Salih Mahmud Leyla / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

US anti-ISIL strategy faces major setback in Syria’s second city

As Aleppo goes, so go prospects for a viable rebel force to fight both Assad and extremists

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — A growing chorus of alarm has warned the Obama administration that its strategy to combat Islamic State forces in Syria is on the verge of unraveling in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city. But with regime forces now in control of all but one road into Aleppo, the remaining residents of areas controlled by the rebels designated “moderate” by the U.S. are bracing for the worst.

“We started planning for the siege,” Zaina Erhaim, a journalist living in Aleppo, told Al Jazeera. "I have a friend who is a theater director who is learning how to use a pump action [shotgun]. If the regime attacks the city, he’d have to defend himself.”

Forces fighting for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have taken advantage of the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) targets elsewhere in Syria to press their offensive in Aleppo and are now within firing range of Castello Road, the rebels’ last remaining supply route. “They can close it whenever they like,” Erhaim said, speaking by phone. “Maybe they’re still opening it for those who want to escape, before applying the siege.”

Aleppo is the most significant real estate to fall into rebel hands in the course of Syria’s three-year civil war, and the rebel sectors are under the control of forces designated as the Syrian partners vital to the U.S. campaign there. Earlier this year, fighters from three rebel alliances successfully forced ISIL to the periphery of the city while holding off the regime army. But the threat of a regime encirclement of the city represents a turning point in the multipolar fight in Syria among rival rebel factions, Assad’s forces, the Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) and ISIL — a fight in which the rebel forces designated as potential partners by the West are rapidly being eclipsed. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned earlier this week that the “moderate” rebels are at risk of being obliterated if they lose their Aleppo foothold.

“The combined real and psychological impact of regime success in initiating a siege would amount to an unprecedented blow to the viability of rebel factions in Aleppo,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group. “[ISIL] can be expected to exploit rebel focus on preventing besiegement by escalating its own campaign to capture valuable rebel-held territory along the Turkish border north of Aleppo.”

Taking advantage of the international focus on the dramatic battle for the Kurdish town of Kobane, along the border with Turkey, the Assad regime has pressed to recover lost ground on other fronts. During one 36-hour period in October, the Syrian military carried out more than 200 airstrikes in rebel-held areas throughout the country, according to the watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian regime warplanes are pummeling the rebel-controlled north even as U.S. planes fly sorties in Syrian airspace to target ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Residents, activists and armed groups that are fighting both ISIL and Assad are outraged by the hands-off approach of the U.S. to regime attacks.

“They’re extremely pissed off,” said Assaad al-Achi, an opposition politician who moves in and out of northern Syria. On a recent visit to the town of Saraqib, he said he witnessed anti-ISIL rebels shooting at a U.S. drone. He feared U.S. retaliation. “We spent all night waiting for the Tomahawk,” he said.

Fighters from Jabhat Al-Nusra help a wounded man after a reported barrel bomb attack by government forces in Aleppo, Nov. 6, 2014.
Fadi al-Halabi / AFP / Getty Images

The regime’s barrel bombs and the possibility of a siege are not the only problems facing the armed groups in Aleppo. The three main rebel alliances — the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Islamic Front and Jaish Al-Mujahidin — are poorly equipped, plagued by infighting and hampered by competition among their state supporters, principally Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States.

Having struggled to fight on two fronts — against the regime and ISIL — they now face a third challenger in the form of Jabhat Al-Nusra, which recently overran areas near the city of Idlib, routing mainstream rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and Harakat Hazm. The latter is active in Aleppo and is one of the groups to which the U.S. government is sending arms and other assistance in hopes that it will form a bulwark against ISIL.

Jabhat Al-Nusra’s territorial expansion has underscored the complexity of the war in Syria and the challenges facing U.S. policymakers as the mainstream rebels face the prospect of being crushed between the regime and extremist groups. When the U.S. struck Nusra targets that Washington calls the Khorasan group, anti-ISIL rebels and activists condemned the strike against a group battling Assad’s regime.

“That the regime apparently feels no pressure to change its approach or improve its behavior is telling and indicative of a disconnect in U.S. policy,” said Bonsey. “Washington has identified strengthening moderate anti-ISIS rebels as a crucial element of its strategy but is unwilling to apply the leverage necessary to convince the regime to stop pummeling those very forces to the brink of defeat.”

For now, Aleppo residents face a brutal barrage, as government helicopters continue to drop crude cylinders packed with explosives, forcing more people to leave an already depopulated city. “They started to bomb the areas that are crowded with inhabitants,” said Erhaim. In two days in October, she said four such bombs fell on her neighborhood. “This is usually the strategy they used, like using barrel bombs in crowded areas, causing people to leave.”

The city of Gaziantep, in southern Turkey, hosts longtime exiles and new arrivals. On a side street, 12 people, including members of three families, made camp in an abandoned building in October. Fatima, 25, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said the group fled Aleppo just 10 days earlier. She produced a faded photocopy of a death certificate; her husband, a construction worker, was killed in shelling. They finally left, she said, because the bombing became unbearable. “It’s harsh,” she said. “There’s no electricity there, no water.”

Fatima tugged her shirt, “We brought only the clothes we were wearing.” The group is sleeping on a pile of blankets on the concrete floor of the building, and winter is coming. Will they stay? Sure, she said. “The weather is fine.”

“What's most notable about the regime’s reaction to U.S. airstrikes,” says Bonsey, “is not what has changed but what hasn't. The regime continues to employ the same indiscriminate tactics against [anti-ISIL] rebels and civilians in rebel-held areas, despite the escalated U.S. engagement in Syria.”

Although the Assad regime is now capable of laying siege to Aleppo, residents and activists are not convinced that the government has the wherewithal to recapture the city. Government forces lack manpower and have enlisted poorly trained militias at various fronts in the war. Furthermore, some of the fighters in Aleppo view the battle with the regime as an existential struggle. Should the regime move to retake the city, they’ll seek help elsewhere, says Achi. “Knowing the armed groups in Aleppo quite well, I think if they feel threatened, they all go and pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.”

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