In reaching the Safira defense factories in northwestern Syria, Syrian regime forces have not only broken the rebel encirclement of Aleppo but have also enabled loyalist forces to better secure one of the country's most threatened chemical weapons sites.
The battle for Aleppo figures prominently in the Syrian civil war. Beyond the vicious attrition suffered in urban fighting within the city, both regime and rebel forces have long sought to gain an advantage in the battle by securing and severing supply lines to the city.
The rebels had completely isolated the bulk of regime forces in Aleppo province on Aug. 26, when they seized the important town of Khanasser, located on the secondary road from Hama to Aleppo. With the main M4/M5 road already cut by rebel forces, the secondary road through Khanasser was the sole remaining logistical lifeline for regime forces in the province. The Syrian air force could still deliver supplies by air, but the level of supplies needed could be delivered only by land.
Bolstered by their success after their capture of Khanasser, the rebels pressed north toward Aleppo city in an offensive dubbed "The Panting Chargers." Already facing considerable pressure from the north and west, the regime forces and their position in Aleppo were further challenged by the new rebel offensive. However, the rebels' northern push from Khanasser enabled a regime relief column from Salamiyeh to make significant progress toward the Safira defense plants, from which the roads to Aleppo city were still open. (It's worth noting that rebel infighting complicated rebel efforts in Aleppo.)
On Oct. 3, the regime offensive successfully retook Khanasser and continued toward the Safira defense plants. Despite suffering considerable casualties from improvised explosive devices and anti-tank guided missile attacks, the loyalist forces, backed by mobile artillery and air support, broke through to the defense plants on Oct. 7, thus breaking the rebel encirclement of Aleppo.
Though rebel forces can cut the road to Aleppo again, the breakthrough to Safira is already a considerable victory for the regime. Not only can the regime forces in the critical northern city now be resupplied over land, but the regime has also managed to reach one of the most important chemical weapons sites — and certainly the most threatened site — in Syria. This development will be welcomed even by the United States, whose opposition to the al Assad regime is currently outweighed by its concerns for securing the chemical weapons in Syria.
The effort to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons recently began, to the praise of some Western countries, including the United States. However, the effort is still full of potential pitfalls, including the possibility of chemical weapons inspectors being caught in the crossfire between rebel and regime forces. It is not clear if the regime will be able to adequately secure the Safira defense plants and the roads leading to them, but if they do, one of the greatest constraints to the chemical weapons cleanup will have been removed, assuming that the al Assad regime continues to cooperate with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in dismantling its chemical weapons program.