Aleppo is important for several reasons. The largest city in Syria, Aleppo is culturally and historically significant because of its position on the Silk Road connecting Asia, Mesopotamia and Europe. The city is also a major economic hub that serves as Syria's commercial capital. Moreover, the wider Aleppo province is a major agricultural center that contributes a substantial portion of the country's food supply. Unsurprisingly, the rebels' steady encroachment on Aleppo has been one of the Syrian government's biggest concerns.
Until recently, most of the city's business elite, largely composed of members of the Sunni merchant class, did not openly espouse anti-government sentiment. However, civil strife has left them suffering economically over the past few months. After several rebel victories in the province, many Aleppo residents have become more vocal in their opposition of al Assad. For a rebel movement that mostly employs guerrilla tactics, support from a sympathetic local population is critical.
Rebels presently are erecting barricades and establishing defensive positions. The few armored vehicles they have are camouflaged and have been placed at critical intersections. While it is clear that the rebels intend to fiercely resist any Syrian offensive, they also understand that they must maintain an avenue of retreat if the battle turns against them. As an insurgent force, the rebels have benefited greatly from their ability to withdraw from battle and strike at other regime targets. Until recently, such tactics have forced the regime to spread its forces across the country.
But the Syrian military simply is not large enough to respond to every threat it faces simultaneously, forcing it to redeploy frequently. That it has been forced to transport its personnel around the country frequently only fatigues soldiers, burns fuel, creates maintenance problems for equipment and creates ambush opportunities for the rebels. The regime has also had to withdraw a number of its units from disparate areas across the country, including Zabadani, the Kurdish regions of northeastern Syria and even Idlib province.
In fact, the military withdrew its soldiers from Idlib province to reinforce the offensive on Aleppo. As these reinforcements drive toward Aleppo, rebels from Idlib province are trying to weaken and slow them down through ambushes and improvised explosive device attacks. Opposition activists and fighters reported that roughly one-third of a 23-vehicle convoy was destroyed in an ambush earlier this week as it left the Jebel az-Zawiya area for Aleppo.
With the departure of many military personnel, rebel forces in Idlib province are free to apply more pressure on regime-occupied Idlib city. More important, the withdrawal increases the likelihood that Aleppo could be cut off from the rest of the country. Indeed, if the rebels drive away the remaining regime troops from Maarat an-Numan and outlying areas, they will effectively cut off the M4/M5 highway to Aleppo city and Idlib city.
The rebels do not necessarily need the city as direly as the regime does. The rebels can afford to lose the fight for Aleppo, provided they are not completely encircled and eliminated. That is not to say the rebels do not value the city. With total control of Aleppo, the rebels could further erode the Syrian military's morale and encourage further defections. If they can repel the offensive, the rebels stand a good chance of winning the ongoing conflict in Syria.