On 6 August 2016, in the span of just twenty-four hours, the city of Aleppo went from being under government siege to being under rebel siege, or perhaps a double siege—there was much confusion in the media.
Those who do not follow the Syrian conflict as obsessively as, perhaps, many readers of this site [i.e, the Syria in Crisis blog] would be excused for not understanding what happened. How could the situation be so dramatically transformed in such as short time, and who is actually laying siege to whom?
To clear up the confusion, let us try to unpack the situation with the help of a map.
Who Controls What?
The key point is that no one is laying siege to “Aleppo,” as such, although many different armed groups are laying siege to bits and pieces of it. The city of Aleppo is divided, and so is the wider Aleppo governorate.
Looking at this map, things become clearer. The eastern half of the city is controlled by Sunni Muslim rebels (not the Islamic State), while President Bashar al-Asad’s government controls the western half. There is also a small patch of Kurdish-ruled territory sandwiched between the two, which is generally on much better terms with the government than with the rebels.
The surrounding rural region is almost entirely under the control of anti-government factions, including Kurdish groups in the northwest, the self-declared Islamic State in the northeast, and a broad but Islamist-dominated coalition of Sunni Arab rebel factions in the west and southwest. The Syrian government controls a strip of territory that snakes down toward its core areas in Hama, Homs, and Damascus, with another arm stretched up around the city itself.
Is Rebel-Held Eastern Aleppo Under Siege?
In February of this year, government forces, backed by large numbers of Shi‘i Islamist volunteers from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, as well as by the Russian Air Force, managed to reach the two Shi‘i Muslim towns of Nubul and Zahra, which are located on the edge of Kurdish-controlled territory in the northeast. This cut off rebel-held Aleppo from the northern countryside and its main supply line to Turkey, leaving only the road through Idlib to the west.
A United Nations-backed truce declared by Russia and the United States in March 2016 did little to stop the fighting, and the government now went to work to seal this exit, too. The Syrian army focused its fire on the area closest to Aleppo city, where the eastern half of the city was supplied through the so-called Castello Road, named after a hilltop restaurant overlooking it. The Castello Road was bombed and shelled and aid convoys were blocked from entering, but rebels could still sneak cars in and out of the city as late as June and July. Around 17 July, however, the army took control of areas to the south and north of the road, allowing Asad’s troops to fire at anything moving and even venture onto the road itself.
This placed eastern Aleppo under siege, leading to an immediate spike in food and fuel prices. Humanitarian organizations warned of impending starvation among the population trapped there, estimated by the United Nations at 250,000 to 300,000. The army recently sent some aid deliveries into Aleppo and publicized a Russian-backed plan to evacuate civilians. But it is not at all clear that these efforts are sincere or, even if they are, sufficient to avert the looming humanitarian crisis. After years of shelling and bombardment of their neighborhoods, most people in Eastern Aleppo hate and distrust the government, and few seem to have sought to leave the city so far. Flush with confidence and clearly strengthened, the rulers in Damascus now seemed to think they were winning the war. But then things changed.
Is Government-Held Western Aleppo Under Siege?
Yes it is.
This is the result of an Islamist-led rebel counter-offensive further south, which began on 31 July. Sunni fighters from the Aleppo and Idlib countryside stormed western Aleppo, seizing key government strongholds such as the Artillery Academy and reaching the Ramouseh Roundabout on 6 August. By doing so, they seemingly opened a corridor into the eastern half of the city and, simultaneously, placed Western Aleppo under siege. The government’s only supply line from central Syria had run along the main road in Ramouseh, where the rebels are now operating.
Even though on the map it might look as though the government forces have an alternative northern route at their disposal, through the Castello area just west of the Kurdish enclave, the situation on the ground remains confused. Rebel artillery continues to pound government positions, and there does not seem to be a stable ground link between army positions north and south of the Castello Road. What’s more, since the Castello road networks run from east to west, there is no good road that the government could use to divert traffic in a north-south direction, at least not on the scale needed to service Western Aleppo, which has a population many times larger than that of Eastern Aleppo.
Meanwhile, Eastern Aleppo remains mostly cut off from the countryside, despite the rebel and media reports that the siege has been broken. Government forces continue to fight on the fringes of the passage in Ramouseh, boxing in rebel positions like a modern-day Scylla and Charybdis. Even though the rebels may be able to sneak a few civilian convoys through the gap and can probably infiltrate fighters more easily, there are few secure paved roads available for heavier vehicles. To establish reasonably safe communications between Eastern Aleppo and the opposition-held countryside, the rebels would have to widen their flanks and push back government mortar and artillery batteries quite some distance.
In other words, both sides of Aleppo have now managed to place each other under siege, hands around throats in a deadly embrace that neither wants to release.
What Happens Now
Conspiracy-minded followers of Syrian politics will of course see a hidden hand behind these events. The strangely symmetric double-siege of Aleppo emerged alongside high-level talks among the United States, Russia, and Turkey. Could it end up establishing a balance of terror that forces both sides to open their lines to civilian traffic and aid convoys?
Perhaps it could. But there is probably no need to over-analyze this. Russia, the United States, and Turkey—and Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others—have a pitiful track record of controlling their supposed proxies in Syria. They may think themselves masters of the Syrian chessboard, but over the past five years they’ve moved their pieces with all the finesse of bumbling drunks in boxing gloves. The idea of an inscrutable international mastermind guiding events from behind the scenes is appealing, not least in tragic and chaotic circumstances like these, but it seems more like an opiate for the analysts than a reality.
In the case of Aleppo, what is going on is quite simple. Asad has always wanted to put Eastern Aleppo under siege and the rebels have always wanted to put Western Aleppo under siege. Through some combination of luck, hard work, and foreign support, they have now finally succeeded. What will most likely happen next is also simple. Barring some unforeseen international deal or other development, the Syrian government will muster all of its forces, be provided with additional Russian and Iranian backing, and set off for a punishing counteroffensive in the Ramouseh region. Unless the rebels have more surprises up their sleeve, or foreign powers are truly committed to keeping Western Aleppo under siege, they will probably succeed, too—as always, at great human cost.
Still, it remains possible that nimble US-Russian diplomacy could reach into this swirling chaos and salvage some useful agreement. They will certainly try, and perhaps we should wish for them to succeed.
[This article was originally published on the Syria in Crisis blog of the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece.]