Feb 13th 2016
HOW the tables have turned. In February last year Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched an offensive to take back Aleppo, once Syria’s most populous city but divided between the regime and rebel fighters since 2012. Not only were Bashar’s battalions pushed back from the city; the rebels then turned west and routed them from Idlib too. A year on, Mr Assad is attacking Aleppo again. This time he is succeeding.
Almost five years since the war started in Syria, the regime is making a comeback. Unlike previous ebbs and flows in the brutal conflict, this one looks as if it may prove decisive. In what has long since become a proxy war, Mr Assad’s allies are simply more dedicated to their cause than the backers of those fighting to oust him; and there is little sign that this will change.
Aleppo is now almost encircled by the Syrian army and Shia fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan under Iranian command. They have taken back Zahraa and Nubl, two Shia towns north-west of Aleppo (see map), and have cut off the rebels’ last supply route into Aleppo from the Turkish border. Russian airstrikes cleared the way. They are bombing civilian areas at least as heavily as front lines. Ezz al-Din Attar, a refugee from Aleppo now in Kilis, says that includes hospitals, schools and markets.
It is likely the regime intends to move onto villages around the city, and then towards Idlib to Aleppo’s west. The road to Idlib is the only one out of rebel-held Aleppo still open, through a 5km (three-mile) corridor separating two regime positions in the north-western corner of Syria. And it may not last long. The regime, which has a column only 3km from it, is shelling this road too. Hizbullah and Shia fighters are only 20km from two towns in Idlib province that, if captured, would help the regime to advance in the province.
The UN reckons 300,000 people in the eastern part of Aleppo under rebel control are in danger of being cut off and starved, as Mr Assad has deliberately done to other towns and villages. Aleppo town councillors have sent a detailed list to donors of the food, fuel and medical supplies they will need to survive the siege, which could last many months since the city is too big to fall quickly. Thousands of others have fled towards Turkey’s border. “People are beginning to panic,” says Bahaa Jabali, a photographer in Aleppo.
Iran has long been sending thousands of Iraqi and Afghan Shia militiamen to Syria. But it is Russia’s intervention in the autumn last year that has made the difference. Sold as being against Islamic State (IS), Russia has mainly set about bombing the more mainstream Sunni rebels. Despite yet another report this week accusing Mr Assad of crimes against humanity for “exterminating” prisoners, Russia knows that his regime is more palatable to the West than IS.
America, focused on fighting IS, has continued to hope, without any real evidence, that Russia will help force Mr Assad to the negotiating table. Not surprisingly peace talks fell apart in Switzerland last week almost as soon as they had begun, over the assault on Aleppo. Mr Assad and his allies appear to see the only point of the talks as being a place to consolidate their gains, in hope of receiving a stamp of approval from a weary UN.
The opposition’s backers are at odds, too. The Gulf states are angry with America for focusing on IS instead of Mr Assad. On February 10th Turkey lashed out at America for working with the Kurdish PYD, Syria’s offshoot of the Turkish PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
The PYD is in tacit alliance with the regime. Its fighters are moving in to hold some of the areas taken by the regime around Aleppo, on the border with Turkey. The silent agreement may soon become formal. Word is that Russia has promised the Kurds what Western backers would not: a continuous Kurdish area in the north-east of Syria that is their stronghold.
The rebels say their last hope is a promise from Gulf States to send ground troops to help them out, though the Gulf states say their main aim is to fight IS. About 30,000 fighters from various groups have joined an umbrella group, Jaish Haleb (the Army of Aleppo), to defend the city. Elsewhere the choice is harder: in the town of Tel Rifaat, near the border, the rebel fighters are local men tempted to flee to safety with their families. What any Gulf force would consist of is unclear, but even if it materialises, it is unlikely to do much in the face of the regime’s firepower.
Even in the south of Syria, where the rebels are in better condition thanks to more consistent and organised support by the opposition’s backers, the regime, once again with Russia’s help, has made advances. In January it took Sheikh Miskeen, a rebel stronghold. “Russia, Iran and Assad know that this year America is weak because of the election and that Obama will not do any more so they are using this time to destroy the opposition,” reckons Fabrice Balanche, a scholar at the Washington Institute, a think-tank.
Jordan is unlikely to do much to help, wary of Mr Assad and of more refugees. The Turks say they will not intervene directly in Syria unless the Americans do; but they are setting up an informal buffer zone. Rather than allow in the thousands camped out in the open between Aleppo and the border, Turkish relief organisations have been crossing over to the Syrian side and building new camps there. But it is unclear who will protect the area should the regime decide to attack. Any action at this point risks direct conflict with Russia. Aleppo may determine what happens in Syria, the region and beyond.