With major military operations already underway in Aleppo and more to come, the province is emerging as the focal point of the war in Syria. Of the ongoing battles in the region, the largest and most decisive is the fight between rebels and loyalists for the divided city of Aleppo. As yet another round of talks in Geneva loom on the horizon, the battle for the city is critical to both Syrian government forces and their rebel counterparts. Damascus hopes to cement its position and quell talks of a political transition through a decisive military victory in Aleppo. Meanwhile, the rebels are fighting for the survival of their cause. If the rebels lose Aleppo, any military victory against Damascus will become a distant dream, and their negotiating position in Geneva will be severely compromised.
According to Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi, Moscow and Damascus are planning a joint operation to fully take over the city. A stream of Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Pakistani, Lebanese and Afghan loyalist reinforcements heading to Aleppo province supports this claim. Even a pro-government Palestinian faction is participating in the battle, having launched attacks in the Handarat area just north of the city. Russia, however, has denied any plan to join in the operation, suggesting that the Syrian and Iranian governments may be primarily responsible for coordinating the Aleppo campaign.
Well aware of the loyalists' plans, rebel groups have been carrying out their own offensives in Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Free Syrian Army units and a host of other militant groups have focused on the province's southern region. The rebels initially succeeded, seizing the strategic high ground around Tel al-Eis. But the steady buildup of loyalist forces in the province, backed by substantial Russian air support, has foiled subsequent attempts by the rebels to advance.
Elsewhere in Aleppo
In the northern part of the province, different struggles are underway. Although Turkey and the United States agree on the need to drive the Islamic State out of the area, a disagreement over which forces to rely on in the fight continues to impede progress there. Ankara is concerned primarily with stopping the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which crossed the Euphrates River after capturing the Tishrin Dam and now hold positions near the Islamic State-controlled town of Manbij. The Turks maintain that the SDF, dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), should not be allowed to continue advancing to the west. Turkey fears that the Kurds could connect with Afrin canton in northern Aleppo, forging a contiguous YPG-controlled territory along the Turkish border. For its part, the United States has discouraged the SDF from advancing to prevent conflict between Ankara and the group.
So far, the Turkish threat and pressure from the United States has kept the SDF from advancing farther towards Manbij. But Turkey understands that unless it can find a different means to defeat the Islamic State, its opposition alone will not stop the YPG's advance to the west. In light of Russia's military actions in Syria, Turkey cannot invade the country itself. Instead, Ankara depends on a coalition of mostly Free Syrian Army units in the fight against the Islamic State near Manbij. Over the last few months, these rebel forces have received a steady supply of weapons and equipment that clearly indicates combined American and Turkish support. The U.S. Air Force has also flown increasingly close air support missions for the groups, while the Turks back them up with heavy artillery from within Turkey's borders.
With this ample support, the rebels have advanced eastward, launching offensives against the Islamic State. But even as the Turks and Americans fortify rebels in Azaz, progress remains shaky in northern Aleppo province. For example, after weeks of back-and-forth fighting near the Turkish border, U.S.- and Turkish-backed rebels made substantial advances during the week of April 4, from around the town of Dudiyan past the important border crossing of al-Rai. Then, in the last two days of fighting, the Islamic State brought significant reinforcements to northern Aleppo. The group then launched a withering offensive — supported by at least a dozen vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices — that threw the rebels back to their starting positions.
A New Council is Formed
The rebels' difficulties provide an opportunity for the SDF around Manbij to continue their advance. In what looks to be an attempt to allay Turkey's fears, the SDF has formed the Manbij Military Council, which consists of one Turkmen and five Arab units. Though allied with the Kurdish YPG, these non-Kurdish factions insist that they will spearhead the upcoming offensive against the Islamic State, with only limited support from the rest of the SDF. If they follow through, this plan could alleviate some of Turkey's concerns over the YPG's ambitions. Nonetheless, Ankara remains distrustful of the SDF as a whole and will not likely tolerate SDF advances far beyond Manbij.
As a result, a three-way race will continue among the SDF, the rebels in Azaz, and Syrian government forces to seize as much territory in northern Aleppo as possible before the others do. At the same time, the Islamic State will keep fighting to maintain its remaining supply lines in the area, its important population centers in Aleppo, and its symbolic position in Dabiq village.