Battle of Aleppo: A Detailed Analysis

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Original by Pyotr Skorobogatyy published by expert.ru; translation by J.Hawk

The local operation conducted by the Russian-Syrian coalition dramatically changed the theater of operations and caused all manner of geopolitical consequences. In one week, the strategic corridor north of Aleppo used for supplying militants from Turkey was closed. This success predictably caused the first round of Geneva negotiations to fail, and Turkey started to seriously consider a land operation in Syria. Washington expansionists are slapping together their own coalition. Western media launched another propaganda barrage of accusations that tens of thousands of Syrian civilians are fleeing Russian bombs. The situation is changing from day to day, but Russia continues to hold strategic initiative which prevents Arab and Western powers from coming up with a response.

 

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Appendicitis Cured
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) still lacks sufficient forces for a large-scale offensive on all fronts, Russian aviation also has its limits. Therefore Assad’s troops and militias are conducting holding actions on some sectors and attacking on others (Latakia and Daraa provinces). The intense preparations for the Aleppo operation lasted several weeks and resulted in a concentration of infantry and mechanized formations, including heavy multiple rocket launchers and our T-90 tanks with well-trained crews. But the location of the attack remained unknown, which worried the extremists. There were many available options. With hindsight, we can draw the conclusion that the united General Staff is continuing to implement the same concept of operation: the main task of the first phase of the operation is closing the border with Turkey and Jordan, which are sources of weapons and volunteers for the jihadists.
Расклад противоборствующих сил на севере Алеппо. Тёмно-коричневый – ИГ, жёлтый – курды, зелёный – джихадисты, светло-коричневый – сирийская армия. s1.jpg

Damascus struck in the north-west of Aleppo province, aiming for the Shia enclave containing cities of Nubol and Zahra which were surrounded for four years. This operation demonstrated the new SAA tactic: fortified positions are bypassed, instead armored penetrations are launched at identified weak spots after heavy artillery and air bombardment. Then the defensive position is attacked from the rear. Thus in a few days dozens of towns were liberated, and the SAA “wedge” was reinforced against counterattacks.
Assad’s offensive was supported by the so-called Afrin Kurds, after the Kurdish province capital Afrin. Judging by the level of coordination and active support the Kurds received from Russia’s VKS, this coalition was not an accident, and the whole operation was under the effective control of Russian staff officers. Kurdish forces took control over several towns and, in spite of its difficult relations with the SAA, organized joint patrols and checkpoints.
Here it’s only appropriate to complement the soldiers who have been planning operations in Syria for the last six months. Their work is invisible to an outside observer, but has decisive influence on battlefield success and level of casualties. It deals with issues like ensuring cooperation among the diverse Assad coalition (Lebanese, Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Kurdish militias and of course the SAA), among the Shia and the Sunni, various nationalities, among formations with varying degrees of training, equipment, and experience. Not to mention logistics, supply, and transport. The high level of professionalism displayed by Russian military advisers is evident.
By Tuesday, SAA formations, militia, and Kurdish forces were continuing to expand the corridor to the north and south, although the speed of advance slowed in order to fortify the already seized ground. Jihadi forces in Aleppo faced the danger of encirclement. It was also evident that coalition forces were advancing north, toward Turkish border. Here the Islamists are hurriedly fortifying their south-facing positions and receiving reinforcements from Syria. The ultimate goal is taking control over the border. This would be a major geopolitical event, which naturally is causing considerable nervousness in Ankara and among its allies.
The militants’ lifeline
What does that green corridor mean for the anti-Assad forces? First of all, it’s the transport corridor for weapons and cannon-fodder. Both coming in large batches. Yes, Idlib province shares a longer border with Turkey, therefore it’s too soon to speak of cauldron. But it’s also a matter of convenience of access, and the green corridor features highways, border crossings, well-established smuggling routes, and Aleppo itself which has been party lost to Damascus is a major logistical node for managing the flows of terrorist personnel and equipment. Idlib border is far less convenient, as the mountainous terrain prevents the transport of large amounts of supplies.But there was also another very important logistics route which looks like an appendix–it enabled trade between the jihadis and the Islamic State.

Схема торгового маршрута между Исламским государством и провинцией Идлиб под контролем джихадистов. Нефть в обмен на продовольствие. s2.jpg
The agreement made with Ankara’s participation specified that IS transports fuel to northern Syrian provinces, and receives food in return. This makes it literally a lifeline for both sides, since IS controls mainly desert with oil fields, and the pro-Turkish groups occupied farmland without oil deposits or refineries. Turkey naturally used the exchange to address the shortages of fuel and food in these parts of militant-occupied Syria. Journalists in jihadi-controlled parts of Idlib and Aleppo are now reporting of a difficult humanitarian situation. Food processing factories, transport, services, are shutting down due to lack of fuel for diesel generators. There is no light or electricity. Of course, they are failing to report that jihadi vehicles are also running on fumes.

 

Беженцы из Алеппо на турецко-сирийской границе tass_11405650_cr.jpg AP/TASS
The rapidly worsening social conditions in rebel provinces combined with SAA offensive genuinely caused some manifestations of a humanitarian crisis. There are signs of panic, mainly among the militants who have been exploiting Syria for a long time and enriching themselves off smuggling and have even started families, with the ultimate objective of using the amassed funds to eventually move to a more prosperous place, like Turkey or Europe. They are fleeing toward border with Turkey and are concentrating in specialized camps. Ankara claims there are 50 thousand refugees and demands that the world pay attention to the crisis supposedly caused by Russian bombs. Border crossings are closed, people are continuing to arrive, and the “humanitarian apocalypse” is receiving expanded coverage by Western media. This card will probably be played by Ankara and the West to pressure Russia-Syria coalition. And it might serve as a pretext for a land invasion.

Turkey prepares for war

On February 4, Russian MOD reported that Ankara has established a precedent of “unmonitored military activity”: Turkey refused to allow a Russian observation flight over its territory in accordance with Open Skies Treaty. A Russian aircraft was to overly Turkish border regions and NATO airbases. This incident which many media did not report is rumored to have stopped the Turkish land operation. Russian specialists have proposed a flight route which made it clear that the Russian General Staff knows very well what is being prepared, and that the Russian reaction will be extremely harsh.

A bit later, MOD’s official representative Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that, well, Syria provided photos showing Turkish self-propelled howitzers on the border itself: “There are more signs of preparations to invade Syria every day. We view Turkish actions as dangerous and criminal efforts to hide their criminal military activities on the border with Syria.”

Ankara views  creating a buffer zone on its southern border a priority, but the question is whether this zone will be on Turkish or Syrian soil. Once the hope to overthrow Assad was dispelled by Russia’s arrival, Ankara had to set up barrier detachments on the border to prevent the militants, who are fleeing Russian airstrikes, from entering Turkey. The buffer is also intended to keep the Kurdish offensive at bay and prevent it from linking up with the two large Kurdish enclaves in Syria’s north-west and north-east. Finally, this hypothetical zone of influence is needed to ensure the terrorists continue being supplied and trade with ISIS continues.

The Russian warning held up the Turkish advance, but did not resolve the overall problem: with every new town liberated in the “appendix” north of Aleppo, Ankara has less time to carry out an intervention on Syria’s territory. It’s one thing to take territory from militants, and something else to fight the SAA or the Kurds who are now actively supported by the US. The decision tree looks like this: is Turkey ready to act unilaterally with tacit Western support, or will it coordinate its actions with the pro-US coalition.
The first option could follow the Lebanese precedent: Israel has invaded southern Lebanon many times to fight Hezbollah with no UN authorizations and in spite of neighboring countries’ condemnations. Tel-Aviv operated quickly and decisively: it established a buffer and no-fly zones, introduced troops, and attacked the adversary with pin-point special operations raids and artillery bombardments. The outcome was always debatable, but Israel did not suffer fatal consequences. Ankara could use the artificially-created humanitarian crisis on the border as a pretext for a similar operation, which is already being explained as necessary to ensure EU’s stability. Erdogan is continuing to skilfully blackmail the infantile Euro-bureaucrats: “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria and bring up the refugees on buses. If you give us 3 billion euro over two years, there is no point in further discussions. Greece received 400 million during the crisis. We should use this money to create a security zone in Syria to solve all the refugee problems.” EU, incidentally, could decide to save themselves further trouble and close its eyes on Turkey’s military operation, just as it has ignored the slaughter in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces. Merkel made it clear that she’s prepared to play that game: “We have been not just astounded but shocked in the last few days by the suffering of tens of thousands of people due to bombings, including by the Russians.” Other NATO countries also are “shocked” by Russian airstrikes, and NATO GenSec Stoltenberg said that our operation in Syria is preventing the peaceful resolution of the conflict and is raising tensions in the region.

The Russian MOD answered: “We would like to remind Mr. Stoltenberg that it was not Russian airstrikes that caused the crisis in Syria, but the senseless NATO actions with plunged the Middle East into chaos. What is more, prior to Russian aircraft arriving in Syria, NATO has been pretending for three years to be destroying international terrorism. During all that time, nobody in the West and especially in Brussels so much as mentioned any negotiations over Syria. They were only making estimates when the country would finally fall apart, like Libya, where NATO countries were also busy establishing Western-style “democracy.” If anyone right now in Syria is worried about Russian aircraft, it’s the terrorists. We’d like to ask Mr. Stoltenberg why some NATO countries are worried about Russian aircraft in Syria.”

One should keep in mind that Turkey’s intervention does not at all mean a direct clash between Russian and Turkey. It would most likely be limited to yet another round of hybrid war, and it’s wholly possible Assad’s troops hardened by four years of war could deal with the Turkish soldiery on their own. “Any military intervention without Syrian government’s approval would be viewed as aggression. The invaders will be sent home in coffins,” was Damascus’ direct response.

There’s also another possiblity, namely that Turkey will not simply attempt to create a buffer zone, but break through the corridor toward Aleppo or Raqqa. But that option is only possible if it acts as part of a coalition.

Coalition problems

Most of the attempts to discuss the hypothetical war between Russian and Turkey fail to realistically assess all the Syrian conflict actors. Ankara is described as an insane asylum inmate who is ready to do something suicidal at any moment. The role of the United States, which clearly has lost the initiative in the region, tends to be diminished, and in general Obama’s policies are treated with disregard if not outright contempt. Underestimating the world’s strongest power could be costly, but fortunately it’s mostly the private citizens who do so, not specialists.

Sure, Washington was taken by surprise by the Russian operation in Syria and lost its tactical bridgeheads on Syria’s soil. But it still is dominant in Iraq where it appears willing to start a major operation against ISIS in order to move toward Raqqa. The start of the operation is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2016. Its feasibility is debatable. It’s not clear who will do the fighting: the Iraqi army which usually suffers defeats, the hypothetical US forces, whose deployment would also have to pass the pre-election test, or Saudi mercenaries which burns with desire to stick it to the Iranians on the Syrian front but which is still counting its own losses in Yemen. So here the “fresh” and relatively powerful Turkish military machine could turn out to be just what’s needed. To be sure, the US complicated its relations with Ankara by supporting the Kurds.

 План американского наступления подразумевает взятие Мосула, выход к сирийской границе и продвижение к столице ИГ в городе Ракка. 799479_900.jpg

Last Sunday, Erdogan practically issued Washington an ultimatum, asking it to make a choice of ally. Erdogan was outraged by the visit by US presidential representative Brett McGurk to Kobani, where he met with Kurdish militias: “How can we trust you after that? Who is your partner: I or these terrorists from Kobani?” Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu earlier showed US VP Biden pictures of the border, marked with locations used by Syrian Kurds to pass weapons to their Kurdish co-ethnics. Ankara finds any Washington cooperation with the Kurds unacceptable, it’s the main stumbling block.

It’s not clear how Washington will resolve this problem. On the one hand, Kurds are weaker militarily than the Turks, and no matter how many weapons US gives them, Kurdish infantry will find it difficult to fight major ground battles. The Kurds will not operate outside the areas they inhabit, especially without a guarantee of establishing their own state (which the White House is not about to give). On the other hand, the Kurds provide Washington with their only genuine toehold on Syrian soil, whose loss would mean leaving the Syrian theater of operations. Turkish pressure would force Kurds in Iraq and Syria to turn their weapons against their historic enemies–the Turks–thus leaving ISIS on US conscience or feeding them to the Russian-Syrian coalition. The war would become more complicated, and it’s wholly possible the US would find itself simply ejected from it.

The problem lies in that the US is forced to rein in Turkish ambitions, but does not have levers of influence sufficiently powerful to force Erdogan to do what it wants. “Turkey’s growing hostility toward the Kurdish fighters in Syria, who are America’s most effective allies against ISIS, is undermining the efforts to launch more effective operations against this extremist group,” US officials told the Wall Street Journal. Washington is also unhappy with the collapse of the Geneva talks and blames Ankara for it, implying it gave the militants it controls corresponding instructions. It does not mean that Washington agreed to Damascus’ conditions, but the whole peace process is another lever of influence which Turkey is knocking out of the West’s hands with its stubbornness.

Creating a pro-US coalition with Ankara’s participation and with the prospect of an upcoming land operation could temporarily accommodate Erdogan’s ambitions and make them compatible with the US foreign policy, to the point of outweighing the cost of having such an unstable ally. However, right now none of the Syrian conflict parties has sufficient military potential to go all out. The recent months have shown that initiative belongs to the side which has the best trained and equipped infantry. Today, it’s Damascus.

 

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  • Regula

    This is the best analysis i have read. Thank you for clarifying the entire conflict and military dilemmas of each side in the Syrian war. The US and NATO in principle don’t belong in Syria. The US and NATO should have freed Iraq of ISIS instead of making life difficult for the Syrian army and Russia. It would also have helped if the US at the same time could have helped the Iraqis to stop the endless car and suicide attacks on the Shiite population, on markets and playing fields etc. in Iraq. That would have done more to limit ISiS in Syria and would have helped to restore peace. Instead, the US is seizing every occasion to escalate the war, prevent progress by he Syrian army and its Russian ally to safeguard the US war on terror, which enriches the pundits in Washington. This isn’t even a war for US hegemony anymore – the suffering is so great and long, that the only emotion that anybody can come up with is hatred for both, ISiS et al. and their American sponsors. It will be difficult to have power over a world which hates America. Nevertheless, it is clear that the US , although it howls about civilian suffering and casualties in Aleppo, isn’t doing what it can to abate the war, or it would cooperate with the Syrian army to oust ISIS from all parts of Syria.