A force of 20,000 Syrian troops have encircled Aleppo and are preparing to retake it from Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. Assad's army has softened their targets with barrages of artillery, aerial bombardment, and strafing by helicopter gunships for weeks.
The men of the FSA who volunteered for this mission are heroic and undoubtedly some of the best and bravest serving in the revolution. Many of them went to Aleppo knowing that they would probably not return. Others believed they might actually win and hold the city long enough to turn the war in their favor.
But taking the fight to the streets of Damascus and Aleppo over the past few weeks wasn't about holding territory. It was a demonstration of FSA capabilities, a display intended for both a Syrian and international audience and designed to achieve several broader goals.
This brilliant strategy has almost run its course. Aleppo will fall to Assad's forces, and then two questions must be asked: what was the FSA's reason for attacking Aleppo now, and what happens next?
Why Aleppo, and why now? The attack on Damascus has served as a diversionary tactic, whether it was intended to be (very likely) or not. Striking Damascus and harassing the regime with hit and run tactics forced Assad to deploy his best and most loyal units in the capital to retain control, distracting him from the rebel advance on Aleppo. Damascus is important, but Aleppo is the real prize at this stage of the war. The FSA hoped to achieve several goals beyond territorial gains:
- Encourage defections from the army The FSA believes that morale among Assad's forces is so low that many soldiers are just waiting for an opportunity to ditch their uniforms and switch sides (this may be true, but many will settle for helping the FSA by intentionally missing their targets rather than risk the lives of their families by actually defecting). The Damascus distraction forced Assad to deploy his elite units in the capital and send his (largely Sunni) regular army units to retake Aleppo. These units are the ones most likely to defect; Assad has been forced to deliver some defectors right into the hands of the FSA.
- Encourage the regime leadership to defect Even more important than soldiers defecting are the defections of regime figures and military commanders. The families of many high-ranking officials live in Aleppo and the siege of the city has now given their families a legitimate cover for fleeing to Turkey. With their families now safe across the border these officials are free to defect without putting their families at risk of retribution by the regime.
- Increase international support When the Saudis, Qataris, and other supporters of the FSA see the smoke rising from Damascus and Aleppo, they reach for their checkbooks. The FSA will get more weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, and intel support from the outside as a result of these operations. Additionally, the civilian casualties that result from Assad's use of artillery and aircraft to bombard rebel held neighborhoods will further damage the regime's image abroad.
- Increase local support As Assad's artillery shells rain down on Aleppo neighborhoods, the average Syrian must be asking himself, why? It isn't a FSA round that just ripped a hole in his roof, it isn't FSA shrapnel that killed his neighbor. Those are Assad's weapons and Assad's carnage, waged simply because he wants to remain in power at any cost. Aleppo has not seen widespread protests against Assad in the past largely because Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad both favored the city. Many residents of Aleppo have benefited from the Assad regime and even those who don't actively support it aren't convinced that it should be overthrown. The FSA has dragged them all under the boot of the regime and forced the residents of Aleppo to choose sides. The FSA has gambled, hopefully correctly, that most will blame Assad for the destruction of their city.
- Increase economic pressure on the regime Damascus may be the political capital of Syria, but Aleppo is the economic capital. FSA operations in Aleppo have struck the regime where it is weakest - the treasury. Sanctions combined with the disruption of commerce due to the war have already made it more difficult for Assad to keep his large military supplied and paid, and the best hope the rebels now have is to hurt the regime's finances enough that war becomes unaffordable. The economic collapse of the regime will lead to victory, and barring international intervention it is likely to be the only way the regime may fall in the next several months.
- Discourage Russia and China from supporting Assad If the rebels could take and defend Aleppo against recapture it would signal to Russia and China that the regime was destined to fail and that there is no point in attracting international condemnation by continuing to support Assad's lost cause.
- Make Aleppo the "Benghazi of Syria" This was the ultimate goal of the Aleppo campaign, however impossible it was to achieve at this time. Capturing Aleppo would allow for the creation of a secure zone of control by the FSA to facilitate supplies and logistics from Turkey. Having a base of operations in Benghazi was essential during the Libyan revolution and allowed command and control from within the country instead of outside it (the Syrian revolution leadership is currently based across the border in Turkey). Running the revolution from Aleppo would encourage more international aid and more defections from the regime, and foster greater unity among the rebels who currently view their leaders as detached from events on the ground. Unfortunately, this strategy was fraught with difficulty because while virtually everyone in Benghazi supported the Libyan revolution, Aleppo is full of Assad loyalists. Benghazi was the heart of the revolution in Libya; Aleppo must be conquered and some of its residents forced to submit - hardly a comparable situation and not the best foundation for creating a secure zone.
The questionable loyalty of his Sunni units is part of the reason why Assad has chosen to bombard Aleppo with artillery and aircraft, despite the risk of turning the people of Aleppo against him. If the army is shelling Aleppo from kilometers away the soldiers can be controlled and kept from defecting. But the narrow streets and small unit tactics of the FSA will eventually draw Assad's army into Aleppo to fight house to house, and the FSA believes that Syrian soldiers will then be free to slip away and defect to the revolution.
Unfortunately, reports are that Assad has now caught on to the Damascus distraction and is sending elite units to join the assault on Aleppo.
If the FSA actually believed they had a chance of capturing and holding Aleppo, which despite boastful comments by fighters on the ground was unlikely a real motivator of this battle, then winning Aleppo would have also achieved two additional important goals:
What happens after Aleppo?
If Aleppo is the decisive battle, as the FSA, Assad, and many outside observers believe, then what comes next? The FSA will be driven out of Aleppo by the Syrian army and the press will headline it as a FSA defeat. But does that mean that the "decisive" victory belongs to the regime?
Not exactly. It is virtually impossible that, despite the advice and intelligence provided by the United States and other countries, the FSA severely underestimated their capabilities, foolishly believed that they could really capture Damascus and Aleppo and sent far too small a force to capture and hold territory.
The rebels have, by all indications so far, achieved larger strategic victories that were almost certainly the real goals behind the operations in Damascus and Aleppo, likely under the guidance of foreign military advisers. In the past few weeks Syrian soldiers and regime officials (including the Syrian Prime Minister) have defected, some residents of Aleppo and Damascus have turned on the regime after the destruction of their neighborhoods, more weapons from abroad have likely been sent to the FSA, and the Assad regime's finances have been nudged ever closer to catastrophe.
If all of this has been achieved then the Aleppo campaign can hardly be called a defeat. It is instead likely to become a template for future campaigns against the Assad regime in the coming months, a strategy to wear down the regime while drawing fire on the civilian population to turn people against Assad, rather than the fatal blow that capturing Damascus or Aleppo would be. And now that the rebels have tasted Aleppo and spilled their blood in those narrow streets, it is only a matter of time before they return.