Syrian rebels say they have broken a weeks-long siege in Aleppo in northern Syria. Such a breakthrough would represent both a symbolic and a strategic victory against the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and their backers — Iran and Russia.
The Assad regime denies that there has been a breakthrough. However, video and photos uploaded by rebels and opposition activists suggest that the rebels have at least temporarily broken through the siege. Regime and Hezbollah forces appear to have taken a battering.
Aleppo was Syria’s economic hub before the war. Since 2012, it has been divided between regime forces and opposition fighters. It is now the rebels’ last urban stronghold.
The siege, supported by the same Russia air power that turned the tide in the North in favor of Assad, was designed to take away that stronghold. Thus, the importance of this fight is hard to overstate.
As always when one discusses Syrian rebels, the question is which rebels — in other words what group or groups are we talking about?
In this case, we’re talking about a coalition. The coalition is led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a jihadi group, but also includes the Free Syrian Army.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is better known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. Nusra’s leader recently dissolved the group to create Fatah al-Sham and has called for unity among opposition forces. As I understand it, unity has been achieved, at least for now.
Hezbollah seems to have had a tough go of it in Syria. Open warfare may not be its specialty, especially when confronted by suicide bomb attackers, a specialty of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham/Nusra. Even with all of Iran’s support, it is Russia air power that has made the difference.
Syria is turning into something of a black hole for Iran. I heard today (but can’t confirm) that the mullahs have invested $11 billion in that fight, with no end in sight.
Fortunately for Iran, there need not be an end in sight given the vast sums of money the U.S. has made available to it. Without that money, it’s doubtful that Assad could prevent the splintering of Syria. Ultimately, he may not be able to prevent it anyway, but he is better able to keep fighting in areas like Aleppo with massive Iranian funding made possible (as a practical matter) by the Obama administration.
President Obama may well believe, as Donald Trump seems to, that the U.S. is better off if Assad can defeat the rebels. That’s a defensible position, given the jihadi orientation of the rebels.
But the better view, I think, is that rebel victories in the North are desirable. First, they probably increase the likelihood of a settlement which would end the bloodshed (settlement means partition). Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have shown no desire to negotiate a true settlement while they are on top.
Second, a settlement that partitioned Syria would probably hasten the demise of ISIS in Syria. Assad is the raison d’etre for ISIS in the parts of Syria it controls. It’s doubtful that ISIS would be viable in a post-Assad-dominated Syria.
Third, Sunni success in Syria represents a major blow to Iran, our major state enemy in the world. Iran has been ascending for years. It’s time to reverse this.
Rebel success in Aleppo is not assured. With so much riding, a major counter-offensive seems likely.