GAZIANTEP, Turkey — A battle is taking shape that could decide the fate of the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating ISIS, and it’s not around the Kurdish town of Kobani. It’s for the future of the second biggest city in Syria, ancient Aleppo, besieged on three sides by the forces of the tyrant Bashar Assad and the murderous zealots of the so-called Islamic State holding part of the other side.
For the relatively moderate Syrian militias to whom the Obama administration already is funneling arms, the neighborhoods of Aleppo where they still hold ground are a last redoubt inside the country. And in the next few hours or days their last supply line to the outside very likely will be cut.
Commanders from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army are calling on the United States to launch airstrikes that will help them halt Assad’s forces. Without such action, they fear, many of their surviving troops may be lured into the ranks of ISIS.
The offensive has been building up since early October. Now, Syrian army units backed by Shia Muslim fighters from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iran are poised to cut the one remaining land route into Aleppo used by mainly Sunni rebels to resupply their forces, ferry in reinforcements, and evacuate their wounded. If the Assad regime severs the Castillo Road, which connects the rebels with the Syrian countryside and Turkey, it would set the stage for a full-scale siege of rebel-held districts in the city.
U.S.-favored brigades such as the mainly secular Harakat Hazm (The Steadfast Movement), which has received TOW anti-tank missiles from the Obama administration, are fully involved in the fight to contain the Assad offensive.
Rebel commanders express deep frustration with the U.S.-led coalition focusing airstrikes on the defense of the Kurdish town of Kobani in a bid to lift a month-long assault by ISIS militants. They argue that a siege of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, risks even greater ramifications, not only for the Obama administration’s objective to “degrade and defeat” the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, but also for the course of the uprising against President Assad.
“The Americans say they want to build up a vetted and trained force of 5,000 and it will take about a year—we don’t have that long,” snapped Abdul Rahman, a top commander in the 3,000-strong Jaysh al-Mujahedeen or Army of Mujahedeen, an Islamist-leaning brigade that emerged from the villages and towns of the Aleppo countryside.
Nasr al-Hariri, secretary general of the Western-backed political umbrella group the Syrian Coalition, warns of the grave consequences of U.S. inaction. “We call on the international anti-ISIS coalition to deliver urgent military support for the FSA in northern Aleppo to help it repel the regime’s attempts to encircle the city,” he said in a statement.
The loss of Aleppo by the Syrian rebels would be a huge symbolic setback for the uprising and would deliver a devastating blow to Western-backed rebels who are fighting on two fronts—against Assad and against ISIS, which controls the northeast entry points into Aleppo through its hold on the town of al-Bab. Reversals in the fight against Assad play into the hands of ISIS, rebel commanders maintain, because ISIS then sets to work recruiting demoralized fighters who previously wanted nothing to do with it.
The crisis for the rebels started this month when the Assad forces seized the village of Jubaila, connecting them to the towns of Handarat and Sifat, all on the northwest of Aleppo. The seizure of Jubaila also is allowing regime forces to come closer to linking up with mainly Shia fighters from Afghanistan, Iran, and Lebanon massed in the towns of Nibbul and Al Zahraa’, says Mohammad, a rebel fighter with Liwa al-Tawhid, or Lions of Tawhid, who has a liaison role with other rebel brigades, including the al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
In an interview Wednesday with The Daily Beast, Mohammad, who had just returned from the Aleppo frontlines, said the fighting to keep the Castillo Road open had become desperate. “We are taking heavy casualties,” he said. “There are a lot of Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Iran.” He said from what he could see there are fewer fighters than in previous weeks from the militant Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, whose intervention on the battlefield last year proved a major factor in Syrian government advances in the suburbs of Damascus and in the Qalamoun region.
“I am not sure we can hold out,” Mohammad said, but “all the major brigades are fighting there, including Jabhat al-Nusra.” On Thursday the rebels beat back a bid by Syrian government forces to force a way through to Nibbul and Al Zahraa’. The rebels used, among other weapons, TOW missiles recently supplied by the U.S. to Harakat Hazm. In a separate engagement on the east of Aleppo, the brigade used TOWs this week to destroy two Syrian Air Force MiG-23 warplanes on the ground at the international airport. In the video posted on YouTube, the noise of the American-supplied weapon soon gives way to shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” God is great.
Many Syrian rebels remain furious with what they view as a cynical U.S. decision to intervene in Syria against ISIS but not Assad. Across the fragmented spectrum of rebel factions—from moderates to Islamists—commanders say that, since the start of the U.S.-led coalition’s air offensive on Sept. 23, Assad has increased the tempo of his own airstrikes on rebel positions, apparently confident he will suffer no American retaliation.
Any U.S. intervention in the battle for Aleppo with airstrikes targeting Syrian government forces would have enormous tactical and strategic repercussions. Assad’s air defenses and fighter jets have avoided tangling with coalition warplanes bombing Islamic militants, but U.S. airstrikes on Syrian government forces on the outskirts of Aleppo would invite an escalation, and the Pentagon no doubt would insist that ahead of any intervention to stop a siege, Assad air defenses and radar would have to be taken out, a move that would drag the U.S. deeper into the Syrian civil war.
As the final battle for Aleppo begins, with so much of its cobbled-together strategy hanging in the balance, that may not be a commitment the Obama administration can escape.