As­sad’s Shi­ite al­lies helped him win Aleppo

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

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

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