City Profile: The City of Aleppo

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Aleppo is the largest Syrian city and, before the civil war, was the economic hub of the country. Currently, it is almost impossible to say precisely how many people are still left in Aleppo, however, some estimates have been attempted. For rebel held Eastern Aleppo, numbers range from 40.0001. to 275.0002. people. The Kurdish enclave Sheikh Maksoud, which is controlled by the People’s Defence Unit (YPG), * self-reported * that around 90.000 people live in their territory3. and according to the United Nations, the entirety of Aleppo may still hold up to 2,000,000 people.4. The city has been a focal point of the war and international media reports have centred around it, especially as fighting has recently intensified.

Why is Aleppo so important?

Despite the fact that the Eastern part has suffered enormous destruction, its symbolic importance hasn’t changed. Aleppo is the last city the rebels hold which allows them to present themselves as a realistic alternative to Assad. This is due to the fact that without Aleppo they are confined to some isolated pockets and the rural and largely depopulated Idlib. They would be reduced to a mere insurgency. In essence, losing here would damage morale like no other loss, as it would render the chances of defeating Assad and the government highly improbable.

On a more logistical level, it would free up a lot of government troops and, given the current situation, it is very unlikely that the rebels would again have the chance to recapture Aleppo or even parts of it. It could also lead to foreign backers pulling out, similar to Jordan and the Southern Front after the failed Southern Storm operation. Considering the current situation, one may argue that the rebels are trying to stall the government offensive and keep their foothold in Aleppo, hoping that the next US President might be more supportive or may, at least, stop holding back the Gulf states and Turkey in their support. However, if the current situation on the ground remains the same, it is a matter of time until Aleppo falls.

How the siege came to be

During late July 2016, government forces attacked Aleppo from the North and seized Castello road, the last supply line the rebels had left for Eastern Aleppo.5. This was seen as a major victory and marked the start of the first siege. Following this Jaish al-Fatah and Fatah Halab attacked government positions in the South West and re-opened a corridor into Aleppo. This corridor cut the main supply line of Western Aleppo and weeks of fierce fighting ensued, though government troops managed to regain their positions and put Eastern Aleppo back under siege by early September. This battle was followed by relative calm (the short-lived ceasefire attempt) until September 27th, when government forces resumed the ongoing attack on rebel Aleppo.

Civilian suffering

Civilians have suffered greatly due to the fighting. Eastern Aleppo has been bombed heavily by the Russian and Syrian air force, with little regard for civilians. According to pro-opposition sources 456 civilians have been killed in Eastern Aleppo since the breakdown of the aforementioned ceasefire.6.  Lesser known is that Sheikh Maksoud and Western Aleppo have also been targeted by opposition militants. Shelling of the Kurdish district has been ongoing for months and has often been in retaliation for events elsewhere in Syria.7. There are many examples of Western Aleppo being shelled, the most recent of which is the attack on the University of Aleppo that left at least 5 civilians dead8., whilst according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights at least 51 died overall.9.

Recent Eastern Aleppo offensive

On the 27th of September 2016 government forces started their offensive to take Eastern Aleppo. The attack so far has had three main focal points. To the west of Aleppo Citadel, the dense, urban area has been taken.10.,11. In the south, a mixed urban and industrial area, fighting has been concentrated around Sheikh Said district, but only small gains have been reported. In the north, a mixed rural and industrial area, most territory has been captured from the rebels. Government forces have taken over Handarat Camp, the infamous Kindi hospital12.It has been the scene of an execution of government troops after rebels stormed the hospital in their initial attack on Aleppo and captured Owija district.13.,14. these gains have been made at a rapid pace and are significant on the slow moving Aleppo front.

Currently it seems that rebel lines aren’t breaking, but they have endured serious setbacks. In the north government forces will continue the advance until they reach the dense and exclusively urban areas. The effects of fighting in these areas have been seen on the other two fronts where advances have been slow. For this reason it is likely that the pace of the offensive will slow down as government forces advance further into the city.

Diplomatic reactions

The fighting has drawn a lot of international attention, not only from the media but also in the diplomatic arena. The pro-opposition backers are trying to slow down the government offensive. Some examples are the recently failed United Nations Security Council proposal to reactive the ceasefire15., the renewed talks about a no-fly zone over Aleppo16. or the breakdown of US-Russian Syria talks.17. The rhetoric between both factions also has taken on a much harsher tone.

The elephant in the room has been the United States election. While Trump’s foreign policy is a wild card, Clinton is much more aggressive and a proponent of a no-fly zone and further armament of opposition groups.18. Finally, if the Aleppo rebels hold out and Clinton becomes President it is probable that there will be a further escalation of the conflict. Other rebel backers already have previously set a precedent for escalation by shipping anti-aircraft weapons among others to “vetted FSA” groups.19.

Sebastian Gonano

Sebastian is a history student currently doing his master at TU Dresden. His focus at the International Review is the Syrian and Iraqi Civil wars, terrorism and the geopolitics surrounding it.


12 It has been the scene of an execution of government troops after rebels stormed the hospital in their initial attack on Aleppo
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