Last week, I posted about the Syrian regime’s siege of Aleppo and the dire position of the rebels. I then posted about the failure of the West to intervene in the Syrian Civil War two days later. But now, surprisingly quickly, the rebels have broken the siege and seem set to place regime-controlled Aleppo under a counter-siege. This has been a dramatic and amazingly quick turnaround for the rebels, though it is too soon to say whether they can maintain their momentum and consolidate their gains. If they can, it would be a major blow to the regime. But how have the rebels managed to pull off this upset, and what does it mean for the course of the Civil War?
The rebel counter attack was carried out mostly by forces outside the city itself, and spearheaded by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate). Other jihadist and Islamists groups were prominent in the breaking of the siege as well. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham changed its name and broke off its official links with al-Qaeda just a few weeks ago, vowing to work more closely with other opposition groups in Syria and seeming to desire to (slightly) moderate its image. Whatever your opinion of the group, the results have undoubtedly been impressive. Jabhat Fateh has united dozens of groups and thousands, perhaps even a few tens of thousands, of fighters into a coordinated offensive force and have lead the largest and most united rebel offensive so far in the conflict. It would seem that their stated desire to work better with the other rebel groups is sincere and proceeding apace. The various rebel groups involved in the offensive, seeing the fruits of cooperation, will most likely continue to integrate further. This alliance is not wholly Islamist, with numerous secular rebel groups involved though they are a minority.
The success of this rebel offensive, if it can be sustained and built upon, further reinforces the stalemate that is Syria. The past few months have seen regime forces meeting success on most every front in Syria and barring some catastrophic collapse of regime forces in Aleppo, the rebel offensive does little but turn the clock back. In the long-term however, the mere continuation of the current stalemate bodes ill for the regime. The regime is already scraping the bottom of the barrel to find more men and is largely demoralized and exhausted. If Russian air power is unable to change the long-term dynamics of the conflict, which the rebel offensive demonstrates is largely true, then the regime is left with few other options to end a war of attrition it cannot win. It is widely believed that the regime’s main backers, Russia and Iran, are unwilling (Russia particularly so) to prop Assad up indefinitely. With no end in sight for the conflict, the pressure is mounting on Russia and Iran to compromise and accept a Syria without Assad scenario.
The rebel offensive in Aleppo is likely to further boost the image of Islamist groups at the expense of Western-backed moderates. With hundreds of thousands starving and dying in the city, it was not the West that came to the rescue (as they did for the Kurds in Kobani) but the black flags of jihadists and hard-line Islamists. The Black Flag of jihad symbolizes a draconian and broadly unpopular form of Islam on the one hand, and freedom and salvation from a draconian and even more unpopular regime on the other. In Syria, hearts and minds are won on the battlefield and the more people a group rescues from the regime, the more supporters that group will have. The Islamists have had much more battlefield success than the moderate opposition as a result of their much greater resources (courtesy of backers in the Gulf Kingdoms) and much higher morale and resolve (largely owing to the confidence that a steady stream of weapons and food instills). The moderate opposition, still outgunned by both the regime and the Islamists, does not have the resources (except perhaps the Southern Front) to launch major offensives and hope to succeed. The failure of Western nations to strongly back moderate groups early has allowed jihadist and Islamist groups to present themselves (often rightly so) as the saviors and protectors of the Syrian people. That leads to a powerful narrative that is tough for moderate groups to counter without their own victories in the field.
In sum, the Syrian rebels, led by jihadists, have broken the regime’s stranglehold on Aleppo and have prolonged the stalemate in the conflict. The moderate opposition, while significant in the conflict in terms of numbers, lack the firepower to spearhead offensives of their own. This leaves them seen as impotent and incapable of delivering Syria from the deeply hated Assad regime. Hearts and minds are not won through losses, and “to the victor go the spoils”.