On December 14, 2016, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani sent his congratulations to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad on the successful campaign to expel the foreign-backed rebels from city of Aleppo. Russia, which had provided critical military support for the campaign, also declared that all fighting in Aleppo had ceased with the government’s total victory. The retaking of the city was the culmination of years of military effort by the government in Damascus, and most likely signifies the “high-water mark” of the Syrian insurgency.
It was a remarkable reversal of fortune for the Syrian government, which until recently was faced with the possible loss of this major urban center. This would have been a crippling blow to the government; at the very least it would have meant a long, protracted struggle with a highly uncertain outcome. To see how the turning of the tide happened, we must first state a few preliminaries related to geography and economics. We will then sketch the main contours of the battle to see how it progressed, and how the final outcome was consummated. I have chosen not to clutter this account with lists of names of militias, units, and neighborhoods, unless doing so serves a specific purpose. What we seek here are general explanations and trends.
The Importance of Cities
The culture of the Near East has always been a culture of cities and urban centers. It has been this way for thousands of years; in this respect, geography is indeed destiny. Most of the major cities of the Fertile Crescent (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) have been there for thousands of years; and the cities are the centers of cultural life, population, and economy. From a military standpoint–and unlike Southeast Asia, Central or South America, or sub-Saharan Africa–there are no jungles in Syria where rebels can hide. Hiding out in urban centers and trying to occupy them takes the place of “melting into the jungle” elsewhere.
Aleppo itself is modern Syria’s commercial and industrial capital. For this reason alone it is of critical importance; it also is situated along the major north-south axis bisecting the country. He who controls Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs can project his power outward from this center to the remainder of Syria. Both the rebels and the Syrian government were aware of its importance, as well as all of the foreign powers who have intervened in the conflict in one way or another.
First Phase: Rebel Occupation
Aleppo at the beginning of the Syrian War had a population of about 2.5 million people. When demonstrations began against the government in 2011, Western powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel immediately saw their opportunity to force a regime change in Damascus. This tactic was one used reliably by the US and its allies in the past: in 2009, for example, Western intelligence agencies tried to take advantage of election protests in Iran to incite an all-out rebellion against the government (the so-called “Green Movement.”) The Iranian intelligence services were on to the game, however, and were able to smother the revolt with counter-intelligence work, military action, social media control, and arrests.
Similar tactics have been used elsewhere, such as Libya. The basic Western regime-change program proceeds in stages: (1) Incite a revolt against the government; (2) Hijack the movement by paying off key players or flying in mercenaries; (3) Pour huge amounts of money and materiel to help the “rebels”; (4) Have the international media portray the government as the aggressor for trying to defend itself against foreign subversion; and (5) Pump out a barrage of fake propaganda stories about government atrocities to sway public opinion for intervention. This, with minor local variations, is the boilerplate regime-change playbook.
Syria had been in the cross-hairs of Western powers for many decades; as an ally of Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, it stands in the way of US-Israeli attempts to dominate the region completely. For this reason it had been targeted for destruction as soon as Iraq was destroyed by the United States. Various pretexts were tried at first to replace the nationalist government in Damascus with one that would serve Western interests (e.g., the “Hariri Tribunal” charade in the early 2000s). None of these worked. The revolts of the Arab Spring presented the Western and regional players with just the opportunity they needed to make a forceful move for regime change.
Local accomplices were Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, who would provide the logistics, funding, and on-site support. Intelligence (especially electronic surveillance) was provided by Israel and US special forces teams in the vicinity. Turkey–perhaps the most committed local player–was a critical pipeline for infiltrating supplies, men, and weapons into Syria. This “Erdogan Trail” of infiltration (similar to the Vietnam War’s “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) was what kept the Aleppo rebels afloat so long. The job of the Western media was to put out a nonstop cascade of lies and distortions to sway public opinion for direct military intervention. Nothing could be left to chance.
In July 2012 rebel units moved into Aleppo. They attacked government installations, police stations, and other symbols of state power. They also focused on consolidating control of access points to the city outside the main urban center. These fighters (a mix of jihadists, foreign mercenaries, Syrian army deserters, and assorted malcontents) received logistical and intelligence support from Turkey and the nations already described above. Before long, most of eastern and southern Aleppo was in their hands. They cowed the local population through terror and intimidation into acquiescing in their presence. Rebel forces involved included the Free Syrian Army, Al Nusra Front, and Jabha Fatah As-Sham (basically Al Qaida).
During 2013 and 2014, the fighting in Aleppo see-sawed back and forth with both sides pounding each other to gain ground in or around the city. A ceasefire proposal was floated by the UN special envoy in 2014; under this proposal, the rebels would lay down their arms and the Syrian Army would help them leave. The rebels, however, rejected the proposal, preferring to fight on with the hope that foreign intervention (presumably from the US) would eventually help them take power.
Various offensives and counter-offensives took place all through 2015, but by the end of that year, most of southern Aleppo was in government hands. This was critical, since the M4 and M5 highways here were key government supply lines to its forces in the region. In this effort, the work of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon was critical. These men, professional fighters filled with loathing for the Salafist rebels due to their sectarian attacks on Christian and Shi’a civilians, had lost none of the fighting virtuosity they had displayed in 2006 in the war with Israel.
The Turning of the Tide
Russian intervention in 2015 decisively tipped the scales in favor of the government. It is possible that the government might have taken the city without Russian air power, but it would have taken much longer and proven far more costly in lives. Wars are won by infantry, not from the air, even in the modern era. When all was said and done, it was the work of the Syrian government’s infantry that won the battle: the Syrian Arab Army, Hezbollah, Iranian units, and possibly some Russian advisory units on the ground. To these men goes the credit for ultimate victory.
Russian air power pounded rebel concentrations in East Aleppo; the civilian population there may have been reduced to around 300,000 or so by the end of the year.
The rebels could do little more than try to trigger foreign intervention by staging propaganda outrages (e.g., lobbing mortars into West Aleppo) and using their American backers at the UN for public relations management. But none of this could alter the military balance on the ground. The rebels were slowly but surely ground down.
Turkey On The Sidelines
Turkey seemed strangely reluctant to intervene directly on behalf of its proxies in Syria and break the siege of Aleppo. It seems likely to this writer–although it cannot be proven at this time–that some sort of deal was worked out between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Erdogan. The rebels, to put it bluntly, may have been sold out as part of a larger Turkish-Russian accommodation. The Turkish president may even have been delivered a firm but private ultimatum by the Russian government. We do not know. What we do know is that the last few rebel offensives in and around Aleppo in 2016 failed miserably, petering out from lack of supplies and withering under severe air attacks.
The Propaganda War
Both sides made use of propaganda during the battle, but it was the rebels that had the support of the Western media, taking their cues (as always) from their governments. The information war was all over social media, with fake accounts (likely set up by Western intelligence agencies) generating false atrocity stories that tried to paint the government in a bad light. Many of the pro-Islamist propagandists were, incredibly, Western journalists so beholden to the US government line that they were unable–or unwilling–to take an independent line.
Especially pathetic were the “press conferences” of US figures so desperate to salvage some face-saving compromise out of the whole situation that they often resorted to pure fantasy in their pronouncements.
— Walid (@walid970721) December 14, 2016
— Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo) December 14, 2016
— Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo) December 13, 2016
The goals of the rebels were to terrorize the local population, create chaos, and show the world that the Syrian government could not hold the city. They had only to last long enough. Terror was applied by executing captured Syrian army soldiers and militiamen; by desecrating the towns and villages of Shiites, Christians, and Alawites; and by firing “hell cannons” into West Aleppo. These last mortar devices were gas cylinders crudely fitted with fins and fired into populated areas. The idea was to inflict damage, create casualties, and sow chaos.
On the government side, the use of Russian air power, as said above, was critical. One Syrian Army leader deserves mention here: Suhail Al-Hassan. His so-called “Tiger Forces” were featured widely in Syrian media and contributed significantly to the successful outcome in the Battle of Aleppo. Al-Hassan was placed in charge of Aleppo province in 2014, and he proceeded to attack the rebels with a ruthlessness and aggressiveness that earned him much praise. So-called “barrel bombs” were said to be his innovation.
Although widely criticized in the media, such weapons are indispensable in urban combat where insurgents are mixed with civilians. They are in fact nothing when compared with Israel’s and the United States’s use of cluster bombs (e.g., Beirut in the 1980s, Iraq in 1991, etc.), fuel-air explosives, and depleted uranium munitions. To win a war against insurgents, one must be prepared to use tactics that may appear to be unnecessarily brutal. And he produced results on the ground, where it mattered. In November 2015, Al Hassan broke the three-year rebel siege of Kweiris Airbase in Aleppo Province. In the city proper, the rebels had to be rooted out block by block, and house by house.
The government gradually isolated and ground down the last pockets of rebel-occupied East Aleppo by the beginning of December 2016. It was now only a matter of time. The foreign powers whose intervention had started and prolonged the war could do little more than bleat in helpless rage as their regime-change dreams ran up against the cold wall of reality.
The war is not yet over, although Bashar Al-Assad has ever reason to believe that he now has momentum on his side. It is not out of the question that the still-extant ISIS forces in eastern Syria will try to bisect the country and cut off Aleppo from Damascus. What the Syrian president must do now is not sit on his laurels. He must press the rebels relentlessly on every front until total victory is achieved.
The full history of the Syrian War cannot yet be written. When it finally finds a historian equal to the task, it is almost certain that the Battle of Aleppo will constitute one of the pivotal–if not the pivotal–engagements of the war. In its intensity, scope, and duration, it has no modern analogue; one must revisit the brutal urban combat actions of the Second World War to find adequate comparisons.
To read more about great events in recent history, see my Thirty-Seven.