Assad’s Shiite allies helped him win Aleppo
When rebel fighters launched a last desperate attempt to break the siege of Aleppo in October, they were beaten back - not by the Syrian army but by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah fighting on its behalf, a senior official in the pro-government alliance said. In the build-up to the final battle for Syria’s second city, scores of fighters from a single Iraqi Shiite militia were killed in just two days of combat this summer, said a commander of another group fighting for President Bashar Al-Assad.
Even in the last hours of fighting in Aleppo, allied Iraqi militia were at the vanguard. The UN human rights office said it had reports that the Syrian army and an allied Iraqi militia had killed at least 82 civilians in captured city districts - allegations denied by the army and militia in question. These episodes show how in the decisive battle of Syria’s nearly six-year-old civil war, Assad drew heavily on foreign Shiite militias sponsored by Iran for his most important victory to date.
Rebel sources say that among fighters taken prisoner by insurgents in the last months of Assad’s campaign to retake Aleppo, there was not a single Syrian soldier. To be sure, Russian air strikes were the most important factor in Assad’s triumph. They enabled his forces to press the siege of rebel-held eastern Aleppo to devastating effect and regain full control of what was Syria’s biggest city and economic hub before the war.
But on the ground, Shiite militias from as far afield as Afghanistan played an important role for Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Among these militias, which fought in and around Aleppo alongside the Tiger Force, an elite Syrian army unit lavishly backed by Russia, was the Ansar Allah al-Awfiya group. The rebels inflicted big losses on the militia’s fighters by hitting them with a barrage of guided anti-tank missiles as they retreated in an area outside Aleppo, according to the militia commander, also an Iraqi. Reuters was unable to confirm the account with the group itself.
But Hezbollah, battle-hardened by years of conflict with Israel, played an even more important role. It ensured the siege was not broken by helping thwart a series of suicide attacks, according to the official in the proAssad military alliance. “If they (the suicide attacks) had succeeded we would have been the ones under siege,” he said. Asked about the role of Shiite militias in the battle for Aleppo, a Syrian military source said army statements always referred to the “allied forces” working with the army. Last year Assad publicly credited Hezbollah for its role.
Victory in Aleppo leaves Assad virtually unassailable by the rebels but he still faces great challenges in restoring the power of his state. While he controls the most important cities in western Syria and the coast, armed groups including Islamic State control swathes of territory elsewhere in Syria. Assad could face prolonged guerrilla warfare from forces including the Nusra Front, until recently affiliated with Al-Qaeda, the global jihadist network founded by Osama bin Laden.
But victory in Aleppo shows how the direction of the civil war has shifted with the support of his allies. “The course of events in Aleppo in the last few months ... has turned the tide in Syria’s war in favour of the Syrian government and resistance movement,” said Hossein Salami, the deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which has also deployed forces in the protracted campaign for Aleppo. He was referring to a regional alliance grouping Hezbollah, Iran and Syria defined by hostility to Israel. Less than 18 months ago, Assad’s forces had been losing ground across Syria and he had acknowledged there was a manpower problem in his army. Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in September 2015 helped prop up Assad, while protecting its own interests in the region. — Reuters