Battle of Aleppo (2012–present)

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For the First World War battle, see Battle of Aleppo (1918). For other battles in Aleppo, see Battle of Aleppo.
Battle of Aleppo
معركة حلب
Part of the Syrian Civil War
Battle of Aleppo map.svg
The situation in Aleppo, as of August 2014

     Syrian Army control      Opposition control      Kurdish control      Ongoing confrontation or unclear situation

(For a war map of the area around Aleppo, see here)
Date 19 July 2012 – ongoing
(2 years, 6 months and 1 week)
Location Aleppo, Syria
Result

Ongoing

  • FSA captures numerous districts in the southern and northeastern parts of the city in late July 2012, PYD takes control of two districts in the northern part of the city
  • Syrian Army recaptures several districts in August and September 2012
  • Several opposition offensives repelled by government troops in the autumn of 2012[17][18][19]
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site Ancient City of Aleppo largely destroyed in the fighting[20]
  • In mid-October 2012, rebels capture the town of Maarat al-Numaan in Idlib province, effectively cutting and shutting down the main Army supply line to Aleppo via the M5 highway[21][22]
  • In early October 2013, Army reopens the supply line to Aleppo via the town of Khanaser on the so-called "Desert Road"[23][24]
  • In November 2013, the Syrian Army captured Base 80, north of the city airport,[25] and by late February 2014, Syrian troops had advanced from the east towards the Industrial district[26]
  • Ahl Al-Sham Operation Room unites four main opposition factions in February 2014 and signs truce with the YPG on 25 April[27]
  • Between late May and early October, government troops break the Aleppo prison siege (after 13 months)[28] and capture the Sheik Said industrial zone,[29] with fighting ongoing in Handaraat, in an attempt to put the city under siege[30]
Belligerents
SyrianNationalCoalitionOfficialLogo.svg National Coalition

Levant Front[2]


PYD


ISIL[5][6]
Syria Syrian Arab Republic

Hezbollah[15]
Haidar al-Karar Brigades[16]

Commanders and leaders
Formerly Abdel-Jabbar Ukaidi
(FSA Aleppo top commander)[31]
Abdullatif Abdullatif
(FSA Aleppo deputy commander)[32]
Abdul Qader Saleh [33]
(Al-Tawhid Brigade top commander)[34]
Yusef al-Jader 
(Al-Tawhid Brigade)[35]
Yussef Al-Abbas [36]
(Al-Tawhid Brigade)
Ebu Mohammed Suleiman
(Sultan Abdulhamid Han Brigade)[37]
Abu Mohammad
(Kata ib-Essalam)[38]
Abdulrahman al-Salameh
(Al-Nusra Front)[39]
Taufik Shiabuddin
(Army of Mujahedeen)[40][41]
Abu Khalid al-Suri 
( Islamic Front)[42]

Nujin Derik (PYD)[43]


Ali Abdullah Ayyoub
(Chief of the General Staff)
Maher al-Assad
(4th Division)
Suheil al-Hasan
(Head of Aleppo military operations)[44]
Mohammed Akkad
(Governor of Aleppo)[45]
Abbas Samii  
(Republican Guard Commander)[46][47]
Fauzi Ayub 
(Lebanese-Canadian Hezbollah commander)[48]
Zaino Berri  Executed
(al-Berri tribe leader)[14]
Akram al-Kabi
(Haidar al-Karar Brigades leader)[16]
Units involved
Elements of: Elements of:

1st Corps:

Independent units:

Strength
15,000 fighters

(opposition claims)

6,000–8,000 fighters[73]
(government claims)[74]
20,000 troops mobilized[75]
(3,000 engaged)[76]
(government claims)

1,500 Shabiha[77] 100 tanks and 400 armored personnel carriers[77]
(opposition claims)

Hezbollah fighters:

  • 2,000 (Hezbollah commander claim)
  • 4,000 (FSA claim)[78]
Casualties and losses
Unknown (PYD ~100 killed)[79][80][81] Unknown
10,800+ overall deaths and 4,500+ missing (by April 2013)[82]
31,000 dead in the whole province[83] (since the start of the war through April 2014)
Battle of Aleppo (2012–present) is located in Syria
Battle of Aleppo (2012–present)
Aleppo within Syria
Wider map of the area around Aleppo.

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 jihadists against the Syrian government and Hezbollah. The battle began on 19 July 2012 as a part of the Syrian Civil War.[84] The battle's scale and importance led combatants to name it the "mother of battles".[85] The battle has been highly noted for the Syrian army's indiscriminate use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, killing thousands.[86][87][88] Hundreds of thousands have been forced to evacuate. The battle has also caused catastrophic destruction to the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.[89]

Onset[edit]

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Aleppo in July 2012, nationwide protests against the Syrian regime 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,[90] government organized rallies in support of the Assad government were held.[91]

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.[84]

Combatants[edit]

At the beginning of the Battle of Aleppo, rebels reportedly fielded between 6,000[92] and 7,000[93] fighters within 18 battalions.[94] 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.[95] However, a resident reportedly accused the rebels of using civilian homes as shelter.[96] 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.[97] The next day the rebels withdrew their rejection.[98]

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.[99]

Islamic extremists and foreign fighters joined the fight. Many of them were experienced and came from the ongoing insurgency in neighboring Iraq.[50] Jihadists reportedly came from across the Muslim World.[54] 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.[100] Some FSA brigades cooperated with Mujahideen fighters.[50]

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.[101] CBS News reported that 48 elite businessmen who were the primary financiers for the Syrian government switched sides.[102] 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.[103] 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.[104] Some Christians supported the Army and formed militias after the capture of their quarters by the special forces of the Syrian Army.[7][8] The (Christian) Armenians also supported the Syrian Army. Aleppo's Armenians claimed that Turkey supported the FSA in order to attack Armenians. Arab Christian and Armenian militia had around 150 fighters.[9]

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 did not fight the Syrian Army unless attacked.[105] The Kurdish areas in Aleppo were mainly under PYD control.[32] Four hundred Turkmen joined the battle under Sultan Abdulhamid Han.[37]

Course of the Battle[edit]

2012 – Initial rebel attack and capture of Eastern Aleppo[edit]

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.[106] 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[edit]

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, effectively lifting 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[edit]

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[edit]

On 5 January, the rebels recaptured the Majbal (Sawmills) area of al-Brej after fighting that killed or wounded no less than 20 soldiers. They also captured the southern entrance of the stone quarries known as al-Misat, forcing government troops to retreat to the north.[107][108] Later, it was reported the rebels managed to seize the Manasher al-Brej area and were trying 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.[109]

The next day, the rebels reportedly took control over the al-Akhdar Mosque, a mill and the al-Tawattor al-Aali area of al-Brej. The clashes reportedly left one rebel and 6 government fighters dead.[110]

On 8 January, the Army and pro-government militias conducted a counter-attack against areas seized by the rebels in previous days.[111]

On 22 January, the rebels reportedly advanced in al-Mallah and Seifat areas[112]

On 24 January, rebels reportedly took control over some positions in al- Brej Hill after violent clashes against government forces supported by loyal militia. [113][114]

Strategic analysis[edit]

Rebel forces expanded out to the country side 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 back roads.[115] 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.[116] 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".[117]

On 26 November 2012, rebels captured Tishrin Dam, further isolating government forces in Aleppo with only one uncovered route into Aleppo remaining.[118] 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.[119] By late February 2013, the Aleppo international airport was almost totally surrounded by rebel forces.[120] Later, the Syrian army regained control of the strategic Tel Sheigeb town allowing them to approach the airport.[121] In November 2013, the Syrian army retook the town of al-Safira.[122] This opens 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 attempt to rebuild the economy and provide jobs.[123] As of October 2014, the army has been able to seize Sheikh Najjar, reinforce Aleppo Central Prison and capture 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 would prefer fighting closer to Lebanon. Tensions came to ahead in this respect 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,[124] and other pro-government militant groups sent as reinforcements such as the National Defence Force proved unreliable in combat.[125][126] 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.[127] 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".[128] 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.[129] The Syrian Opposition's strategic victory at the Siege of Wadi Deif has resulted in several main regime supply lines being threatened.[130] This has cast doubt on regime force's 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. Suhail al-Hassan.[131]

United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has proposed a freeze in fighting that has been met with groups divided upon its implementation.[132] 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".[133] 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.[134]

Reactions[edit]

Domestic reaction[edit]

  •  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..."[135]

Foreign reactions[edit]

  •  Armenia – Armenia began sending humanitarian aid to Aleppo in mid-October.[136] 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."[137]
  •  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.[138]
  •  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."[139]
  •  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".[140] The Russian Consulate General in Aleppo "suspended operations" on 16 January 2013.[141]
  •  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.[142] 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.[143]
  •  United Kingdom – William Hague, the British Foreign Minister, said, "the world must speak out to avert a massacre in Aleppo."[144]
  •  United States – The United States said it feared a new massacre in Aleppo by the 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."[145] The United States condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the government SCUD missile strikes on Aleppo in late February, 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".[146]

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Coordinates: 36°13′N 37°10′E / 36.217°N 37.167°E / 36.217; 37.167