There's a lot riding on Aleppo. The battle for the Syrian city of enormous strategic and geographic importance will determine who holds political leverage in negotiations for the country's future.
Meanwhile, another battle is taking place that could significantly affect the fight for Aleppo. To the city's north, in the border town of Jarablus, Turkey is fighting its first direct battle in Syria against the Islamic State — though the objective of this military campaign is not to defeat IS as much as it is to prevent Kurdish militias from creating an autonomous area in Syria that could foster Kurdish separatism within Turkey itself.
The border battle at Jarablus is of great importance to the pro-regime coalition, which brings together the Syrian army, Iran and Hezbollah, with Russian aerial cover. The battle is being fought against a group of opposition factions including Jaish al-Fatah, led by Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra) and others, all said to be backed and supported by Turkey.
In this campaign, Turkey is enjoying a Russian-Iranian blind eye and minimal Syrian condemnation, as the objectives of this specific battle serve their agendas: solidifying the stance of the Syrian regime and ending the ambitions of Syrian Kurds for a state. Never mind that in the long run, a Turkish victory with the help of opposition fighters could have dire consequences for the battle in the center of Aleppo.
For the resistance axis, Aleppo is no ordinary battle. It is “a regional game-changer that will have implications on the future of the war,” a field commander told Al-Monitor. According to the source, who requested anonymity, if control of the city of Aleppo is regained completely, “the province will be next." The commander went on, "The battle seems to be over a passage, but this passage is as important as the whole province.”
The military leaders of the pro-regime axis have never minced words about the city's importance.
"The real, strategic and greatest battle is in Aleppo and the surrounding area,” Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said June 24, just days after his fighters along with the Syrian army and allied forces tightened the siege on opposition fighters inside Aleppo. A month later, Nasrallah said the troops' success in advancing the siege meant Saudi Arabia's “imperial ambitions have fallen apart in Aleppo."
On the other side, Muhaysini vowed that the battle for Aleppo would be the “greatest in the history of jihad in Syria.” He tweeted July 31 that a major change was imminent. “Because of this surprise, many Iranian and Russian soldiers are going to be captured.” Just hours later, thousands of fighters attacked from the southwest, gaining control over a passage and pushing back the Syrian army and its allies. Despite the heavy losses, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated at a total of 500 killed from both sides, the captured area wasn’t enough to loosen the siege on the opposition-controlled neighborhoods inside the city, mainly in the east.
Days later, in another surprise, of sorts, Hezbollah posted on its website and social media accounts a video of one of the group's drones hitting militant targets in Aleppo’s southern countryside. It was the first time Hezbollah had revealed such a strike in Aleppo using these drones, though they had been used in another battle inside Syria, near the border with Lebanon. While Hezbollah sources weren't ready to comment on the significance of using the drones in the Aleppo fight, some observers believe the move was made to stress the group’s readiness to use all available means to secure a victory.
Neither side has been able to end the fight, and it doesn't appear the battle will end anytime soon, with both sides deploying more troops on the front lines to keep their gains and prepare for any possible new rounds. The geography and demographics of the city complicate the situation — despite Russian air cover on the government’s side and hundreds of suicide bombers on the opposition’s.
Forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad benefit from the close border with Turkey that allows support to arrive whenever requested. Having Idlib to the east, under full opposition control, offers them the luxury of deploying as many fighters as needed.
As for demographics, the opposition enjoys a nurturing environment in the area surrounding Aleppo and in the eastern side of the city, and this alone allows a huge margin for maneuvering in case of pressure.
“The battle of Aleppo is not a battle for a city or a province, it is a battle to keep Syria undivided,” an Iranian military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. The source added, “If Aleppo is taken, then there is no northern Syria anymore, and this means that a new de facto region will be drawn, despite differences among those who will be in control. This battle is mainly for keeping Syria united.”
According to the Iranian source, the battle is at once both easy and difficult: “It is easy, as all the groups taking part in this battle are internationally regarded as terrorists, namely [Jabhat Fatah al-Sham], Ahrar al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party and Jund al-Aqsa. But it is difficult because there are thousands of fighters and there are regional powers that are backing and supporting them to make sure this battle never ends. These powers know that after Aleppo, there will be Idlib, and this means the collapse of all their dreams of taking over Syria, especially since the Syrian army made great gains around Damascus.”
The source was referring to the agreement last week in the Damascus suburb of Daraya that saw almost 1,850 people, including militants and civilians, evacuated after the government was granted full control of the area. The deal rid the regime of a painful spot just a few kilometers from Assad’s palace.
If government forces gain complete control of Aleppo, Syria's second-biggest city, the resistance axis will realize that the last fighting factions in Syria are defeated and there is no chance for powerful militant opposition groups to exploit field gains as leverage in politics.
“Those who are fighting in Aleppo are the core of radicalism in Syria, an alliance between the Saudi Wahhabis and al-Qaeda’s takfiris. This is a most poisonous blend,” the Iranian military source said. “Even their allies can’t stand such a blend.”
What the source didn’t say is that the outcome of the battle will have implications on what is being discussed in Geneva between the United States and Russia regarding the truce or the wider negotiations on the future of Syria. These outcomes include who will be at the bigger table in the final rounds and who will head later to Damascus if any compromise is reached. This alone makes it a matter of life and death to the regime and its allies to keep the militant opposition from achieving a victory, as it would have greater effects on political dynamics than on the field itself, especially when considering the outcome of the Turkish battle in the north.