The ill-fated ceasefire between Assad and the “moderate Syrian rebels” broke down quickly after a Syrian army base was accidentally bombed by US forces and the destruction of a U.N. aid convoy was blamed on the Russians. Assad’s army quickly decided to continue operations to take Aleppo, which was pinched off from the rest of the line by Kurdish and Syrian Army advances in late July and under siege ever since. Virginia State Senator Richard Black’s analysis sets the stage quite well.
Both sides are committing massive resources to take Syria’s largest city, and many commentators are characterizing this battle as decisive for the entire war. A few days after Assad’s army took Castello Road, cutting off the last supply line to the “Aleppo pocket,” Al-Qaeda/Nusra forces attempted to break out. A force of 8-10 thousand al-Qaeda/Nusra jihadists armed with rocket launchers, suicide vests and 95 tanks (yes, that’s an al-Qaeda tank brigade) attempted to push north out of the pocket to secure their last supply line via Castello Road. Another al-Qaeda/Nusra army of about 30,000 attempted to push in from the outside, focusing both offensives on one section of the Syrian army’s cordon in order to break through. The cordon held and the breakout was a failure, and back-and-forth fighting continued throughout August with neither side gaining an advantage until the ceasefire was signed on September 11th.
As stated earlier, it was a short-lived ceasefire, but the al-Qaeda/Nusra forces dwelling in the city appear to be weakening from the siege. Although the opposition was able to repel another advance seeking to cut through the middle and divide the pocket, Assad’s army was able to gain ground in the north of the city with assistance from the Kurds. Clearing out and incorporating the pocket into Assad’s territory is expected to take weeks if not longer, and 20 civilians were killed and 100 injured from Assad’s airstrikes on the city. According to Senator Black, Syrian Army forces are allowing civilians to leave Aleppo freely, and have proven that they can be trusted to allow the evacuations. However, al-Qaeda/Nusra jihadists in the city are reportedly not allowing civilians to leave, and killed 26 people out of a group that attempted it.
While the Army Chief of Staff was rattling his saber in Washington, the UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura tabled a plan to allow al-Qaeda/Nusra forces in the city to leave peaceably. Assad and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed to it, knowing that the US would have to go along and convince the jihadists to relinquish the city if saving civilians is of paramount concern. As of a few hours ago, the UN envoy’s suggestion was rejected by al-Qaeda/Nusra, who are determined to break the siege despite the odds.