Schrödinger’s Siege

I realize the old blog here has been light on what you might call “substantive” content today, but in my defense I probably got about 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep last night because our new puppy decided that our backyard was suddenly a scary place, and so instead of going to the bathroom every time we let her outside, she opted to run back into the house and then howl instead. So not only am I basically fried mentally, but I’ve also had to spend hours today slowly trying to coax the puppy back outside and back into the yard so she could get over whatever’s bothering her.

However, I have enough in the tank to talk about the weekend’s top story, which is that Syrian rebels have broken the government’s siege of eastern Aleppo and have been able to impose their own semi-siege of government-controlled western Aleppo. We can also talk about the weekend’s second-biggest story, which is that Syrian rebels have not broken the government’s siege of eastern Aleppo. In all fairness, the story that the siege has been broken is being reported by most/all international media, while the story that the government has been able to sustain the siege is only being reported by Russian government propaganda outlets like Sputnik, so weight those accounts accordingly. But to be even fairer, all the international media reporting that the siege has been broken appear to be relying on reports from the rebels. So, grains of salt all around.

What’s likely happening is that the rebel offensive in southern Aleppo has broken through the government’s siege (in fact there are videos floating around purporting to be of rebel fighters from outside Aleppo greeting rebel fighters inside Aleppo in areas that had been under government control) but hasn’t yet been able to secure its gains, so the siege is broken but the situation is still up for grabs. The New Yorker’s Ben Taub tweeted this map on Saturday that probably still holds today:

The areas in blue are areas where the rebels have “advanced,” per the map key, but not areas that the rebels “hold,” which are in green. Note, as Taub writes, there is now a chance that civilians in that western, government-held enclave of Aleppo will find themselves under siege; that red strip in the north probably isn’t much of a corridor for government relief trucks given that most of Assad’s strength lies south of the city.

Here’s another look, via Wikimedia (Kami888), current as of Saturday, that puts thoseblue areas in green (rebel control):


The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition is calling this turn of events “almost a miracle,” and he’s got a point. Let’s go with “surprising,” though. It’s very surprising that the rebels have been able to break through the government siege at all, let alone this quickly. It’s also surprising that the joint Russian-Syrian air power advantage hasn’t been decisive here, though not for lack of trying. On the ground, there is a report, courtesy of an alleged audio recording from a Hezbollah fighter outside Aleppo, that Syrian and Iranian forces have pulled back in the face of the rebel offensive and have left their Lebanese colleagues there to take the brunt of the attack. Now, again, momentum could shift back in Assad’s favor at any time. But in the space of a few days we’ve gone from a situation that really looked like endgame for rebel forces in Aleppo to one where Jaysh al-Fatah, the Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra Fatah al-Sham-led force that controls most of Idlib province, is now talking about undertaking an offensive to drive Assad’s forces out of western Aleppo. That’s remarkable (“surprising” doesn’t really cut it, actually).

It should be noted here that the Free Syrian Army has reportedly also played a large role in this Aleppo operation (which makes sense given that the units trapped in eastern Aleppo are/were mostly FSA), so this hasn’t just been a victory for the JaF. That’s either good, if you see the FSA as a moderating force inside the rebellion, or not so good, if you’re worried that the FSA has been thoroughly co-opted by more extreme factions like the JaF. The close coordination involved in this operation certainly suggests that the JaF and the FSA are on the same page almost completely right now, thanks in part, no doubt, to Nusra’s decision to (sort of) stop being Nusra.

Internationally, this new wrinkle in the Aleppo situation may play to America’s advantage, if it makes Assad and the Russians more amenable to striking some kind of deal to coordinate US-Russia airstrikes against ISIS and Nusra whomever. Lately it seems like Washington and Moscow are moving farther apart on this issue, however. At the UN today the UN Ambassador Samantha Power pushed for an end to…well, to either Aleppan siege, or both, while the Russians criticized the US for “politicizing” Syria’s humanitarian crisis by blaming Assad for most of it (let’s be clear; Assad is responsible for most of it, but to the extent that saying so might upset the diplomatic apple cart, maybe it’s best not to go there). The chances of a real US-Russia accord on how to handle the Syrian rebels were always remote, but with Assad and Russia back on their heels in Aleppo, now might be the time to try to implement a ceasefire–or it would be, if there were some indication that the rebels–all the rebels–would go along with it.



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