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Nov 11, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

3 mins read

In Syria, Aleppo's Fate Is Sealed

 In Syria, Aleppo's Fate Is Sealed
(GEORGES OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Despite months of preparation, the Syrian rebels' last-ditch effort to break the loyalist siege on Aleppo appears to be on the verge of failure. The offensive, which began Oct. 28, involved an unprecedented level of collaboration among an array of rebel groups with disparate ideologies. As the rebels came to the aid of their beleaguered peers in eastern Aleppo, they made quick progress — at least initially. After three days, however, the rebels' steady advance stalled, and by Nov. 6 they once again found themselves fending off a barrage of withering loyalist attacks. 

During their first attempt to beat back loyalist advances on Aleppo in early August, the rebels tried to approach the city through the more open areas leading up to the Ramousah artillery academy. This time, however, they are concentrating their efforts on pushing straight through the denser urban terrain of New Aleppo and the 3,000 Apartments District. The rebels have learned from previous battles in the 1,070 Apartments District that they are less vulnerable to airstrikes in the city's more built-up areas, especially because of the loyalists' proximity to them and the reduced ability of Russian and Syrian aircraft to use precision-guided munitions. Nevertheless, the rebels still face daunting odds: The loyalist troops in and around Aleppo boast superior numbers and firepower.

After making gains in Minyan and the Al Assad Suburbs over the first few days of the offensive, rebel progress ground to a halt amid a series of heavy counterattacks. Spearheaded by Hezbollah's elite Radwan regiment and backed by close Russian air support, loyalist troops overran several crucial rebel positions, including Mutah Hill, the 1,070 Apartments District and the area surrounding Hikmah School. The losses reversed the battle's momentum and put the rebels back on the defensive.

The rebels' inability to break the loyalist siege — despite committing considerable resources to the effort — bodes ill for their counterparts stuck in the city. Having succeeded in repelling the rebel relief force with their own counteroffensive, loyalist troops have since created a formidable buffer zone around Aleppo that will complicate any future rebel assaults. Now, the fall of Aleppo to loyalist troops no longer seems to be a matter of if, but when. And the answer depends entirely on how long rebel units under siege are willing to endure harsh conditions with few available resources.

There is, however, a silver lining for the rebels. As long as they have a sizable contingent inside the city, loyalist forces will continue to be tied down by efforts to hem it in. Those troops will not be able to participate in operations elsewhere, perhaps for many months, providing the rebels with much-needed space to regroup after a year of setbacks on the Syrian battlefield.

From here, the rebels' priority will be to ready themselves against future loyalist advances that could even include a direct assault on their core territory in Idlib province. Should the regional capital (also named Idlib) meet the same fate likely awaiting Aleppo, the rebels almost certainly would not recover. They would be driven from their remaining urban strongholds, relegated to a rural insurgency that would no longer pose an existential threat to the government in Damascus.

With an increasingly difficult struggle ahead, the rebels will need all the foreign assistance they can get. But the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president could signal a weakening in Washington's commitment to the rebel cause in the coming months. (Trump has opposed arming the Syrian rebels in several of his previous statements.) U.S. apathy will not stop Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Middle Eastern powers from maintaining or even intensifying their support for the rebels. But even so, the rebels — outnumbered by the vast collection of forces marshaled against them and outmatched by the loyalists' considerable firepower — appear all but certain to remain on the defensive in Syria in the months ahead.

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