The Stronghold of Aleppo

Siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War lasted for 9 months. Siege of Tobruk during World War 2 lasted for 8 months. The defense of Leningrad during World War 2 lasted 900 days. Tripoli in 2011 was taken in 8 days.

The battle for Aleppo has raged since 2012 and so far neither side of conflict has a decisive advantage.

Aleppo is not the capital of Syria, but its population in 2012 was 2.1 million, more than in Damascus. It is a major industrial center, with a pre-war concentration of electrical, chemical, textile and pharmaceutical industries. Aleppo was responsible for 60% of export revenues to the national budget. The city is also home to are military schools such as the Al-Assad Academy, as well as weapons depots. Protests against the regime did not affect the city for almost a year. The situation deteriorated only after the explosion at the headquarters of the military intelligence and the Sahour Square on February 10, 2012 as a result of which 25 people died. After that, the situation began to grow like an avalanche. In early July, the rebels launched a major attack in the region of Idlib and seized heavy weapons from regular army which enabled them to advance on Aleppo. The first serious clash with the regular army began July 20 in the Saladin quarter. July 21 the rebels from Aleppo and the arriving “Liwa al-Tawhid” took control of the streets of several neighborhoods, including Sakhura. Thus began the city’s occupation by the armed opposition. The rapid success of the armed opposition was largely due to the preparatory work by the Turkish secret services among some of the Sunni bourgeoisie in Aleppo. The Turkish government has promised the disgruntled Sunnis in Aleppo that the Turkish army would intervene if the militants seized the city, and then create a buffer state in Aleppo in which local businesses would be exempted from taxes. Turkish interest in Aleppo is testified to by the removal of equipment from 1500 city businesses and then shipping it to Turkey. Turkish motives are more or less clear: in recent years Aleppo has attracted investment, especially in light industry and the modernization of production facilities. Aleppo became a competitor to Turkish companies. As for the business community of Aleppo, Bashar Assad’s profession is children’s ophthalmologist. This profession is a reflection of the person’s character and his attitude towards others. If he were a bloody dictator, as he is painted Western media, Assad would not have hesitated to order his army to crush the protests.

Industrialists and entrepreneurs saw that the situation was not normalized after a year of mass protests the authorities, took this as a weakness of the Syrian government and decided to play the Turkish card. They represented an important component of the offensive on Aleppo, mobilizing residents of the city with the help of calls for jihad from several mosques in Sunni neighborhoods. It should be noted that the opposition initially was not powerful in the western neighborhoods of the city. On the other hand, the eastern neighborhoods were populated mostly by recent immigrants from the countryside, the poor and the conservative-minded Muslims. At the same time, Western districts are hereditary residence of the residents, as well as the Christian minority.

The battle for Aleppo is regarded as crucial by all parties to the conflict. The opposition plans in case of victory in Aleppo to create a base for conducting further hostilities along the north-western border with Turkey. For the “Islamic state” taking Aleppo will create a springboard for an attack on the west and south in the direction of Latakia and Tartus. In turn, the SAA’s task is to prevent these developments, as well as the Turkish intervention “to stabilize own borders” that would follow.

Fig.1 Military Situation in Aleppo City on November 5, 2016. Red circles depict the areas of recent clashes
Fig.1 Military Situation in Aleppo City on November 5, 2016. Red circles depict the areas of recent clashes

So why has the battle continued for so long? There are several explanations.

The first is the city’s dense urban and industrial environment. Wars of the 20th century have shown that the most difficult type of warfare is urban. Every house or building can be transformed into a fortress with firing ports for heavy weapons.

Fig.2 Machine gunner points his weapon through a firing port drilled in a concrete wall.
Fig.2 Machine gunner points his weapon through a firing port drilled in a concrete wall.

Cellars are already equipped with shelter from the bombs and shells. They can also be used as a place for rest and recreation. In addition, the cellar is an ideal storage of weapons, ammunition, food and fuel. Even destroyed houses serve as cover for movement of troops and equipment.

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Fig.3 Armed unit take position behind a damaged car.

Minarets, bell towers, smokestacks are ideal for snipers and spotters for artillery and aviation. Underground communications are actively used by all parties to hide their forces and for their sudden appearance behind the front lines. Dense urban and industrial development creates difficulties in the destruction of buildings and structures in that it requires large stocks of ammunition and a large number of artillery pieces, or car bombs in order to launch surprise attacks. Armored vehicles are relegated to the role of fire support for the advancing infantry and cannot exploit their superior mobility or even protection.

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Fig.4 Using a tank as cover from small arms fire.

Urban warfare creates command and control problems due to the proximity of friendly and hostile forces, and the impossibility of maintaining clear front line. The danger of friendly fire si high. Urban warfare consists of sudden, fleeting clashes, placing soldiers constant psychological stress. Urban environments also impede concentrations of troops, made intelligence and command activities gathering more difficult, and hinders radio communications. Without a doubt, in the city is much more preferable to keep the defense than to attack.

2. Motivation of the parties. Aleppo has been turned into a fortress, with besiegers (SAA) and the besieged (the armed opposition). The SAA has been bled by the four years of war and needs resupply and replenishment. Many of its allies, such as the Kurdish militias, IRGC, or Iraqi volunteers, come from the outside of the city which limits their effectiveness. There is constant media pressure against the SAA which is described as a collection of war criminals. Many of young males who would have been subject to mobilization have fled the city and became refugees. The militants also suffered heavy losses, and have been cut off from the rest of the world, but they enjoy international propaganda support. And they have no incentive to surrender, due to the atrocities they have committed. Therefore one can expect bitter fighting during the forthcoming assault.

3. Numeral balance. Neither side as a clear advantage in terms of the quantity of troops and equipment, when it is generally recognized the attacker needs a 3-fold superiority in order to guarantee success. Moreover, the advancing forces also have to hold liberated territory, prevent enemy break-outs, and clear the city of mines and booby-traps, all the while avoiding heavy casualties that would undermine SAA’s manpower even more.

It is difficult to say how events will unfold, but one should not expect a peaceful resolution to the battle since the opposition has no desire to give in. Likewise there is no progress on the diplomatic front, and UN Security Council peace initiatives are deadlocked. In military terms, everything suggests that the SAA and its allies are ready for action. The two-week humanitarian pause gave civilians a chance to leave. Both sides have used it to rest, reorganize, and prepare for the next round of fighting. The result will be a bloody, attritional clash that will leave many people dead and in which the victory will go to the side able to sustain the effort longer than the opponent.


Source: South Front