft to fly over Syria – and imposing it through the US and NATO airforce. Or take out Syrian forces directly through and Shock and Awe campaign or 36-48 hours. Both of these are currently being discussed. Both will be illegal. The Russians are there virtue of the sovereign government of Syria inviting them in. The US has no such standing.
The Russians have made clear that either of these responses would be regarded as hostile to the Russian forces on the ground. Another Deir Ezzor like attack by the US on Syrian ground forces, will be met with an immediate Russian response.
A No-Fly Zone over Syria means that only the US and its NATO allied fly over Syria and not Syrian or Russian forces – its is an Only-We-Fly Zone. Apart from being illegal under international law, as Kerry himself has pointed out in a leaked tape, it will bring the world perilously close to World War 3.