Aleppo: government forces gain a major victory as a ceasefire brings fighting in the city to an end. What will come of it?
The morning of December 11th saw a massive eruption of fighting in eastern Aleppo, after a couple of days of calm and static frontlines. Throughout early December, opposition forces trapped within the city had seen a consistent trend of territory and supply losses as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied forces continually put pressure on rebel defenses1. Although fighting came to a tenacious halt on the 9th, the respite was brief; the morning of the 11th was punctuated by shelling and airstrikes as the SAA and Hezbollah forces launched a vicious attack on Sheikh Sa’eed neighborhood2.
Sheikh Sa’eed would not be the last neighborhood to fall to the SAA as fighting resumed. Throughout the 11th and the 12th, the vicious assault by Syrian government forces continued from the eastern and southern axes of the city, securing the neighborhoods of Karm al-Da’ada, al-Fardous, and al-Jaloum as demoralized, undersupplied rebel fighters struggled to fight back3. Nour al-Din al-Zenki forces yielded the al-Khalseh and Bustan al-Qasr neighborhoods to SAA fighters on the 12th, and by that evening nearly all the remaining rebel pocket was in the hands of government military forces after bloody battles that afternoon4. As the final pocket of resistance came under assault5, Turkish and Russian military officials met privately to discuss the plausibility of a ceasefire to give the remaining defenders a chance to evacuate to rebel territory farther west. On the morning of December 13th, this ultimatum was handed to opposition leaders of JFS within the city, and was accepted within hours6.
As celebrations ensued within government-held sectors of the city, reports of summary executions and looting flowed in from recently-captured neighborhoods as fighting died down and rebel fighters began to surrender7. The terms of the ceasefire were delineated by media outlets as news of the ultimatum came to light: rebel fighters and sympathizers who wished to remain with them were to withdraw from their positions and leave to Idlib Governorate under Syrian military guidance. Despite the reports of extrajudicial murders, at least 25,000 civilians and opposition soldiers accepted the ceasefire terms and began piling into buses to travel through the Ramouseh corridor to opposition checkpoints in the countryside.
Now the question must be asked: what will be the outcome of this event? Analysts, myself included, are already scrambling to answer a plethora of questions that the liberation of Aleppo has brought to the stage. The defeat in Aleppo is certainly a significant blow to the Islamist opposition spearheaded by Jabhat Fateh al-Shaam (JFS), and a major victory for the Syrian government. With the second largest urban center in Syria now under their control, the government has a unique advantage over the opposition, which is left with the territory of Idlib and scattered, isolated pockets of forces in Homs and Daraa. With this outcome clear, what actions will both sides take next?
From the government perspective, it will be necessary to secure the city of Aleppo and suburban areas and to ensure the future security of the city as civilians return to their homes and reconstruction begins. Given the prominence of Aleppo in Syria’s economy and the necessity of rebuilding infrastructure, holding and securing the city will be crucial for a chance at “victory” in the Syrian war. Not only must the SAA ward off potential attacks by opposition forces from the south and west, but any terror attacks targeting civilian or military infrastructure must be prevented. It is likely, therefore, that the SAA and allies will begin targeting nearby towns and strategic positions to push rebel forces back and begin advancing into Idlib proper. The rebel held towns of Hreitan, Anadan, and Kafr Hamra will come under attack, and it is possible that a new offensive towards Khan Touman and the high ground of al-Eis will be coming soon. Although an offensive into Idlib territory may be several months away, it is certain that Syrian general command elements are planning future operations in Idlib.
For the rebel forces, it will be necessary to unify their command structures and close ranks behind confident, intelligent leadership if they desire any chance of holding Idlib. Retaking Aleppo city is virtually out of the question for the JFS-led rebel coalition; with the city firmly secured by government forces and the citizenry placing their support behind Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, opposition leaders should consider securing their frontlines in southern and western Aleppo and, perhaps, putting pressure on other frontlines where government forces are weaker or undersupplied. An assault on SAA positions in Sahl al-Ghab or in northern Hama may yield significant gains for the rebels, and gaining territory in the Southern Aleppo countryside could put supply lines into the city at great risk. Avoiding disunity and strife between the disparate armed factions within Idlib is necessary; any form of internal conflict gives the SAA and their allies a chance at gaining great victories. Rebel leaders should build trust between armed factions and dismiss disloyal officers, and it may be necessary to absorb smaller groups into larger coalitions in order to avoid such strife.