The last month in Syria has seen reduced violence due to a truce negotiated by Russia, the US, the Assad regime and moderate elements of the opposition. Over the course of the last week however this ceasefire has collapsed and northern Syria has been plunged back into full-scale fighting.
While both sides can blame each other for breaking the ceasefire, and indeed both have strong cases, the primary event which led to the current escalation in violence was led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. After weeks of clashes with more moderate elements of the Syrian Opposition, the extremist group managed to end the infighting and lead a new attack on regime positions.
The attack occurred in southern Aleppo province and resulted in the capture of the town of Al-Eis and a strategic nearby hill. Following the capture of the town, pro-Government forces, many of them Shia fighters from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, launched several counter attacks, none of which were successful to date. Nonetheless, further attempts by Al Nusra and its allies to secure towns north of Al-Eis themselves also failed.
One interesting thing to note about this most recent fighting is that the rebel groups have managed to significantly re-arm and re-equip, with new uniforms, helmets and Grad missiles. While the supply of TOW missiles from the US appears to have dried up somewhat, other backers appear to have given Ahrar al-Sham a number of MANPADS, allowing them to shoot down a regime jet last week.
Fighting on the ground is back in full force, however the two major foreign backers of the ceasefire agreement have themselves shown they are none too happy about this situation. The US for its part has engaged in a number of air strikes against key leaders of Al Nusra, something which the country only rarely does, preferring instead to target ISIS. Whether these were high-value targets of opportunity or an attempt to “send a message” to Al Nusra is unclear, however their role in breaching the ceasefire likely played a part in the US decision to strike.
Russia as well has not been pleased with the actions of its major patron in the conflict: the Assad regime. Tellingly, during the fighting around Al-Eis, the Russian air force did not play a major role especially when compared to the high-level of support given to loyalist operations to retake Palmyra from ISIS. Then yesterday, Russia publically denied plans announced by the Syrian PM of an imminent attack on rebel-held areas of Aleppo City with Russian support, demonstrating strategic fractures betweens the leaderships of both countries.
But while the US and Russia take a step back other region players are making their own moves. Iran and Hezbollah have intensified their support for the Syrian regime, sending their own weapons and troops to the front line in ever-larger numbers. Meanwhile Turkey and the Gulf States have continued to arm rebel groups (particularly Ahrar al-Sham) in their fight, not just against loyalist forces, but also against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
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