Notwithstanding the destruction and staggering loss of life as the raging battle for Syria's commercial capital of Aleppo continues, the battle for both the regime and the opposition has taken on a multidimensional strategic aspect. The battle for Aleppo confirms that the first phase of the Syrian civil war has ended, and the battle for consolidating sectarian cantonization has begun. And it has initiated a process with far-reaching implications for Syria and the region.
The descent of the Free Syrian Army on Aleppo is tactically and strategically motivated. The opposition has succeeded in taking the battle against the regime to the country's commercial hub, a city that not long ago was a bastion of support for the regime. Moreover, timing the battle for Aleppo on the heels of the deadly strike against the regime's senior echelons in the capital's national-security headquarters undoubtedly is meant to tear down the regime's psychological power over its loyalists and supporters.
Strategically, however, the battle is about reconnecting Aleppo and its environs to its historic hinterland in Turkey, much as Homs and Hama had been historically connected to Northern Lebanon. This reconnection enhances the influence of Turkey over the opposition, represented mainly by the Syrian National Council, and provides the Free Syrian Army with a strategic route for receiving armaments from Ankara. Heavy weaponry from Turkey reportedly has already begun to be transported to the rebels in Aleppo, signifying that the attack on the city was no less a Turkish than a rebel decision.
The move against Aleppo also has been taken with two objectives in mind for the Turks and the rebels. Seizing Aleppo, besides pushing back or forcing the regime's forces into submission, affords the Turkish government a say over the future of the Kurdish Qamishli area in northeast Syria and helps to prevent irredentist stirrings in the Turkish Hatay province in which a significant number of minorities reside. Given that the Kurds of Qamishli have refused to join the Syrian National Council yet claim opposition to the regime, Turkey has grown concerned about a future autonomous Kurdish enclave along its border.
Moreover, Aleppo's environs and some of its neighborhoods include a significant number of minorities, especially Kurds. Ankara is jittery about the Kurds' ambivalent political position and allegiance, which could create serious implications for Turkey's domestic and regional policies. Not only have the Kurds refused to join the Syrian National Council; reportedly a significant number of them belong to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. The party has a close relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has resumed its militant campaign against Turkish authorities. As a result, Ankara has been on the lookout for any outside meddling in the affairs of minorities in the Hatay province.
This strategic maneuver by the Turks, however, has been affected by two misgivings, prolonging the battle for Aleppo at the expense of a great loss in property and lives as well as creating circumstances under which unintended consequences could alter the makeup of power within the opposition. Turkey has supported the Muslim Brotherhood within the Syrian National Council and has exerted significant influence over the decisions and movements of the Free Syrian Army, whose main bases are located in Turkey and alongside the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite this support and influence, Turkey has failed to help the opposition formulate a political vision with a military strategy. The fight against the regime in Aleppo, among other places, has been done on an ad hoc basis. The decision-making process and movements of the Free Syrian Army are either constrained by the Turkish government or hampered by unilateral actions of the various groups associated with the rebels. This has given the regime some breathing room as it capitalizes on the tactical and strategic discord among the opposition. In addition, based on interviews I conducted recently with Syrians who fled to Lebanon, Assad still enjoys some popular support in both Damascus and Aleppo. This partly has convinced the regime to dig in and augment its rhetoric that it is battling terrorists.
Aleppo has emerged as a focal point for geostrategic domestic and regional considerations. The regime can ill afford to lose this strategically located commercial city, which could lay open the road to Idlib and then Latakia, the capital of Alawi heartland. Moreover, the regime recognizes that losing the city may compel anxious minorities to join the opposition, and it could therefore lose whatever remains of its popular base of support.
Aleppo also has taken on a strategic dimension for Ankara and the rebels. Capturing the city has become essential not only to deal a severe blow to the regime but also to check potential irredentist and hostile actions close to Turkish restive areas. It is no coincidence that as Ankara has reportedly begun transporting reinforcements to the rebels in Aleppo, the regime upped the ante by sending its jets over the city, with Tehran in the background asserting its support for the regime. Meanwhile, more Syrian blood spills as violence escalates and international paralysis continues.
Robert G. Rabil served as a chief of emergency for the Red Cross in Lebanon during the country's civil war. He is associate professor of political science and the LLS Distinguished Professor of Current Events at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Syria, United States and The War on Terror in the Middle East and most recently Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism.
Image: Bernard Gagnon