The insurgents are trying to make Aleppo the graveyard of the Syrian Army.
I wrote that sentence and then googled it to find that they really are.
I haven’t got a very clear picture of what’s going on in the city. The view I have is intensely coloured by the wishful thinking of Western media: that Arab Spring isn’t dead, that the Free Syrian Army will emerge victorious, that Sunni Islamism will not come to dominate Syria. Every tank kill claimed by the insurgents is a great victory. Every street where the rebels engage the army is a front line.
But here’s what I haven’t heard from Aleppo. I haven’t heard about Syrian brigades or divisions laying down their arms. I haven’t heard about Syrian generals in command of significant formations going over to the insurgency. I haven’t heard about significant defeat of the regime’s forces.
The Western media narrative holds strongly to the idea that the Assad regime is on the ropes, but evidence to support this isn’t forthcoming. The fifteen tank kills claimed by the Free Syrian Army are not a significant defeat for Assad. The couple of tank crews which have defected will not break the back of Assad’s armoured might.
The Syrian regime is a totalitarian regime, and allowing people to tell the truth about what’s going on is not something they do. Reporting from Aleppo is hard, and requires an alliance with the regime (which is not on offer to Western journalists) or the insurgents. This means that information is coming through two streams: the Syrian state-controlled press and the Western press, whether listening in the bars of Beirut or watching under the protection of the insurgents. It is tempting to believe that the truth is somewhere between the Syrian press agency’s claims and the Free Syrian Army’s claims. Splitting the difference between the two, as many journalists are doing, is not necessarily the way to find out what’s really going on.
Why is Aleppo important?
Why after losing their Damascus gambit did the Syrian insurgency decide to fight in Aleppo? This isn’t Benghazi, which was a stronghold of opposition to the Tripoli government before the Libyan insurgency began. Before the population fled, Aleppo was a stronghold of pro-regime sympathy.
Aleppo is a place to draw the regime’s forces into complex urban terrain where their material and technical advantages can be nullified. Aleppo was filled with people who did not support the insurgents, so its destruction will be a burden on the regime’s supporters, not the insurgency. Aleppo is a long way from Damascus, which forces the regime to stretch its capabilities across the West of the country. Most important, however, Aleppo’s proximity to Turkey is important if the insurgency is to have any hope of lasting a few more months.
Given sufficient support from Turkey, a conventional force organised in the Turkish refugee camps and led by defected Syrian colonels could build in Aleppo and then move southward to cut Damascus off from Syria’s port cities. Such an operation could be sustained by road from Turkish territory. This would mirror the Libyan insurgents’ move from Benghazi to Tripoli borne on wings of NATO air support. Once no longer in control of the coast, the regime would be of no further use to Russia. To sustain its naval base in Tartous, Russia would have to work with the insurgents.
But such a conventional force is still no more than a dream for the insurgents. For now, Aleppo represents terrain favourable to the rebels. Favourable, that is, if Syrian indirect fire doesn’t turn the tables on the insurgents. Indirect fire, throwing shells into the air from howitzers and mortars, would pound the alleyways of the Salaheddin district to rubble. The rubble would favour the defenders, but the Syrian Army could stand by and wait them out.
The “ground offensive” that the UN has been predicting since the 2nd of August doesn’t have to happen.
Insurgents have concentrated themselves in a couple of areas of Aleppo, described quaintly by the Independent’s intrepid Kim Sengupta as two “front lines”. Another term would be pockets. If the Syrian Army stands back and stonks Salaheddin, maintaining a tight cordon and shooting anyone who emerges, the insurgents will be able to hold out heroically in the ruins, but no more. Whichever insurgent segment is holing up in Salaheddin, and the insurgency is so fragmented that it still functions as an aggregation of segments rather than a tactically unified force, that segment will be out of the fight until it exfiltrates or is destroyed.
The Free Syrian Army described last month’s fight for Damascus as decisive. They didn’t win, so by that standard the decision has gone against them. The Aleppo battle is also described as decisive, and again the decision is that the regime remains in control. The Syrian rebellion has tried to bypass organisation, training, discipline, credibility and leap straight to the glorious final battle of their revolution. We in the West have encouraged them, cheered them on and, as the useless Kofi Annan gives up his efforts to talk Bashar up a gallows, we prepare to bemoan their defeat.
It is hard to see what’s going on in the city, but the glimpses we have suggest continued bloody-handed success for Bashar Assad.