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The Siege of Aleppo is not the Only Game in Town

Darko Lazar

The recent military success by the Syrian army and their allies in Aleppo are undoubtedly important. But the recapture of three key military academies and the reinstatement of the siege on the militant-held eastern part of Aleppo may not be the breakthrough moment in the battle for northwestern Syria that many of us had previoaleppously hoped for.

That said, the brief lifting of that siege in early August following a fierce offensive by “all” of Aleppo’s militant factions was always doomed to fail. Military formations in the area, which include Syrian armed forces, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iranian special operations units and Iraqi militias, are markedly superior to the militants, especially in terms of their air power and artillery. This superiority enabled the Syrian army and their allies to hinder militant efforts to make any real use of the corridors leading into eastern Aleppo.

Furthermore, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra] and their main regional backer, Saudi Arabia, made a costly miscalculation in believing that they could push back the Syrian army in Aleppo using hastily recruited and inexperienced fighters from the neighboring Idlib province.

Out of the estimated 8000 militants who took part in the Aleppo operation, more than half have now been put out of action – either killed or wounded. With its newly armed formations decimated, the group’s exhausted weapons arsenal is now sufficient strictly for defensive warfare. The militants have been reduced to using air balloons armed with mines, which is a testament to just how depleted their weapons caches have become.

In an effort to reverse their loses in the north, militant groups have attempted to divert government recourses by launching attacks along other frontlines in Syria, including Hama and the Damascus countryside. But this strategy has so far had a very limited impact, if any at all.

Saudi Arabia’s Primitive Approach to the Syrian Conflict

These dire conditions have not only forced Jabhat Fatah al-Sham into retreat but have also resulted in serious internal schisms. Its main backers in Riyadh genuinely believed that the group’s so-called “transformation” would give Washington and Moscow the necessary incentive to include it in the Geneva talks and any potential political transition in Syria.

What’s more, the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham-led Aleppo offensive was heavily reliant on the rebranding of the group. The militants and the Saudis were hoping for external military and political support, as well as international recognition – that, in fact, never came.

Instead, the announced split from Al-Qaeda appears to have been used as a pretext by Nusra’s Jordanian recruits to leave the group. The Jordanian fighters had previously expressed their discontent at being deployed along the frontlines, claiming they were used as “cannon fodder”. Following heavy airstrikes, those recruits are reportedly on the run, after fleeing their positions in the direction of Aleppo’s Khan Touman.

Thus the Saudi-orchestrated publicity stunt by the Nusra Front does not only open the group up to possible acts of sabotage by some of its recruits, but also makes it harder for Saudi Arabia to coordinate between Syria’s many different militant factions. More importantly, the attempted rebranding of Nusra illustrates the level of desperation in Riyadh when it comes to salvaging any of its interests in Syria.

Ankara Wants to Play Its Own Game

Ankara, which had once seen eye-to-eye with Riyadh when it came to the conflict in Syria, now wants to play its own game without being dependent on the whims of Saudi Arabia and its interests.

According to retired Lebanese army general, Hisham Jaber, “Turkey wants to, and is expected to change course in Syria. But it is doing so gradually and it is not going to do a 180-degree turn until it fulfills all of its objectives. Today the Turks are in a position that allows them to impose their own conditions.”

Following the failed coup, Ankara has demonstrated that its primary focus in Syria is the creation of a military corridor between Azaz and Jarablous, and preventing the Kurds from concentrating their territories into a single unit. The saturation of militants loyal to Turkey will also be used for achieving this objective as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to minimize loses among his own troops and avoid losing public support for the military operation in northern Syria.

And while there can be no doubt that the Turks received Russia’s blessing for this operation, the alleged ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between Moscow and Ankara only includes the willingness of both sides to “work together” when it comes to Aleppo. Beyond that, nothing is certain. The ‘understanding’ between the Russians and the Turks likely involved a trade: Aleppo for other parts of northern Syria. But this still needs to be put to the test.

Pro-Turkish militants will now be expected to bow out of the battle for Aleppo, but also facilitate – or at the very least create – the conditions for Syrian forces and their allies to attack the northwestern Idlib province. “If it weren’t for Turkey these groups would not be able to fight for more than a few weeks. Turkey is the lung through which these organizations breathe,” Jaber added.

However, the watershed moment for success in Aleppo and other parts of northwestern Syria will only come if the prominent Sunni Arab tribes in the area express their genuine willingness to join the US-Russian brokered truce. This will depend almost entirely on the weakening of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other Saudi proxies.

Russian Concerns

Earlier this week, Russia’s foreign ministry expressed “deep concern” over the “lack of coordination between Ankara and Damascus” with respect to Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria.

The statement may have been designed to play a dual role. On the one hand, the Russians are reaffirming their support for the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. But at the same time, Moscow is opening up the possibility of employing a final military solution in Aleppo as a counterbalance to any potential US-Turkish conquest in Raqqa.

Moscow, Damascus and Ankara all appear to agree on the need to avoid such a scenario, at least for the time being, as it would undoubtedly lead to the de-facto partitioning of Syria, creating a weak central government with powerful regional authorities.

Source: al-Ahed News

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