Embattled Aleppo, a Microcosm of Syria
05 May 2016
The dynamics of the fighting that has raged in the Aleppo suburbs for weeks could easily replicate elsewhere.
On 24 April, Aleppo Conquest, a joint operations room of armed factions in the Syrian city, released a statement giving the international community 24 hours to pressure the Assad regime to stop strikes on civilians. If not, the factions would dissolve the 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria, which went into effect in February.
Aleppo's suburbs have been a battleground since the beginning of April. President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been fighting different Islamist militias while other groups battle each other. At first, the violence appeared to be internal clashes between opposition groups included in the 'cessation of hostilities' agreement with factions that were excluded from it. Chief among the latter are jihadi groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.
Aleppo is a key strategic city near the border with Turkey, and rebels sought to seize control of neighbourhoods and villages in its northern and western suburbs. The Islamic Front, for instance, reportedly tried to capture villages in the north and northwest from ISIS. Islamic Front and other factions had also reportedly retaken strategic villages like al-Rai and Hiwar Kalas in northern Aleppo. However, ISIS managed to retake these villages, which are seen as a vital route for the group's fighters to get to Turkey.
Aleppo escalated from clashes to military confrontation.
However, the situation has escalated from intra-faction clashes to military confrontation. The Islamist militias targeted areas under the regime's control, and the government retaliated with airstrikes. According to the latest reports, some 300 civilians have been killed in the last two weeks of hostilities. Strikes on al-Quds hospital in a rebel-controlled part of Aleppo killed the last remaining paediatrician in the area.
These clashes have unfolded with consequences for peace efforts. The opposition bowed out of negotiations in Geneva, which resumed on 13 April, in protest at the what it described as continuous strikes and violations of the truce by the regime. They claimed Assad's forces targeted hospitals and blocked the passage of humanitarian aid to besieged areas like East Ghouta, Madaya, and Daraya in the Damascus suburbs. Despite that, Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy on Syria, has continued efforts to salvage the truce, meeting with regional players to try to solve the crisis. On Saturday, Russia and the US agreed to reinforce the truce in Damascus and Latakia. On Wednesday, they agreed to extend it to Aleppo.
The situation on the ground is so opaque that Syrians both for and against the regime have been circulating a hashtag calling to "Save Aleppo," both sides questioning who is really to blame. But beyond the immediate risks for the peace process, Aleppo is a microcosm of what is happening in Syria as a whole. The dynamics of the fighting there could easily replicate elsewhere. Most of the country's Islamist armed factions are included in the 27 February truce agreement, as are Kurdish militias such as the YPG. Those included are represented in the Geneva talks. But the factions that are not included are still battling in places like Aleppo.
The stakeholders in Syrian peace have different priorities.
Hence, while the political solution is being prepared in Switzerland, these armed groups seem to be readying for the next battle on the ground in Syria. In East Ghouta last week, the latest clashes among armed groups Jaish al-Islam, Jaish al-Fustat, and the Failaq al-Rahman brigade escalated to all-out fighting as the Assad regime got involved. They are looking to change the facts on the ground and gain leverage for future battles.
When it comes to these threats, the stakeholders in Geneva have different priorities. While the US is keen to fight ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, other groups like Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham want to fight Assad, Russia and the Iranian militias. Russia, meanwhile, looks at certain Islamist groups from the "moderate" armed opposition as primary enemy to eradicate, just like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. On the other hand, Turkey's first priority is to fight the Kurdish YPG, with ISIS second in line.
As long as the regional players have different sets of objectives, groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra will remain spoilers who endanger the truce. Further, we will see the situation in Aleppo recurring elsewhere. Armed Islamist militias, which are not included in the 'cessation of hostilities,' will attack other armed groups to gain ground, creating instability and sabotaging peace efforts.