Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could make his biggest gains in the country’s long civil war—and potentially tip its outcome in his favor in a matter of weeks—by wresting control of the city of Aleppo from opposition forces, two U.S. military officials told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.
If government forces are able to successfully encircle the city and hold it, and control the province around it, “the war is essentially over,” said one of the senior defense officials.
Under assault from hundreds of Russian airstrikes over the past week, Aleppo increasingly is falling out of rebel hands. As many as 40,000 Syrians fled the city toward Turkey’s border over the past two days, walking up to 60 miles to get to safety. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Friday that 15,000 people had already arrived at Turkey’s border from Aleppo.
The Russian onslaught on Syria’s keystone city has left many wondering just how long rebels can hold on. During Syria’s five-year civil war, which has killed at 250,000, it’s been surmised that whoever controls Aleppo will prevail.
“The full encirclement of Aleppo City would fuel a humanitarian catastrophe, shatter opposition morale, fundamentally challenge Turkish strategic ambitions, and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community,” the Washington based Institute of the Study of War concluded on Friday.
Indeed, U.N.-led peace talks collapsed on Tuesday in Geneva, as the security situation in Aleppo began to decline.
Northwest of the city, Syrian government forces cut off a major rebel supply route, leading some fighters to abandon the frontline, particularly members of the al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syria arm. The remaining fighters are getting ready for the battle of their lives against Syrian army forces, who hope the fall of Aleppo will be the death knell for rebels seeking Assad’s downfall.
Yet U.S. officials have no plans to help Assad’s opponents, even those they have backed in the past to stop the Syrian army’s advances. Rather, U.S. military officials condemned Russia for working to prop up the Assad regime, while saying U.S.-led coalition airstrike campaign has one aim—to pound the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS.
Saudi Arabia, a coalition member, announced Thursday that it was sending 50 Special Forces to Syria earlier this week, as Aleppo’s collapse began, but stressed its forces were also there to confront ISIS.
“Our assessment is that Aleppo is still very contested,” Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of the region, told reporters Friday.
Privately, U.S. military officials are making their own assessments on how long the rebels can sustain the fighting, both practically and in the face of morale-crushing strikes. With limited intelligence on a very fluid battleground, the officials are concluding the fall could happen in a matter of weeks. Some fear it could be a matter of days.
“Moscow’s relentless, brutal targeting of the moderate opposition has positioned Assad’s forces to make significant gains near Aleppo. It’s becoming clear that despite withstanding almost four months of Russian airstrikes and holding pro-regime forces to incremental gains, the blows are taking a toll on opposition forces in the northwest,” a U.S. official told The Daily Beast.
The fall of Aleppo would not automatically end the war but rather turn Syria into a battleground with two major actors left standing—Assad and ISIS.
Many U.S. military personnel are hoping that even if Syrian troops move into Aleppo, that won’t mark the final fall of the city. They note that government forces have struggled to hold cities handed to them by Russian airstrikes. And Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city, has since become home to nearly every kind of opposition group and would be the biggest challenge to government forces.
“Aleppo was Syria’s largest city before the war, and retaking it in its entirety will require a heavy investment by Assad and his backers,” the U.S. official explained to The Daily Beast.
Or as one defense official noted: “Bombing from the air is not enough; eventually you need ground troops to win.”
And yet the frustration of watching Russia’s brazen, indiscriminate strikes in Syria’s commercial hub—which could potentially turn the war to Assad’s favor—was palpable in the halls of the Pentagon on Friday. Some were frustrated that Russia could have such an impact because it does not consider—or does not care about—the effect of its bombs on civilians.
Still others call the potential fall of Aleppo a result of a failed U.S. approach.
“Russians understand war. Americans understand managing conflicts to get unsatisfactory results,” one official familiar with the U.S. military campaign told The Daily Beast. The approach of both nations “tells the region who the players are. America is feckless and Russia and Iran are reliable allies.”
Either way, the lack of U.S. action was the strongest signal yet that the Obama administration has moved far away from its own stated position that Assad must go, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Aleppo “leaves the United States in a complicated situation and tilting much towards the position that Assad will stay. Full stop,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
With additional reporting by Shane Harris