Watching Aleppo

Something unexpected happened in Syria over the weekend. No, it’s not that the rebels, led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (hey, whatever they want to call themselves), launched an offensive to try to break the siege of eastern Aleppo–as important as Aleppo is, and as prestigious as it would be for any rebel faction to get credit for breaking Bashar al-Assad’s siege, some attempt like this was inevitable. No, the unexpected thing is that, right now, it almost looks like they have a shot at pulling it off:

Some Aleppo families are reportedly leaving the city via the “corridors” that Russia and Assad have promised to leave open for people attempting to evacuate, though there are still plenty of questions about whether Assad and Russia are genuinely going to keep these corridors open, and more questions about whether Assad and Russia are sincerely planning to open other “corridors” to bring humanitarian aid into the besieged city. The UN has argued that it, rather than two of the conflict’s belligerents, should be managing these corridors, but it doesn’t seem like that’s in the cards. But because they’re being run by Assad and Russia, many people inside Aleppo are going to understandably conclude that these “corridors” are less humanitarian outlets than they are ways to herd people into regime-controlled parts of Syria in order to facilitate arrests–or worse.

This France 24 report describes the humanitarian situation inside Aleppo:

Now, there’s a lot that would still have to go right for the rebels to actually break the siege, particularly given that Assad and the Russians still have that advantage in air power (though that’s no guarantor of success either), but this is still pretty surprising (well, it is to me, anyway):

A rebel military command centre that includes the newly formed Islamist group Jabhat Fatah al Sham, formerly the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham and Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades said they had seized army positions and some residential compounds in the first few hours of the assault, which began on Sunday night.

Later, rebels said they had captured the strategic al-Mishrefah area, south of the Ramousah air force artillery base, which has been used to pound rebel-held areas from its fortified hilltop position.

“There is fast and quick progress,” said Abdul Salam Abdul Razak, military spokesman of the Free Syrian Army’s Nour al Din al-Zinki group.

JFS’s stature at the top of the rebel pyramid was secured when Aleppo was encircled. If they lead the offensive that breaks the siege, it’ll be untouchable. The United States has always seen the outcomes in Syria on a spectrum from ideal (secular pluralistic democracy) to bad (Assad remains in power) to terrible (a Taliban-like theocracy), and at this point “ideal” has flown out the door and probably isn’t coming back. Blame the Obama administration for failing to aid the Free Syrian Army quickly enough or heavily enough to counter the extremists–I have doubts that this could ever have worked, given how quickly the extremists got their shit together and how divergent US and FSA goals in Syria always were–or blame them for getting involved in Syria at all, but past is past, and now Washington has some very uncomfortable choices to make.

A negotiated end to the war that both freezes JFS (and Ahrar al-Sham, etc.) out of the transitional government and eventually leads to Assad’s departure is still Washington’s stated goal, but if you can explain to me 1) why Assad would agree to that and 2) why the rebels would throw their two strongest factions under the bus at this point, well, then you’re better at figuring these kinds of things out than I am. Even if you could get the rebels to go along with it and get Assad to agree to shuffle off into the ether, you’re still looking at another civil war on top of this one, because JFS and Ahrar al-Sham aren’t going to go away quietly. And you’ll note I haven’t written a word about either the Kurds, who are openly fighting against the rebels at this point, or ISIS, which everybody hates but nobody hates enough to stop fighting each other and deal with it. The UN is trying to organize a new round of peace talks for late August, but this seems like a “believe it when you see it” sort of thing.

But, hey, speaking of ISIS and the Kurds, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to push ISIS out of Manbij:

U.S.-backed forces have now seized control of almost 70 percent of Manbij in northern Syria from Islamic State after making rapid advances over the past two days, a spokesman said on Sunday.

Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) have pushed back the ultra hardline Sunni militants into the old quarter after seizing most of the western, eastern and southern sectors of the city, Sharfan Darwish of the SDF-allied Manbij military council told Reuters in Beirut by telephone.

“They are now mainly in the old quarter of the city and parts of the north-eastern part of the city,” Darwish added.

Getting ISIS out of Manbij is good. Doing it while your US-led air cover keeps bombing civilians is not so good:

A day after announcing a formal inquiry into what watchdogs call the United States’ worst civilian casualty incident in its war against the Islamic State militant group, the US military said that more civilians may have been killed in another airstrike around the same Syrian city.

Manbij, the scene of intense fighting for over two months between Isis and US-backed militant groups, has now experienced another airstrike that “may have resulted in civilian casualties”, the US Central Command (Centcom) disclosed late on Thursday.

“We can confirm the coalition conducted airstrikes in the area in the last 24 hours,” Centcom said in a statement.

It becomes increasingly difficult for the US to take some kind of moral high road with respect to Assad and the Russians when American airstrikes are killing civilians at nearly the same rate the other two are. And it doesn’t bode well for the Kurdish-led SDF’s ability to stabilize Manbij, which in peacetime at least has a large Arab and Circassian population in addition to its Kurdish population, when their takeover of the city comes at the cost of dozens or hundreds of civilian lives.


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