Uprising in Syria

09.29.12

Syrian Rebels Wage War of Attrition for Control of Aleppo

Syrian rebel forces are intimating that a decisive battle for the heart of Aleppo is at hand—but analysts say the fight for Syria’s largest city is likely to be a long war of attrition. Mike Giglio reports from the Syrian border.

As fighting flared in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo on Friday, the country’s rebels billed their latest push there as a decisive one, painting it as the “zero hour” for wresting control of the metropolis away from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

But the top rebel commander in Aleppo, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, told The Daily Beast that the battle for Aleppo will continue to drag on as a long and difficult fight—a view in line with analysts who have predicted that a war of attrition is at hand.

“We’re gaining new ground and we’re hurting the regime,” Okeidi said. “But we don’t have the heavy weapons that the regime has, or the air power or tanks. So what we’re doing is fighting them slowly, and we’re waging a guerrilla war. It’s going to take time."

“We’re not trying to gain control of large areas,” he added. “We’re trying to do as much damage to the regime as we can.”

Experts now say that neither side has the strength to deliver a game-changing blow in the battle for Aleppo. Instead, Assad’s army and the opposition forces seem determined to gradually wear each other down—and it’s increasingly likely that this tactic will give the rebels the upper hand over time.

“I don’t think anyone is in a position to win a decisive victory over the other side,” says Firas Abi Ali, the deputy head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, a risk-consultancy firm in London. “This is a war of attrition, and it’s in the rebels’ interest to fight this kind of war—to slowly wear down government positions, disrupt their forces, and eventually break them. But the rebels don’t have the heavy weapons to break the government forces right now.”

The country’s commercial center, Aleppo has become the focal point of the uprising against Assad, which is now grinding through its 18th month. The city had largely escaped the conflict plaguing rebel nerve centers like Homs, until a surprise rebel push took hold in mid-July. The Syrian regime, which seemed shaken by the unexpected assault, has carried out a brutal campaign to retain its control of the city, battering rebel positions and civilian areas with heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and fighter jets. The rebels, for their part, have refused to be dislodged.

The breakdown of control in Aleppo is usually distilled like this: the rebels own the eastern part of the city, while the government has the west. But dominion can be a fluid thing. “Control in Aleppo is a very slippery concept,” says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Most of the territory is disputed—one side or the other is fighting over it, and neither side fully controls it. The regime can go in and take action with its ground forces, or the rebels can move in and launch offensives. There aren’t many areas that are totally secured.”

The result is a constantly shifting patchwork in the battle for control. “It’s essentially neighborhood by neighborhood, and it really depends on the fighting of the day,” says Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain.

From the start of their Aleppo campaign, Syria’s rebels have called loudly and frequently for international help in the form of heavy arms—in particular, the kind of antitank and antiaircraft firepower that could help decisively turn the tide against the regime’s overpowering advantage there. The lack of these weapons continues to be one of the great weaknesses of the rebel campaign, analysts say. Without adequate firepower, the rebels are unable to make lasting incursions into areas where the regime is hunkered down. Yet the regime also seems unable to muster the strength to wrest Aleppo back under its control, and it must rely on shelling the city from the outskirts and the skies. “The government doesn’t have enough forces to take and hold Aleppo, and the rebels don’t have enough material to take on government forces in the places where they’re fortified,” says Ali, the analyst at Exclusive Analysis. “The government can destroy Aleppo, but they can’t win it.”

Many rebels seem to have a keen understanding of the stalemate. Their intimations that a decisive phase of the battle is underway—they have made similar predictions before—should be viewed as part of the kind of public-relations battle seen in many wars, analysts say. Joshi notes that, as in Libya and elsewhere, “chronically, almost pathologically overly optimistic claims have been the hallmark” of the rebel campaign in Aleppo.

“Momentum is everything. They feel that if they can persuade people that momentum is on their side and the tide is turning, that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like rebel PR,” Joshi says. “What we’re seeing now is more intense fighting, but that doesn’t mean there is any greater prospect of the rebels holding any of the ground they take.”

'The regime can destroy Aleppo, but they can’t win it.'

While a big swing in momentum toward the rebels’ side may not be imminent, their campaign to undermine the regime in more deliberate ways could end up paying big dividends down the line. Ali says the rebels have become increasingly effective at disrupting the supply routes that fuel regime forces in Aleppo—challenging key transit points, sabotaging roads with improvised explosive devices—while working to strengthen their own supply chains. “They are slowly pushing government forces to a point where they are unable to resupply by land, and to hold a city like Aleppo using just the airport is simply not enough,” he says.

“Actually what they’re doing now is throwing bread from airplanes,” claims Okeidi, the head of Aleppo’s military council. “Half the bread goes to them, and the other half goes to us.”

One key area to watch in the battle is the airport, Ali notes, pointing out that rebels have been pushing to capture it, and in the process have been able to disrupt things even there.

No matter how the fight for Aleppo plays out, analysts and rebels alike expect the Assad regime to fight to hang onto its power at all costs—meaning the bloodshed could continue for months to come. “Everyone knows this is going to be a long battle,” says a rebel operating in Aleppo who goes by the nickname Abu Laise. “We’re not going to be finished fighting any time soon.”