Understanding the Battle for Aleppo

The battle for Aleppo has taken a staggering civilian toll, and it is likely to escalate because both regime and opposition forces see the city as crucial to a political endgame, says expert Lina Khatib. 

August 18, 2016

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Fighting in Aleppo, including air strikes by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian forces, has been described by the International Committee of the Red Cross as "one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times." Despite mounting pressure on the regime, the opposition, and their respective international backers for a humanitarian pause, the battle will likely escalate because "all the military entities involved in this fight are seeing in Aleppo a political endgame," says Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East program at the British think tank Chatham House. At the forefront of the fighting has been the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate until it claimed to have severed ties earlier this month. Now that it is moving to govern rebel-held areas, it is using the battle "to present itself as the leading rebel group in Syria," Khatib says.

A civilian removes the rubble in front of a damaged shop after an airstrike in the rebel held al-Saleheen neighborhood of Aleppo.
A civilian removes the rubble after an air strike in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

What stakes do the regime and opposition see in Aleppo?

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Victory would be a game changer. The opposition mostly controls the east, the regime the west, and ISIS has tried to gain pockets of control. None of those groups have managed to overwhelm the others.

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Aleppo is the second-largest governorate in Syria, and it is strategically important because of both its geographical location and its symbolic importance. Different rebel groups are in control of most of Idlib [governorate, which lies between Aleppo, to the west, and Latakia, to the east]. If they manage to link up Idlib with western Aleppo, it will give [the opposition] a clear supply route from Turkey and increase the likelihood of them squeezing the regime into the coastal areas of Latakia and Tartus, as well as Damascus, which would be a significant reduction in the area the regime controls.

Victory for the Assad regime in Aleppo would equally be a game changer. This would prevent the rebels from transporting supplies and enable the regime to advance toward Idlib and squeeze the opposition there. But because it’s so big and because so many parties are involved, I expect that we are not going to see anybody claim victory in Aleppo.

Who are the opposition forces at the forefront in Aleppo?

“Because Aleppo has been so critical to all parties in the conflict, the battle will likely escalate.”

Rebel groups, particularly the group that now has rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which used to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra, see a political opportunity. Under the umbrella of the Army of Conquest, Jaish al-Fatah, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham played a key role in the takeover of Idlib. After taking over Idlib, it sought to engage in governance initiatives to win the support of the local population. That was the early indicator that this group is not just a rebel group fighting against the regime, but a group with political ambitions that aims to replace the regime with its own system of governance.

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So far, most of the rebel groups have not been able to make significant gains against the regime. Right after [opposition forces] broke the siege [in early August] and entered Aleppo, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham reassured residents that it was there to protect them, take back Syria from the regime, restore order, and create a new political milieu in Syria. The battle of Aleppo is a golden opportunity for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to present itself as the leading rebel group in Syria.

What is its political program?

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham sees a governance system of an Islamic nature as the future of Syria. It follows an ideology similar to that of other armed Islamist groups in the conflict, including ISIS. The difference is that it is pragmatic in how it applies this ideology; it recognizes that its project cannot be viable without support from the local community.

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It accelerated [its governance project] because of the rise of ISIS. ISIS presented itself as the true follower of the path of Osama bin Laden and presented a concrete model of an Islamic state, as opposed to what al-Qaeda had always said, which is that [though] establishing an Islamic emirate was the ultimate goal, [it was one] for the future. Jabhat al-Nusra saw that applying this model in the present made ISIS the most powerful militant group in Syria for a while, and caused people from around the world to flock to Syria to join this so-called utopia. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra] is trying to replicate that, but it is not doing it hastily; it is implementing this strategy while recognizing that it will take a long time for this vision to be fully realized.

Why did it rebrand and claim to have severed ties with al-Qaeda?

Pressure on Nusra was increasing from both outside Syria and inside. A lot of its backers, like Qatar and Turkey, had never been comfortable with the link with al-Qaeda, and had been putting pressure on the group’s leaders to detach themselves from it.

Not everybody who has joined Jabhat al-Nusra follows al-Qaeda’s ideology. A lot of its local leaders joined because they wanted to be part of a group that was well-funded and performed successfully on the battlefield. These are the leaders that have links with Turkey and Qatar, who joined Nusra before it pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012.

One method used by these external backers to try to push Nusra toward pragmatism was to establish the Army of Conquest. That allowed these backers to send resources to Nusra while also forcing it to cooperate with groups not affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The pressure from inside Syria came because a lot of the rebel groups that had links with Nusra, whether because of family relations or because they were fighting in similar areas, were not comfortable taking their relationships with Nusra further because of its link with al-Qaeda. Nusra also recognized that the Syrian people would not accept being ruled by a group affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The pressure from the other rebel groups, the local population, and from the outside, coupled with Nusra’s own political ambitions, meant that Nusra had no choice but to declare its separation from al-Qaeda. This enabled it to be effective in the battle of Aleppo; it cooperated with other groups more openly and closely than it has ever done in the past.

That would seem to put the United States in a bind: either side with opposition forces with a fellow traveler of al-Qaeda at the forefront, or, de facto, side with the Assad regime.

Nusra has been open about this: they said the U.S.-led international coalition has been targeting them on the basis that they are al-Qaeda, so now that they are no longer al-Qaeda, if [the coalition continues] to target them, it shows that the endgame of the coalition is not to get rid of the Assad regime, but rather, its opponents.

“The battle of Aleppo is a golden opportunity for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to present itself as the leading rebel group in Syria.”

The United States indirectly enabled this situation, because although it had been vocal about the need for Assad to go, the strategy it followed led Assad to remain in power. The United States supported rebel groups without adequate attention to their behavior, particularly toward civilians. Western support came without conditions regarding good governance, and a number of leaders from the [opposition] Free Syrian Army become warlords. At the same time, the technical support was not even enough to allow them to win over areas from the regime or weaken the army or regime-activated militias.

Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have been able to take advantage of both the military weakness of the Free Syrian Army and the rising grievances of Syrian civilians regarding warlordism. Jabhat al-Nusra realized that governance is an important tool for gaining power.

We’re at a juncture in which the United States has been left with few choices. Through its regional allies, the United States should work toward the least-bad scenario, trying to push these groups to embrace moderation and empower the few remaining groups that are not ideological. This might push people [who belong to] groups like Nusra but do not adhere to Nusra’s ideology to see that they have a third option.

Russia signaled this week that it was nearing an agreement with the United States on joint action in Aleppo. What’s going on?

We are seeing discussions between the U.S. Department of Defense and Russian Ministry of Defense about engaging in joint activities against terrorist groups. It is in Russia’s interest for Nusra to be one of the groups targeted in any joint campaign. But [joint action against it] will only empower Nusra, because it will appeal to people saying that the United States from the beginning has sought to keep Assad in power. Any cooperation between Russia and the United States that targets Nusra will end up playing right into the hands of Nusra, because it will use the cooperation to disseminate a victimization narrative that will be very appealing to people.

What would such action, in tight urban quarters, do to the already bleak humanitarian situation?

“Because all the military entities involved in this fight are seeing in Aleppo a political endgame, nobody seems to be paying as much attention to the humanitarian catastrophe that will ensue.”

We have already seen that the international coalition’s campaign has hit civilian areas, and the Russian air campaign has often deliberately hit civilian areas. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire and been used as a tool by the regime to weaken its opponents. This is what we have seen the regime try to do in Aleppo, by attempting to impose a siege on the east, just like it had done in Homs and Madaya. [Editor’s note: The Homs siege ended with a regime victory in May 2014 as rebel forces evacuated the city. Madaya remains under siege, and no aid convoys have been allowed through in 110 days, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said.]

At the moment, an area in the east with around 300,000 people is mostly under the control of rebel groups, and an area in the west is mostly under the control of the regime. Because Aleppo has been so critical to all parties in the conflict, the battles will likely escalate. We have already seen Russia start using Iranian bases to attack in Syria, partly as a result of the gains made by Nusra in Aleppo and [opposition forces] breaking the siege.

The humanitarian situation in Aleppo can only get worse. Because all the military entities involved in this fight are seeing in Aleppo a political endgame, nobody seems to be paying as much attention to the humanitarian catastrophe that will ensue as they try to weaken their opponents. A reduction in violence so that aid can flow for a few hours every day, which the Russians talked about, though it was never even enforced, is not going to be enough, especially as hospitals are being targeted by Russia and the regime.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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