ALEPPO, Syria — Away from the Geneva peace talks and the give and take between the stakeholders of the Syrian crisis, Aleppo, the country's commercial hub, is witnessing the most crucial turning point at the national level since the outbreak of the revolution on March 15, 2011.
Feb. 1 was the zero hour chosen by the regime forces and their allies to launch a large-scale offensive against rebel-controlled areas in the northern Aleppo countryside. The entire city of Aleppo was shaken by the thunderous sound of artillery targeting the villages of the northern countryside, while Russian fighter jets filled the airspace.
These battles are unlike any others. They are the fiercest and bloodiest yet, for regime forces are attacking rebels at the heart of their areas of control, spurring them into all-out defense.
The northern countryside of Aleppo is a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army, having served as a starting point for the FSA to enter the city in July 2012. However, the map has become extremely intricate with four major players sharing control: the opposition made up mainly of the FSA, the regime and its allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State.
Three days into the offensive, the Syrian army, with the land support of Iran-affiliated militias — such as the Iraqi Hezbollah al-Nujaba movement and Lebanese Hezbollah — were able to reach the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubl and al-Zahraa, from which they could seize other villages such as Duwayr al-Zaytun, Tal Jabin, Hardatnin and Muarrasat al-Khan.
Shareef Halabi, a military reporter in the FSA, told Al-Monitor, "It was the fiercest battles I have ever seen in my life." Halabi went to the city of Aleppo — where Al-Monitor met him — after one of his comrades was wounded in the battles raging in Ratyan in the northern Aleppo countryside.
Following these bloody clashes, the regime forces advanced and took control of Ratyan and Mayer on Feb. 5. Halabi described the ongoing battles: "It was raining missiles and shells everywhere. … Iranian militias are trying to advance at any cost."
The importance of this advance lies in the fact that rebel forces have lost a strategic passage linking the northern Aleppo countryside with the rest of their zones of control. As a result, FSA fighters in the northern countryside are now isolated and surrounded by IS in the east, the regime forces and their allies in the south and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the west.
Rebel forces had long held that strategic passage between the two villages of Tal Jabin and Muarrasat al-Khan. In addition to being a military supply route, the passage allowed commercial and aid trucks to enter Aleppo through the Bab al-Salam checkpoint on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The assault brings to mind the large offensive by regime forces in the northern Aleppo countryside in February 2014. Back then, the attacking forces suffered great losses, including 300 casualties and 50 prisoners.
The question is: Why is the regime able to advance now when it lost before? Halabi answered, "Of course, the Russian aerial intervention, which started four months ago, played a major role in tipping the scales. Also, Iran sent all its affiliated militias to take part in this battle." He added, "The regime was only responsible for the initial artillery bombing, while Iran-affiliated militias led the land invasion with the help of Russian air forces."
Today, the Syrian opposition is facing its greatest challenges to date, on both the political and the military level. The timing of the Aleppo offensive, in parallel with the Geneva III peace talks, is no coincidence, as Aleppo is the major stronghold of the moderate opposition, the one accepted in the political negotiations.
Russian fighter jets never leave Aleppo's airspace, as Russia is backing the regime's land offensive in the northern Aleppo countryside. Russia is trying to get rid of the moderate opposition that represents President Bashar al-Assad regime's political opponent, or at least pressure it into offering more concessions.
The opposition made a number of demands for joining the talks with the regime, such as lifting the siege on blockaded cities and stopping the use of heavy weapons and missiles, to which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded Feb. 3 by asserting that Russia will not halt its airstrikes in Syria until "armed groups" are defeated.
These events led the UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to announce Feb. 3 the suspension of the Geneva peace talks. His announcement came on the same day the regime forces were able to split the northern countryside from the city of Aleppo and cut the rebels' supply lines.