The Battle of Aleppo: The History of the Ongoing Siege at the Center of the Syrian Civil War (2016)

Chapter 8: The Siege of Aleppo

Since Operation Canopus Star put the regime in a better strategic position, not only by taking more territory but also better connecting Aleppo to the rest of regime-controlled territories in Syria, it gave Assad space to attempt negotiations. In January 2014, the Syrian government proposed a possible ceasefire with the rebels inside Aleppo and presented this path to peace prior to an international conference focused on finding a solution to the civil war.[139] The way the deal was framed, as well as Syria’s appearance at the conference, intentionally portrayed Assad as fighting terrorists and hoping for help from the international community while the battle kept going. Ultimately, a ceasefire was not reached and the battles continued.

As the battle in Aleppo raged on, the Syrian regime continued to gain the upper hand. In the spring, Assad’s forces surrounded a prison in northern Aleppo, which led to the cutting of a supply line for the rebel forces inside the city.[140] As they took control of the prison, they began to destroy key locations in the vicinity, such as hospitals. The scene on the city streets was that of a ghost town: “Aleppo is eerie and abandoned. Its streets seem cleaner and better-kept than before, mainly because there are so few residents left. The only messes to clean up are caused by regular bombing raids by Syrian planes and helicopters, which destroy homes and buildings with unmitigated savagery. In some districts near the eastern fringes, up to 30% of all buildings have been demolished. Whole neighborhoods have been emptied, or are down to their last hardy souls, many of whom have no option but to stay.”[141]

As the military encroached upon the city, the battle began to take a more sectarian turn. While the civil war started out as a secular revolution demanding social justice for all Syrians and change in society as a whole, Assad and the insurgent militant jihadist groups managed to divide the various ethnic and religious groups inside the country. Nowhere was that more obvious than in Aleppo in 2014. Propaganda from the Syrian regime and the jihadist groups put fear into their respective groups that their enemies were bent on turning Syria into another Iraq, heavily divided along religious and ethnic lines. This touched a nerve because Syrian history is replete with examples of the kind of trouble such divisions can cause, particularly when the ruling government shows favoritism toward one group over others. Interestingly, however, there are several instances that appear to contradict the sectarian narrative espoused by the government and rebel factions. Most soldiers in the Syrian army are in fact Sunni, and the main division between those loyal to Assad and those loyal to the opposition almost appears to be a geographical issue. Many Sunnis in the more rural areas around Aleppo stood in support of Assad, while a growing number of Sunnis inside support the opposition.[142]

During the summer of 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched onto the scene and took up much media attention. While ISIS had been present in the city for some time, their rise to notoriety very much concerned the U.S., especially since their prominence came at a time when Obama was more heavily considering assisting some Syrian rebel groups on the ground in Aleppo. Knowing that the U.S. was considering fighting ISIS in Iraq, the jihadist groups already inside Aleppo preemptively attacked ISIS. “Battles also erupted in the Salahedin district of Aleppo itself, where both groups had reluctantly co-existed during recent months as Isis had imposed its hardline influence on parts of the city.”[143] The Free Syrian Army even called on the U.S. to carry out airstrikes against ISIS for fear that the wider power vacuum inside the city would be ripe for the picking for ISIS as they spread and gathered recruits. Thus, even as the Syrian regime began maintaining a siege of Aleppo in hopes of controlling all-important supply routes to Turkey, the rebel groups were also fighting ISIS inside of the city.

In September 2014, the U.S.-led international coalition began conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets inside Syria.[144] The coalition primarily focused on Raqqa, ISIS’ declared capital of their caliphate. While the U.S. targeted supplies and weapons locations, Syrians in other parts of the country expressed frustration that the U.S. was not carrying out strikes in other parts of the country, particularly against the Syrian regime, which was responsible for far more civilian deaths than ISIS. However, during America’s confrontation with ISIS, Obama was careful not to engage the Syrian government or take part in other aspects of the conflict. As this suggests, the president has tried to walk a very fine line in fighting ISIS while not getting further enmeshed in the civil war, even as he repeatedly called for Assad’s removal from power. Critics have slammed Obama for failing to enforce his stated redline over the use of chemical weapons, and others have claimed the administration refused to attack the Syrian regime for fear of jeopardizing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear energy program or scuttling the nuclear agreement reached in 2015.

In the fall of 2014, another ceasefire plan was presented to end the battle in Aleppo. This ceasefire was intended to “freeze” the battle, allowing for humanitarian aid to enter the city and also give rebels and civilians an opportunity to leave the city.[145] The ceasefire deal eventually fell through, with all sides blaming each other. For example, the Free Syrian Army refused to stop fighting, as they did not believe the Assad regime was serious about such an agreement and that they may be setting the rebels up for a Srebrenica situation, in which the government may massacre the rebels as they attempted to leave Aleppo.

Early 2015 saw rebel victories early around Aleppo, forcing the Syrian regime to retreat to the edge of the city, but that fall, Russia officially entered the civil war to bolster Assad’s forces around the country. In October 2015, Russian airstrikes and assistance on the ground helped the Syrian regime recapture towns around Aleppo.[146] Even as the Russians have insisted they entered Syria to fight terrorist groups like ISIS, the West couldn’t help but note that Russia barely targeted ISIS, or that Russia had targeted some of the very groups supported by America. In fact, the rebels argued that Russia’s involvement only helped ISIS to regain strength in the area: “The regime and Isis tried to take Aleppo last year and they couldn’t, and now they are trying again with the Russians. The Russians are doing Isis a huge favour. They are giving them air cover while they are attacking us from the ground.”[147]

Part of Russia’s attacks on rebel-held areas in Aleppo included cluster bombs, explosives full of projectiles.[148] Moreover, in order to assist the regime’s new offensive, Hezbollah increased its operations around Aleppo and continued to work to capture strategic locations around Aleppo that would better assist the Syrian government in connecting its currently held areas to its other controlled territories in eastern Syria.

As the Syrian regime advanced to take control of important locations around Aleppo, Turkey became increasingly worried about the spillover effect of the conflict, as well as the possible difficulties it would experience in supporting the Sunni rebels inside the city. Tension between Turkey and Syria escalated, especially when the Turks shot down a Syrian drone near the border.[149] In mid-2015, Turkey established a sort of “safe zone” for rebels to operate under cover of Turkish and U.S. jets.[150] This provided a buffer for Turkey against the Syrian regime as it continued to expand into Aleppo, while simultaneously supporting the continued expansion of Jabhat Al-Nusra and its affiliated jihadist groups fighting in and around Aleppo. In August 2015, Jabhat Al-Nusra reportedly retreated from northern Aleppo into the safe zone partially due to America’s continued assertion that it cannot work with Al-Nusra because of their association with Al-Qaeda.

As the Russians steadily expanded their intervention in Syria, the U.S. announced it had abandoned its efforts to train and advise rebels and would instead focus on arming them. “The Pentagon said it would shift its focus to providing weapons and other equipment to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a U.S. vetting process to ensure they are not linked to militant Islamist groups.”[151] At the same time, the rebel groups being assisted have historically complained that the Obama administration has required them to pledge not to target Assad, just terrorist groups like ISIS. The worsening situation inside Syria as well as the global refugee crisis fueled by the flood of refugees fleeing into Europe was other factors in a reassessment of American involvement in the conflict.

Caught between the Syrian-Iranian-Russian alliance and the Turkish-backed Sunni rebels, the Syrian Kurds found themselves once again in a difficult situation. As previously noted, the Kurdish population of Syria did not have an ideal relationship with the Assad regime, but their issues with the Turkish government put them in a situation where supporting Assad was better than risking losing territory and direct confrontation with the Turkish army. “To win the battle for Aleppo, Assad will therefore need to cooperate with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian franchise of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PYD is eager to connect its cantons around Kobane and Afrin and open a corridor to Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish district of Aleppo.” [152] In late 2015, there were reports that Kurdish forces of the PYD began receiving military aid from Russia in Aleppo, though the PYD denied the claim.[153]

The efforts of the Syrian regime in January and February 2016 resulted in important gains in their efforts to take back Aleppo. “The Syrian army and its allies have broken a three-year rebel siege of two Shi’ite towns in northwest Syria...cutting off a main insurgent route to nearby Turkey.”[154] By cutting off the rebels’ connection to the Turkish safe zones north of Aleppo, the Syrian government now had direct access. After this, the Syrian government conducted operations to encircle Aleppo and cut the rebels off even more from outside resources in hopes of starving them into surrender.

In late July, the Syrian government and Russia opened “humanitarian corridors” to enable civilians and unarmed rebels to leave Aleppo,[155] and in a last ditch effort to regain outside connections, the rebels launched an offensive in southern and northern Aleppo in August 2016. In southern Aleppo, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra until early August 2016, a name change that was supposed to signal the group’s formal break with Al-Qaeda) and their local affiliates shelled neighborhoods controlled by the Syrian regime in an effort to open new supply routes.[156] While the rebels continue to fight against the Syrian military as of early September, reports of fuel running out and a food crisis exacerbate the situation.[157]