For the past two months, the bloodiest phase of Syria’s civil war, government troops and rebel forces have been fighting for the city of Aleppo. It’s a question of critical turf: Aleppo is Syria’s largest and wealthiest city, the beating heart of the country’s economy and industry, and now it’s up for grabs. For the regime, losing Aleppo is the equivalent of losing New York.
But there are other reasons why what happens in Aleppo – the day-to-day street battles – can shape the course of the conflict. Here’s our breakdown around why.
Why does Aleppo matter?
Among other reasons, it matters because if the rebels can control Aleppo then they gain a critical chunk of territory in Northern Syria. That would conceivably create space for an alternative government inside of Syria. The rebels, a loose group of fighters collectively known as the Free Syrian Army, already control border posts at the nearby frontier with Turkey. They use them to bring in weapons and people, fly the rebel flag, and stamp passports. They consider it liberated territory, and winning Aleppo would boost it significantly.
On the regime side, the battle matters because for a year and a half of revolution, Assad relied on the stability of Aleppo and Damascus – Syria’s most important cities. They had remained relatively quiet, with some protests and battles along the way. That meant Assad could point to those cities and tell his base, ‘look, we still have a third of the country on our side.’
With Aleppo’s battle raging it changes the narrative of the struggle and moves the regime closer to a tipping point. Syria’s business class, capitalists who were sitting on the fence or still hoping for a return to stability, now have to change their calculations. Their companies and factories are dormant or destroyed. There’s no way to ignore it.
On the regional front, the Battle of Aleppo has meant a swelling refugee crisis. That puts more pressure on the world to act. In particular, it puts pressure on Turkey to become the tip of the spear in any intervention against the Assad regime.
What’s the state of play?
For now, it’s a bloody stalemate. The rebels don’t have enough weapons to dislodge the regime. The regime, even with its superior force, hasn’t been able to root out the rebels. The main frontline is in the southwest of Aleppo, in a neighborhood called Salah el Din, but battles break out new fronts are opened almost every day. There are skirmishes in many parts of the city, with government and rebel forces trading territory in fierce street battles with no clear victor in the larger war for the city.
As that dynamic churns on, attacks on civilian areas have spiked, with devastating loss of life. The biggest threats are the constant shelling, the regime’s aerial attacks, and what activists have described as barrel bombs, containers filled with oil and explosives. They’ve reportedly been dropped on civilian neighborhoods that lay behind rebel lines.
What does it say about what the Assad regime can and can’t do?
The Battle of Aleppo shows the inability of the regime to control its own territory. It can’t dislodge rebels from neighborhoods where they have popular support.
But it also shows the weaknesses of the rebels: they don’t have the weapons they need, their internal squabbles have made them less effective, and their excesses in war have led to severe human rights abuses. Rebels have been blamed for torture and executions, as well as looting and squatting in people’s homes. Because of those abuses, people now talk of the revolution losing its soul.
What is life like in Aleppo right now?
Horrible. In rebel areas, locals tell us there’s a shortage of food, no water, no electricity. The shelling is intense. Many people are leaving, others are too poor to go; they don’t have the estimated $200 for a taxi ride out of the city. And they aren’t sure they can make it to safety in a Turkish refugee camp; at times, Turkey has restricted the inflow of Syrian refugees, leaving thousands stranded at the border.
Conditions are a bit easier in regime-controlled areas, because there’s no shelling or airstrikes. Some people are still going out to restaurants, trying to have a normal life. But that space is getting smaller.
Why is the regime killing so many civilians?
It’s impossible to say exactly what Assad is thinking in targeting civilians, but analysts describe it as a strategy of negative incentives: creating a situation where the presence of rebel fighters puts civilian lives at risk. In principle, that creates pressure for the rebels to give up their terrain in order to save civilian lives. It’s also punishment to those areas hosting rebel fighters.
Whatever the reason, the result has been brazen and bloody episodes. Especially salient: the government attacks on break lines, such as the August 16 bombing of the Bab al Hadid bakery, which killed dozens of people.
For more in one great watch on the web, check out the PBS Frontline documentary from Aleppo, on The Battle for Syria.