Rebels in Syria face critical defeat around Aleppo

The Syrian regime managed a highly strategic advance over the last few days around north Aleppo, cutting off rebels from key supply lines. This advance, which also relieved the regime enclave of Nubbol and Zahraa, puts the rebels in a precarious position across northwest Syria, and may mark the beginning of the end of them as a coherent fighting force.

New ‘allies’

The success which pro-regime forces have seen in Syria in the last few weeks has largely been on the back of international support from both Iran and Russia. While previously the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the National Defense Force (NDF) suffered a critical lack of personnel, these ranks have now been filled with Shia militia fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan who are armed and trained by Iran. While these fighters are not (generally) professional soldiers, they are generally highly-motivated and well armed, when compared to Syrian NDF units.

On the other side of the coin, Russia now makes up for the regime’s lack of close air support, providing daily bombing missions using a large number of aircraft based out of a number of airbases in the country. Complementing this, there is evidence of a limited number of Russian ground troops operating in an advisory and fire support role within the country. Finally, Russia has also supplied the SAA with advanced new equipment including the T-90 tank, as well as the TOS-1 Buratino – a thermobaric multiple missile launcher.

Rebel territory split

The main consequence of this advance around Aleppo is that rebel-held territory has been split into two pieces in northern Syria. The larger piece contains the majority of Idlib province, as well as the bulk of the rebels’ fighting strength. This includes large amounts of land held by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. The smaller piece north of Aleppo city is hemmed-in: to the north by Turkey, to the west by the YPG/SDF in Afrin Canton, to the south by regime forces and to the east by ISIS. This puts it in an incredibly precarious position, likely to begin losing territory to all three groups.

As important as the loss of this territory is, what is of greater impact to the overall war is the rebels’ loss of their most important supply line to Turkey. Rebels had relied on the Azaz corridor to supply Aleppo with munitions and other warfighting materiel which itself is covertly supplied from Turkey. The loss of this route means that rebels within the Aleppo urban area will have to source their supplies from much further afield, hampering their ability to rapidly re-arm. In addition, further regime advances maybe eventually cut off eastern Aleppo from Idlib entirely, subjecting the remaining rebel pocket to siege-like conditions.

A Turkish response?

Following the cutting of rebel territory, there have been claims that Turkey is planning to intervene directly in the Syrian conflict. Such reports are driven by repeated assertions by Turkish government officials that they plan to establish a safe zone in northern Syria for civilians and (likely) favored rebel groups. Encroachment on such areas by regime forces would make such an operation politically more difficult, so Turkey would have to take rapid and decisive action in the coming weeks should they be committed to this safe zone plan.

Among the most serious of these claims was that made by the Russian Defense Ministry which stated today that it had seen evidence of “a growing number of signs of hidden preparation of the Turkish Armed Forces for active action in Syria”. Accompanying this were a number of satellite images which they claim showed a build-up of Turkish armed forces along certain areas of the Syrian border. While these images are far from conclusive, when combined with earlier evidence of Turkey clearing mines alone its Syrian boarder, they show at the very least that the country is keeping its options open with respect to military intervention. With this in mind the next few weeks should show if the Syrian conflict has reached a tuning point in favor of the regime, or if a new phase of international intervention is set to begin.