Aleppo besieged: some quick thoughts

Syrian state media is claiming that government forces have now fully cut off the last road into and out of Aleppo, the Castello Road, tightening the government’s siege of rebel-held parts of the city. The most recent blow to the rebels’ chances of keeping that corridor open a sliver, or of widening it again, reportedly came at the hands of the US-allied Kurdish YPG–both rebel and regime sources are saying that the YPG took a rebel-held position in a youth housing complex along Castello Road, though the YPG is saying it did so in response to rebel attacks against them while the rebels are accusing the YPG of coordinating its attack with Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

A somewhat out of date (current as of July 8) map of the situation in Syria (Wikimedia | Gurnotron and Spesh531)

Aleppo was already almost fully besieged, but this just clamps the lid down more tightly and makes the situation for the ~250,000 civilians still in the city just a little more desperate. Needless to say this is about as bleak a situation as the Syrian rebels have faced since the conflict began back in 2011. The rebel-held parts of Aleppo have long stood as the rebellion’s “capital,” at least inasmuch as such a disconnected network of rebel factions can be said to have a single capital. The impact of its loss, and it hasn’t yet been lost but the writing is on the wall at this point, can’t be underestimated. I’m going to be briefly on Alhurra in a couple of hours to discuss these events, but let me make a few points here before I have to go do that:

  • I think it’s safe to say at this point that the United States has given up on any plans to see Assad removed from power at the end of this conflict. Obviously US policy has been trending in that direction for some time–in one sense it always was trending in that direction, given that Washington has always seen Assad remaining in power as only the second-worst outcome, but I think there has been a clear shift from the administration over the past couple of months. Where before I think the US was prepared to live with Assad’s survival if it had to, it is now moving to a place where it will accept Assad’s survival more or less willingly if it means an end to the war and a total refocusing on ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
  • The reason I say the above is because, instead of saying, well, anything about Aleppo, the administration is still doggedly pursuing some kind of working relationship with Russia to jointly strike the aforementioned ISIS and Nusra. Talks over that relationship reportedly still include the idea of grounding or limiting Assad’s air activity in some way, which is presumably still the reason why there hasn’t yet been a deal, but at this point grounding Assad’s air power is less about maintaining the rebels’ military position and more about limiting humanitarian devastation. The deal would also reportedly include a reopening of peace talks next month, but as previous rounds of peace talks have shown, the US and Russia have about as much ability to engineer peace talks in Syria as I have to engineer a working fusion reactor in my basement.
  • One possibly hopeful sign, which may be the fruits of the US-Russia talks that have already taken place, is that Assad and Russia are telling the people trapped in Aleppo, including rebels, that they will allow safe passage out of the city. Assad claims that rebels in the city have a three-month window in which they can stop fighting in exchange for amnesty. Who knows if he’ll honor those promises, but the fact that Russia has put its own credibility behind this offer may mean that they’re going to hold Assad to it. Washington and the UN are criticizing this offer as forced displacement, and they may have a case though this seems like a gray area to me. But even assuming you can call this forced displacement, the alternative, based on how Assad has conducted this war so far, is mass starvation and/or more barrel bombs. Forced displacement, though still a war crime, seems preferable to either of those.
  • Something I mentioned a few months ago, the fact that the US was beginning to encounter the problem of its Kurdish proxies fighting its Arab proxies, appears to have really come to a head. Although I’m not one of the regime-change-or-bust crowd, I do still believe that there are multiple points upon which the administration’s Syria policy can be criticized. Waffling on the Assad question is certainly one. Another is its frankly baffling disinterest in making sure that all of America’s proxies, by which I mean all the factions in Syria receiving US advice/weapons/training, would at the very least be made to agree not to fight each other. I have a hard time believing that the YPG wouldn’t have responded favorably had the US insisted that it lay off non-jihadi rebel units around Aleppo, so I can only assume that the US never insisted on it. Which, again, is totally baffling.
  • The loss of Aleppo, if that’s what this is (never say never, I guess), probably makes it likelier than ever that Nusra will announce the formation of some kind of emirate in Idlib and/or declare that it is no longer a branch of al-Qaeda and that it’s changing its name to something less tainted–Fluffy Cotton Candy Inc., or whatever. Nusra will probably never have a better opportunity to make itself the locus of the rebellion than right now, but it can’t do gain the broader support it’s seeking while still tethered to al-Qaeda.

UPDATE: These reports started coming in as I was writing this:

And, lo and behold, as I suspected, Ayman al-Zawahiri has already given his blessing to Nusra’s decision to break away.

Which means that Nusra isn’t really breaking away, but I digress.

While I have you here, there are two other stories in Syria that need to be mentioned. The first is from the other current hot spot in northern Syria, Manbij, where the US-backed (and YPG-dominated) Syrian Democratic Forces are still methodically advancing on ISIS’s last major outlet on to the Turkish border. As they’ve moved from village to village and ISIS position to ISIS position, the SDF have reportedly swept up terabytes worth of information that is now in US hands. A lot of it apparently has to do with how ISIS processes foreign applicants coming in via Turkey, so it will be interesting to see if any big revelations come out of it. The operation to fully push ISIS out of the city is ongoing.

Perhaps in retaliation for Manbij (this was what ISIS claimed, though these people clearly don’t need an excuse to get their killing on), an ISIS truck bomb struck a Kurdish military post in the city of Qamishli yesterday, killing at least 50 people. There were fears that the death toll would rise as more rubble was cleared.


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