Aleppo key to regime vic­tory

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad is de­ter­mined to re­take Syria’s se­cond city Aleppo to deal a de­ci­sive blow to the rebels ahead of a pos­si­ble change in US for­eign pol­icy, an­a­lysts say. As­sad’s regime has in re­cent months been press­ing a se­ries of of­fen­sives to seize con­trol of the dev­as­tated city’s east, which has been in rebel hands since 2012. The lat­est as­sault made a major break­through on Satur­day when gov­ern­ment forces seized the largest of the city’s op­po­si­tion-con­trolled neigh­bor­hoods.

For As­sad’s regime, tak­ing Aleppo would be “one of its great­est vic­to­ries”, Mid­dle East ex­pert Mathieu Guidere says, stress­ing the city’s “ex­tra­or­di­nary his­tor­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal pres­tige”. “It was one of the first ci­ties to be taken by the armed op­po­si­tion,” he adds. Syria’s for­mer eco­nomic cap­i­tal and in­dus­trial hub lies at a strate­gic com­mer­cial cross­roads near the border with Tur­key. The city has been roughly di­vided since 2012 into a rebel-held east and a gov­ern­ment-con­trolled west.

Fabrice Balanche, a Syria ex­pert at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, says the regime re­tak­ing east “Aleppo would be a turn­ing point” as it would then con­trol “the five largest ci­ties in Syria”. As­sad’s forces al­ready con­trol the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus, the cen­tral ci­ties of Homs and Hama and the coastal city of Latakia. Bring­ing Aleppo un­der their con­trol would also give regime forces a bet­ter chance at tak­ing back the north­west­ern prov­ince of Idlib, which is al­most en­tirely held by rebels and mil­i­tants.

‘Bal­ance of Power’

Bas­sam Abu Ab­dal­lah, an an­a­lyst close to the Da­m­as­cus regime, says east Aleppo’s fall would “tip the bal­ance of power in the con­flict”. Regime forces have since July 17 be­sieged east Aleppo, where some 250,000 civil­ians face se­vere food and fuel short­ages and nearly all hos­pi­tals have been dam­aged by bom­bard­ment. “The aim is to push these (rebel) groups to­wards a sce­nario like in Homs,” Abu Ab­dal­lah says, re­fer­ring to Syria’s third city where rebels were de­feated in 2014 af­ter two years of regime siege and bom­bard­ment.

The cur­rent of­fen­sive will ei­ther lead to a truce or to rebels be­ing evac­u­ated to­wards other op­po­si­tion-held ar­eas in Syria, he says. The lat­est regime push comes af­ter days of in­tense bom­bard­ment of the east, which has been pounded with air strikes, shells and bar­rel bombs. An­a­lysts say the re­lent­less bomb­ing also aims to push war-bat­tered, hun­gry res­i­dents to turn against the armed op­po­si­tion.

More than 4,000 civil­ians fled rebel-held dis­tricts into regime-held ar­eas this week­end in the first ex­o­dus of the kind in east Aleppo since 2012. As­sad’s regime “can only take back a ter­ri­tory if its pop­u­la­tion no longer backs the rebels”, Balanche says. The gov­ern­ment re­gain­ing con­trol of Aleppo would mark the end of fight­ing on a major bat­tle­front in a war that has killed 300,000 peo­ple since it started in 2011 with the bru­tal re­pres­sion of antigov­ern­ment protests.

Up­per Hand in Talks

Rebels would then con­trol pock­ets of ter­ri­tory only in the south­ern prov­ince of Daraa, the birth­place of the up­ris­ing, and near Da­m­as­cus where they have lost their pre­vi­ous bas­tions of Daraya and Moad­amiyeh Al-Sham. A de­feat in Aleppo would mean rebel groups “are no longer able to main­tain the pop­u­la­tion un­der their con­trol or pro­tect them”, Guidere says. Balanche says the in­sur­gents los­ing Aleppo would show the “op­po­si­tion is in­ca­pable of a major mil­i­tary suc­cess” and dash its hopes of pre­sent­ing it­self as a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to the Da­m­as­cus regime.

Aleppo’s fate will be key in any re­sump­tion of stalled peace talks to end the five-and-a-half-year war af­ter three failed at­tempts at UN-bro­kered di­a­logue this year. Guidere says the regime would have the up­per hand and “tend to want to ne­go­ti­ate even less” if it seized east Aleppo. US pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump tak­ing up of­fice in less than two months’ time and a pos­si­ble sub­se­quent change in Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy could also give As­sad the ad­van­tage.

If Da­m­as­cus con­trols both the cap­i­tal and Aleppo in Jan­uary when Trump ar­rives in the White House, “he may say re­plac­ing the regime is cat­e­gor­i­cally out of the ques­tion”, Guidere says. Balanche agrees: “We know Trump doesn’t re­ally want to in­vest him­self in Syria. If Aleppo falls... it will no longer be worth sup­port­ing the op­po­si­tion.” — AFP

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