Matthew Henman, the head of JTIC and analyst Nolwenn Bourillon-Bervas, who covers the Middle East and North Africa, explain why the battle for control of Aleppo is of such importance.
The battle for control of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria and the country’s industrial heart, has increasingly become one of the most symbolic and strategically-important of a conflict that has raged for more than five years.
Considered vital by both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the anti-government opposition, control of the city has been heavily-contested ever since an opposition offensive in July 2012 left opposition forces – dominated by militant Islamist groups – in control of the eastern half of the city and government forces in control of the western half.
Over the following years somewhat of a stalemate occurred, during which both sides engaged in intense positional fighting in an attempt to increase their territorial control, while at the same time artillery exchanges and the government’s use of airstrikes left large areas of the city badly damaged.
How the situation in Syria has intensified
The situation shifted with the Russian military intervention in Syria in late September 2015, little over 12 months ago. The boost in airpower and resources that the government received revitalised its efforts in and around Aleppo.
In February, government forces - backed by Russian airstrikes and on the ground by Shia Islamist militants such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and affiliated groups and volunteer militias from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan – captured vital territory to the north of Aleppo city that cut vital supply routes from the Turkish border to opposition-controlled areas of the city.
Then, in mid-July, the remaining supply route into opposition-controlled areas, Castello Road to the north of Aleppo, was cut by government forces, effectively placing eastern Aleppo under siege.
By cutting off food and humanitarian supplies to opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo, the government seemingly sought to utilise the starvation strategy that it has successfully used to force the surrender of besieged opposition-controlled areas in the governorates of Homs and Damascus.
All the while airstrikes continued to target eastern Aleppo, nominally targeting opposition forces but in reality often hitting public areas and facilities, such as markets and hospitals.
The situation shifted slightly several weeks later, though. A new offensive was launched in late July by a combined force of local opposition groups and the militant Islamist coalition Jaish al-Fatah – the most prominent member of which is Jabhat Fath al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria until it claimed to have broken off ties with its parent organisation with the renaming.
On 6 August, the combined opposition forces succeeding in cutting Ramouseh road in the southeast of the city, which was the primary supply route into government-controlled western Aleppo. Not only did the offensive thereby lift the siege of eastern Aleppo, but it also placed western Aleppo under siege, with the government unable to transport supplies via the contested Castello road to the north.
As a consequence, the Syrian and Russian airstrike campaign intensified drastically in and around the city.
Data recorded by JTIC showed that between 6 August and the beginning of a US and Russia-brokered ceasefire in the city on 12 September:
airstrikes were conducted by Syrian and Russian forces in Aleppo
people were thought to have been killed, reportedly including 229 civilians
The scale of this activity was underlined by the fact that the airstrikes and resultant fatalities in this period of little over a month represented more than one-fifth of all Syrian and Russian airstrikes in Aleppo since the beginning of the year and more than one-fifth of all resultant fatalities.
During this intensified period of airstrikes, additional ground forces were deployed by the government to Aleppo and, at a high cost, the territorial gains made by the opposition in breaking the siege were reversed. After little over a month the government’s siege of east Aleppo was re-established.
Amid the subsequent ceasefire in Aleppo, beginning on 12 September, the tempo of Syrian and Russian airstrikes reduced dramatically but did not stop entirely, with seven airstrikes killing three civilians between the beginning of the ceasefire and its collapse a week later on 19 September.
Since then, the tempo of airstrikes has risen drastically. Between 19 September and 3 October, JTIC has recorded at least 143 separate airstrikes in Aleppo.
These resulted in at least 362 fatalities (of which 184, or 50.8%, were reportedly civilians).
As such, the Russian and Syrian airstrikes in Aleppo in the fortnight since the ceasefire collapsed have accounted for :
12.5% of all such airstrikes between 1 January and 3 October
17.1% of all resultant fatalities and 16.4% of all civilian casualties
Alongside this marked intensification of airstrikes on opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo, there have also been seemingly been shifts in operational patterns, with opposition and pro-opposition sources accusing the Syrian and Russian governments of deliberately and repeatedly targeting the few remaining hospitals still operating in eastern Aleppo, in addition to deploying heavy munitions – such as bunker-buster bombs – alongside the now standardised use of so-called barrel bombs.
Furthermore, while the nominal target of the airstrike campaign continues to be what the Syrian government terms “terrorists”, the very high proportion of civilian casualties underlines that frequently the airstrike campaign is indiscriminate at best and deliberately punitive at worst.
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