Battle of Aleppo (2012–present)
|Battle of Aleppo
|Part of the Syrian Civil War|
The situation in Aleppo, as of March 2015
Syrian Army control Opposition control Kurdish controlOngoing confrontation or unclear situation
Jabhat Ansar al-Deen
|Commanders and leaders|
Formerly Abdel-Jabbar Ukaidi
Ali Abdullah Ayyoub
(Haidar al-Karar Brigades leader)
Elements of: 1st Corps:
22,665 overall deaths in the whole province (by late March 2015)
The Battle of Aleppo (Arabic: معركة حلب) is an ongoing military confrontation in Aleppo, Syria between the Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front, People's Defence Units and Sunni militants against the Syrian government, Hezbollah and Shiite militants. The battle began on 19 July 2012 as a part of the Syrian Civil War. The battle's scale and importance led combatants to name it the "mother of battles". The battle has been highly noted for the Syrian army's indiscriminate use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, killing thousands. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to evacuate. On the other hand, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights denounced the Free Syrian Army for the indiscriminate bombardment of government-held districts, with gas cylinders filled with explosives, which resulted in hundreds of casualties. The battle has also caused catastrophic destruction to the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- 1 Onset
- 2 Combatants
- 3 Course of the Battle
- 4 Strategic analysis
- 5 Reactions
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Aleppo in July 2012, nationwide protests against the Syrian government led by President Assad had occurred since 15 March 2011 as part of the larger Arab Spring. The inhabitants of Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, initially remained largely uninvolved. As well as opposition protests, government organized rallies in support of the Assad government were held.
Fighting in Aleppo governorate began on 10 February 2012. Over the next five months, major clashes left large parts of the rural countryside under rebel control, while the provincial capital, Aleppo city, remained firmly under government control. On 19 July 2012, rebel forces stormed the city and the battle for Aleppo began.
At the beginning of the Battle of Aleppo, rebels reportedly fielded between 6,000 and 7,000 fighters within 18 battalions. The largest was the al-Tawhid Brigade. The most prominent was the Free Syrian Army, largely composed of army defectors. Most Syrian rebels hail from the Aleppo countryside, from towns such as Al-Bab, Marea, Azaz, Tel Rifaat and Manbij. However, a resident reportedly accused the rebels of using civilian homes as shelter. On 19 November 2012, the rebel fighters initially rejected the newly formed Syrian National Coalition, most notably the al-Tawhid Brigade and the al-Nusra Front. The next day the rebels withdrew their rejection.
Looting for supplies became a common occurrence among rebel fighters by December, switching their loyalties to groups who had more to share. This new approach led to incidents such as the killing of at least one rebel commander following a dispute, the loss of a frontline position due to fighters retreating with their loot and the failure of an attack on a Kurdish neighborhood. The looting cost the fighters significant popular support.
Islamic extremists and foreign fighters joined the fight. Many of them were experienced and came from the ongoing insurgency in neighboring Iraq. Jihadists reportedly came from across the Muslim World. Jacques Bérès, a French surgeon who treated wounded fighters, reported a significant number of foreign fighters, most with Islamist goals and were not directly interested in Bashar al-Assad. They included Libyans, Chechens and Frenchmen. He said this was in stark contrast to Idlib and Homs, where foreign forces were not common. Some FSA brigades cooperated with Mujahideen fighters.
The Syrian government retained support in Aleppo. A rebel commander stated that "around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime". However, during the course of the battle, Assad lost support from Aleppo's wealthy class. CBS News reported that 48 elite businessmen who were the primary financiers for the Syrian government switched sides. For the first time, the Syrian Army engaged in urban warfare. They divided their forces into groups of 40 soldiers each. The soldiers were mostly armed with automatic rifles and anti-tank rockets. Artillery, tanks and helicopters are used only as a support. In August the Army deployed its elite units. Eventually, after the rebels executed Shabiha and Zeino al-Berri (tribal leader of the al-Berri tribe) the tribe joined the fight against the rebels. The Christians supported the Army and formed militias aligned with the government following the capture of their quarters by the Syrian Army. The (Christian) Armenians also support the Syrian Army. Aleppo's Armenians claim that Turkey supported the FSA in order to attack Armenians and Arab Christians, the Armenians have a militia with around 150 fighters.
At the beginning Aleppo's Kurds formed armed groups, most notably the Kurdish Salahaddin Brigade. The brigade worked with the opposition, while the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) had poor relations with both sides. The PYD's Popular Protection Committees stayed out of Arab areas and insisted that the FSA stay out of the Kurdish area. They initially did not fight the Syrian Army unless attacked, but later joined the opposition against pro-Assad forces. The Kurdish areas in Aleppo were mainly under PYD control. Four hundred Turkmen joined the battle under Sultan Abdulhamid Han.
Course of the Battle
2012 – Initial rebel attack and capture of Eastern Aleppo
Gunfire between rebels and security forces broke out on the night of 19 July 2012 in and around Salaheddine, a district in the city's southwest portion. It is unclear whether the district had a strong rebel presence before the battle began, or was captured by opposition fighters coming from the outskirts. Meanwhile, thousands of rebel soldiers from Aleppo's northern and eastern countryside began to move towards the city.
By early August, the rebels had captured the eastern half of the city, while Kurdish forces seized a predominantly Kurdish area of northern Aleppo. However, a stalemate soon ensued with government forces remaining in control of the western half of Aleppo. By the close of 2012 the rebel groups were in a relatively strong position in Aleppo, with other rebel forces having captured Maarat-al-Numaan in Idlib province, thus cutting the main supply route to Aleppo and effectively placing government troops there under siege, leaving them dependent on aerial re-supply from the Syrian Air Force.
2013 – Advances and counter-advances
In July 2013, the rebels captured the town of Khan al-Assal at the southwestern entrance to Aleppo. During the capture, radical jihadists conducted a massacre of government prisoners of war leaving between 50 and 125 people dead. Also, in August, to the north of Aleppo, rebel forces defeated the besieged garrison of soldiers at Menagh Air Base, thus removing a major airfield from which the Syrian Air Force had launched sorties to bomb rebel positions in Aleppo.
However, in the autumn of 2013 government forces began to make slow advances in the Battle of Aleppo. Assisted by the entrance of Hezbollah forces into the Syrian Civil War, and acquisition of Russian arms, the military launched a major offensive in October 2013, and were able to open a new supply route to Aleppo. This resulted in the lifting of the siege that had been maintained by the rebel groups for 12 months. Despite this defeat, the rebels continued to offer strong resistance. By the close of 2013, the situation in the city itself was still at a stalemate, with neither of the forces able to deliver a knock-out blow to the opposing side.
2014 – Government encirclement of the rebels
Government forces, having lifted the siege of Aleppo in October 2013, continued their offensive in 2014, culminating in the capture of the Sheikh Najjar industrial district to the north of Aleppo and lifting the siege of Aleppo Central Prison on 22 May 2014, which contained a garrison of government soldiers that had resisted rebel forces since 2012.
Towards the end of the year, government forces captured the villages of Handarat and Sifat, Handarat hill and the Breij and al-Mallah areas, bringing them within a few hundred meters of surrounding Aleppo.
2015 - War of Attrition
In early January, the rebels recaptured the Majbal (Sawmills) area of al-Brej, captured the southern entrance of the stone quarries known as al-Misat, forcing government troops to retreat to the north, and managed to seize the Manasher al-Brej area. They also tried to advance and take control over al-Brej Hill with which they could seize the military supply road from the Aleppo Central Prison to the Handarat and al-Mallah areas. At the end of January, the rebels took control over some positions in al-Brej Hill.
In mid-February, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies launched a major offensive in the northern Aleppo countryside, with the aim of cutting the last rebel supply routes into the city, as well as relieving the rebel siege of the Shi'a-majority towns of Zahra'a and Nubl to the north-west of Aleppo. They quickly captured several villages; however, bad weather conditions and an inability to call up reinforcements ultimately stalled the government offensive. A few days later, rebels launched a counter-offensive, retaking two out of four positions lost to government forces.
On 4 March, opposition forces blew up a tunnel near the Air Force Intelligence building, following up with an assault to capture the position. The blast caused a 2.3 tremor registered by the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre. The attack ultimately failed.
On 9 March, opposition forces launched an assault on Handarat, north of Aleppo, after reportedly noticing confusion in the ranks of government troops after the February fighting. It was initially reported that opposition forces captured Handarat, north of Aleppo. However, later it was reported by opposition sources the rebels managed to capture only 40–50% of the village, while the Army remained in control of the northern portion of Handarat. A military source stated they still controlled 80% of Handarat, while a rebel field commander claimed that opposition forces controlled 75%.
Rebel forces expanded to the countryside south of Aleppo to control sections of the M4 and M5 highway, effectively blocking ground reinforcements for the Syrian Army. Before the end of 2012, the Syrian army in Aleppo was receiving sporadic supplies and ammo replenishment by air or dangerous backroads. The fall of Base 46, a large complex in the area which reinforced and supplied government troops, was seen by experts as "a tactical turning point that may lead to a strategic shift" in the battle for Aleppo. In a November 2012 intelligence report, Stratfor described the strategic position of government forces in Aleppo as "dire", with the Free Syrian Army having them "essentially surrounded".
On 26 November 2012, rebels captured Tishrin Dam, further isolating government forces in Aleppo with only one route into Aleppo remaining. By late January 2013 Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil admitted that all supply routes to Aleppo had been cut off by opposition forces, comparing the situation to the Siege of Leningrad. By late February 2013, the Aleppo international airport was almost totally surrounded by rebel forces. Later, the Syrian army regained control of the strategic Tel Sheigeb town allowing them to approach the airport. In November 2013, the Syrian army retook the town of al-Safira. This opened a road for the government to support the besieged Kuweires Military Airbase and Aleppo Power Plant.
In February 2014, it was reported that the army planned to encircle Aleppo and impose a mix of blockades and truces, as well as attempt to recapture the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City in order to rebuild the economy and provide jobs. As of October 2014, the army seized Sheikh Najjar, reinforced Aleppo Central Prison and captured Handaraat, thereby coming close to imposing a siege on rebel-held Aleppo. This would be a difficult task, as Aleppo presents more logistical challenges for the army, especially for pro-government groups such as Hezbollah, who prefer fighting closer to Lebanon. Tensions came to a head in early April 2014, when a Syrian Republican Guard officer allegedly murdered a Hezbollah commander during an argument over the opposition advance in al-Rashadin, and other pro-government militant groups sent as reinforcements, such as the National Defence Force, proved unreliable in combat. Second, rebels control more terrain in Aleppo than in other cities, so effectively cutting off access was more difficult. Third, rebels have a strong presence in the countryside and around the border crossings with Turkey. In April 2014 government commanders inside the city were saying that on the contrary to implementing such a strategy, "the best [they] can do in Aleppo is just secure ... positions". The attempted encirclement involves the SAA’s attacks on Bustan Al-Pasha, Khalidiyyeh, the farms of Mazra’a Halabi, Al-Amariyya and Bustan Al-Qaseer. The Syrian Opposition's strategic victory at the Siege of Wadi Deif has resulted in several main government supply lines being threatened. This has cast doubt on government forces' ambitions to control the road extending from Hama to Aleppo and the Damascus-Aleppo international road, and has been seen as a personal defeat for Syrian Arab Army Col. Suheil Al Hassan.
United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura proposed a pause in fighting, but opinions were divided about implementation. The European Union has warned that "cases of forced surrender imposed by the Assad regime through starvation sieges were labelled fallaciously as local cease-fires in the past". The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, which has been gaining ground in Deraa province south of Damascus has warned that a freeze in fighting in Aleppo could hamper their advance, as pro-Assad forces could be redirected from Aleppo.
The governments defeat at the Second Battle of Idlib in late March 2015, which helped expand the influence of the al-Nusra Front, forced ISIL to expand its attacks in central Syria, after it failed to block the Raqqa highway that branches out to the Syrian army's main supply route to Aleppo along the Khanasir-Athriya road. ISIL's aim would potentially be to establish the necessary conditions to eventually make an assault against Idlib and al-Nusra. The March–April ISIS offensive in central Syria led some volunteers defending the Homs-Aleppo highway to consider deserting to defend their hometowns. According to Jane's Information Group, a possible offensive on Homs by both al-Nusra Front and ISIS, working independently, would potentially force the government to move critical forces away from Aleppo to defend key supply routes. After additional opposition gains during the 2015 Jisr al-Shughur offensive, Jane's further asserted that it was no longer possible for the SAA to properly reinforce Aleppo leaving their forces vulnerable to any opposition or ISIS offensive on the city. If opposition forces decided to capitalise on their gains and launch an assault towards Latakia, the prospect of soldiers deserting was raised, in case they were not redeployed back to defend it, so they could themselves defend their homes against any potential rebel advance.
- Syria – President Bashar al-Assad said on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the Syrian Arab Army in August 2012, that "the army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle... on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests..."
- Armenia – Armenia began sending humanitarian aid to Aleppo in mid-October. The aid is distributed by Red Crescent, the Armenian National Prelacy in Aleppo, Aleppo Emergency unit and the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia to Syria. Governor of the Aleppo Governorate, Hilal Hial, said, "the Syrian people highly appreciate this humanitarian gesture of the Armenian people, underling the strong Syrian-Armenian cooperation."
- France – The French Foreign Ministry said, "With the build-up of heavy weapons around Aleppo, Assad is preparing to carry out a fresh slaughter of his own people", while Italy and the UN peacekeeping chief also accused the government of preparing to massacre civilians.
- Iran – As the battle of Aleppo started, Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, met with Assad in Damascus and vowed that Iran would help Assad to confront "attempts at blatant foreign interference" in Syria's internal affairs, declaring, "Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way."
- Russia – The Russian Foreign Ministry issued an official statement condemning the bombing that occurred on 9 September 2012 in which more than 30 people were killed. "We firmly condemn the terrorist acts which claim the lives of innocent people", stated the Ministry on 11 September. The Foreign Ministry also called the foreign powers to pressure the armed opposition to halt launching "terrorist attacks". The Russian Consulate General in Aleppo "suspended operations" on 16 January 2013.
- Turkey – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged international action, saying it was not possible "to remain a spectator" to the government offensive on Aleppo. Reuters reported that Turkey had set up a base with allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the purpose of directing military and communications aid to the Free Syrian Army from the city of Adana. Reuters also quoted a Doha-based source which stated that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were providing weapons and training to the rebel fighters.
- United Kingdom – William Hague, the British Foreign Minister, said, "the world must speak out to avert a massacre in Aleppo."
- United States – The United States stated it that feared a new massacre in Aleppo by the Syrian government: "This is the concern: that we will see a massacre in Aleppo and that's what the regime appears to be lining up for." The United States condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the government SCUD missile strikes on Aleppo in late February 2013, saying that they were "the latest of the Syrian regime's ruthlessness and its lack of compassion for the Syrian people it claims to represent".
- Battle of Damascus (2012)
- Siege of Nubl and Al-Zahraa
- Rif Dimashq Governorate campaign
- Siege of Kobanî
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