Aleppo, Istanbul, and London


The war in Syria went from a seeming quagmire to a conflict that may reach a dramatic climax with the coming battle for Aleppo, a city of nearly three million people that was once the commercial center of the nation.   Political leaders and events in two other cities, Istanbul and London, will play a central role in the outcome of the battle.  (Image)

The Syrian Army finished off final rebel resistance in the city of Qusayr last week fighting alongside the Lebanese group Hezbollah.  As a result, the rebel supply line from Lebanon is shut down and the major road from Damascus to Aleppo via Qusayr is open.  The road will serve the supply line for an attack to end rebel occupation of half of that city.

A victory by the Syrian military in Operation Northern Storm, its name for the Aleppo effort, will leave the rebels with very little in the way of major influence or meaningful territory.  From the start, the rebel strategy focused on urban warfare.  The various groups would have little chance of survival in a conventional battle with the Syrian Army.  With the shelter of cities and towns, the Syrian Army’s  advantage vanished allowing the rebels to carry on the conflict and prevail in key areas.

Damascus is under government control.  With a victory in Aleppo, the Syrian state would reclaim control of its two key population centers.  The United States - Russia sponsored peace conference scheduled for July would be an afterthought.

Two of the key supporters of the Syrian rebels are not in a position to provide much help the rebels in their attempt to hold their position in Aleppo.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is preoccupied with a raging protest movement focused on the PM and his policies.  The movement began and is centered in Istanbul, the nation’s largest city and world trade gateway.  Turkey took the lead in public opposition to the Syrian government in 2011.  Its southern border near Aleppo, particularly the city of Adana, served as the conduit for supplies and fighters from Persian Gulf oil states.

Siding with rebels was never popular in Turkey.  It is very unpopular now.  As certain as he may seem about every thing he says, Erdogan would risk a great deal through robust assistance to the rebels.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has a deep commitment to the Syrian rebels.  Cameron has steadfastly advocated for a lifting of European Union ban on the supply of weapons to the rebels.  The PM is limited by defections from his own party and a split cabinet, with one faction opposed to the supply of lethal assistance.   Oddly, Cameron maintains that it will take 18 months for the weapons supplies to spread among the rebels.

The battle for Aleppo will be decided long before the suggested 18 months is up.  The outcome could end the rebels as a viable force that justifies additional outside aid.

The Battle for Aleppo - July 2012 through May 2013

The rebels first attacked Aleppo in earnest in July 2012.   Prior to that rebels took control of large sections of the countryside around the city.  The attack originated from a cluster of towns to the north of the city near the Turkish border or with rebels embedded in Aleppo.  Foreign fighters and Syrian rebels were likely trained and supplied in the Turkish city of Adana, just across the Syria-Turkey border.   News of the Turkish base first surfaced in July 2012.

Whichever version of the attack is correct, one thing is for certain.  There was no civil insurrection in Aleppo by citizens of that city.  Nor did the attack come at the request by Aleppo’s residents.

Currently, the city is divided into three sectors controlled by the rebels, the Syrian military, and Syrian Kurds.   The rebels control the eastern sector and the countryside around the western sector, which is controlled by the Syrian military.  Two Kurdish groups control a smaller section of the city, the Salahaddin Brigade, which cooperates with rebels, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, distant from both rebels and the Syrian military.

The successful rebel offensive in July resulted in control of a large portion of eastern Aleppo.   As the battles raged, Syrian Army troops faced a significant disadvantage.  Rebel control of the city of Qusayr and the Homs province cut off regular supplies and troop movements to support efforts in Aleppo.

aleppo situation 2013The fall of Qusayr changed all that.  The Syrian’s can now supply their military in Aleppo, knowing that the Lebanese rebel supply pipeline is closed.  In addition, the military has adjusted its fixed battle mindset for urban warfare into a more efficient approach and, of most significance; the Syrians are now allied with Hezbollah.  The two fighting groups proved to be a formidable combination.  After it was clear that Qusayr would fall, Hezbollah deployed 4,000 fighters to Aleppo for that battle.

Istanbul and London

Turks are protesting in 80 cities across the country.  The eruption of civil discontent started on May 31 when police assaulted protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.  What started as a protest of plans to change a major square in Istanbul has grown to a nationwide movement sustained since May 31.  The general themes have broadened to include the opposition to the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Erdogan, creeping religious rules restricting the public, and Turkey’s involvement to the conflict in Syria (see previously cited polling results).

Erdogan’s initial reaction to the protests was disdain calling the protestors “bums.”  When he left the country for a visit to North Africa, his Deputy Prime Minister apologized for the violent police reaction in the early protests and met with demonstrators.    When Erdogan returned, he was expected to calm things.  Instead he held rival rallies of his supporters telling crowds that the protestors were “drinking beer in mosques and insulting women wearing headscarves.”  These allegations risked pitting his party supporters against protestors in violent conflict.

There are three constituencies that openly oppose Erdogan: supporters of the secular model of rule in Turkey, the Alevi population, and the Kurds. All together, these three groups represent close to half of the total population.

A fourth, more dangerous opponent is Fethullah Gulen, leader of the powerful Hizmet movement, a moderate Muslim “state within a state.”  Gulen opposes Erdogan’s commitment to violence in Syria and the Prime Minister’s overbearing style of rule.  A clear abandonment of Erdogan would be devastating.

Erdogan alienated the military through the prosecution of several hundred military leaders for alleged plans for false flag terror operations against fellow Turks.  Yet he relies on the military to further his program by restraining the type of military coups that have toppled previous Turkish leaders.

Why would Erdogan risk his rule to intervene directly in Syria, particularly a battle about to be fought that could determine the outcome of the rebel assault on Syria’s government?  And, if he did, would the military cooperate?

There is no civil unrest beleaguering British Prime Minister David Cameron.  However, his insistence on providing weapons to Syrian rebels is costing him dearly.  Half of his cabinet came out in opposition to any military aid (although there has been covert aid for some time).   Eighty-one Conservative Members of Parliament wrote an open letter to Cameron opposing aid through weapons.   The members demanded a floor debate and vote on any aid package.

There are even comparisons to Cameron’s obsession with the Syrian violence with former PM Tony Blair’s fixation on invading Iraq.

Cameron’s main support on the Syrian project comes from his neoconservative cabinet members and their allies in the British version of the Federalist Society, known as the Henry Jackson Society.

The PM is isolated politically in his adamant support for aiding the rebels.  His ability to deliver is viewed as extremely limited.

Even if Erdogan acts without regard to his political future and Cameron has one, neither leader will be able to provide the time-critical delivery of what the rebels need to survive the furious onslaught by the Syrian Army and Hezbollah set to begin in the next hours or days.

Since the conflict began, in victory and defeat, the various factions of the Syrian rebels have complained bitterly about an absence of weapons and ammunition.   This may be one instance when their complaints are right on target.  If Operation Northern Storm succeeds, this may be the last request for weapons that the rebels make; or, at least the last request that anyone bothers to cover.


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