ISW on Aleppo and the Broader War in Syria

The pro-Assad forces’ onslaught in Aleppo marks a key inflection point for the war in Syria. Eastern Aleppo’s imminent fall – to a coalition that includes Russia and Iran and its various proxies – will accelerate the war’s destabilizing effects. Jihadists will further improve their position within the Syrian opposition. Fighters aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will continue committing atrocities against civilians. The Russian and Iranian regimes will grow more emboldened. The United States, its allies, and its international partners must now confront this new, yet predictable, phase in the Syrian war.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has led a significant effort on Aleppo, tracking developments and putting the situation there in the context of the broader war and U.S. policy. ISW’s analysts have offered trenchant insights on the battle and led the way in forecasting events and trends. ISW will remain a critical resource on the continuing Syrian conflict and its strategic implications.

The following excerpts provide an overview of ISW’s prescient work on Aleppo over the last year:

“Aleppo Campaign Update: Pro-Regime Forces Advance in Aleppo City,” Christopher Kozak, November 30, 2016

  • “Eastern Aleppo City serves as one of the last remaining major hubs of acceptable opposition groups in Northern Syria. The surrender of Eastern Aleppo City will likely drive these groups into deeper partnership with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and other Salafi-Jihadist Groups in order to preserve their military effectiveness on the battlefield.”
  • “…the fall of Aleppo City will not mark the end of the Syrian Civil War. Opposition groups will likely wage an increasingly-radicalized insurgency across Northern Syria with continued support from regional backers such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.” 

Read the full article here

Warning Update: Russia Prepares to Escalate Military Intervention in Syria,” Jonathan Mautner, Genevieve Casagrande, and Christopher Kozak with Omar Kebbe, Kathleen Weinberger, Franklin Holcomb, and Benjamin Knudsen, November 4, 2016

  • “Russia will likely use the Kuznetsov and its extant military assets in Syria in order to intensify operations against opposition forces in Aleppo City and its surrounding countryside, bolstering the regime’s crippling siege on opposition-held districts of the city.” 
  • “Russia’s support to the Assad regime continues to remove potential partners for the U.S. against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria from the battlefield.” 

Read the full article here

Syrian Opposition Plans Operation to Break Aleppo Siege,” Jennifer Cafarella, October 24, 2016

  • “Russia feigned receptivity to international concern over the Aleppo siege while shifting air assets to target other opposition-held areas outside of Aleppo. Russia may also have used the pause to complete some maintenance on its air frames in Syria.”
  • “[Jabhat Fatah al-Sham Emir Abu Muhammad al-] Joulani will also undoubtedly condemn the US for failing to prevent Russian war crimes in Aleppo and characterize the fight for Aleppo as a struggle against the enemies of Sunni globally in order to fuel the growing alienation of Syrian civilians and opposition fighters from the US.”

Read the full article here and a follow-up article here

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 13 – October 11, 2016,” Jonathan Mautner, October 13, 2016

  • “Russian air power alone likely will not enable pro-regime forces to recapture the densely-populated urban terrain of Aleppo City. Rather, the regime and Iran will have to deploy more combat-effective ground forces in order to leverage the asymmetric effect of the Russian air campaign to clear Aleppo City of the Syrian opposition.”
  • “Russia will likely continue to coordinate its air operations with regime siege-and-starve tactics that aim to neutralize opposition forces in dense urban terrain with minimal military resources.”

Read the full article here

Russian Airstrikes in Aleppo Province: September 20 – 22, 2016,” Jonathan Mautner, September 23, 2016

  • “Russia has periodically intensified and tempered its air operations in Aleppo Province during negotiations with the U.S., wielding the threat of even deeper humanitarian crisis and the defeat of the acceptable opposition in Aleppo City in order to extract concessions.”
  • “Russia will not accede to a partnership with the U.S. except on its own terms, and will continue to wage its air campaign in Syria coercively in order to secure them.”    

Read the full article here

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre- and Post-Cessation of Hostilities,” Genevieve Casagrande, September 21, 2016

  • “Both Russia and the Syrian regime will continue to use subsequent ceasefires to solidify gains against the Syrian opposition in Aleppo City and to employ siege-and-starve tactics to force the defeat of the opposition in critical terrain.”
  • “Russia and the regime will therefore pursue a strategy to remove mainstream opposition forces from the battlefield either through their submission, destruction, or the transformation of these groups into radical elements that can be rightfully targeted as terrorists. Russia is purposefully driving this radicalization through its deliberate targeting of civilian and humanitarian infrastructure.”

Read the full article here

Opposition Forces Break the Siege of Aleppo City,” Christopher Kozak, August 8, 2016

  • “The estimated quarter-million remaining residents of Eastern Aleppo City nonetheless face a continued threat of siege amidst ongoing clashes and heavy aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes that have prevented humanitarian groups and civilians from using the newly-established supply route.”
  • “These grievances provide Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham an opportunity to leverage their integral role in lifting the siege to generate public support and draw opposition groups into a closer partnership. This integration would advance the long-term goal of al Qaeda to unify the jihad in preparation for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate.” 

Read the full article here

Opposition Forces Launch Offensive to Break the Siege of Aleppo,” Genevieve Casagrande and Jennifer Cafarella, August 3, 2016

  • “The regime and Russia will pursue a protracted ‘siege and starve’ campaign in order to force the submission of these remaining acceptable groups, solidifying the dominance of the Salafi jihadist opposition in northwestern Syria.” 
  • “The collapse of acceptable armed opposition groups in Aleppo would not only solidify the staying power of hardline opposition factions in northwestern Syria, but would also ensure a continued Salafi jihadist safehaven in Idlib Province.”

Read the full article here

Syria 90-Day Forecast: The Assad Regime and Allies in Northern Syria,” Genevieve Casagrande, Christopher Kozak, and Jennifer Cafarella, February 24, 2016

  • “…Assad now sits within reach of several of his military objectives, including the encirclement and isolation of Aleppo City and the establishment of a secure defensive perimeter along the Syrian Coast.”
  • “Russian campaign designers have clearly planned the ongoing operations in northern Syria, introducing to the Syrian battlefield signature Russian doctrinal concepts such as frontal aviation, cauldron battles, and multiple simultaneous and successive operations.” 

Read the full article here 

American Security is at Risk in Aleppo,” Jennifer Cafarella, February 23, 2016

  • “Russian airstrikes are weakening the opposition’s defenses in the outskirts of Aleppo, setting conditions for a final assault by pro-regime forces. They are also destroying critical infrastructure and hospitals to force civilians to flee.”
  • “The opposition forces now inside the city include U.S.-supported groups that are relatively independent from jihadist forces. They cannot prevent the encirclement of Aleppo, however, and may not survive the siege. Those who do survive are more likely over time to submit to the leadership of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, and other hardline elements that can help them endure when no one else offers assistance.” 

Read the full article here

 “The Russian Air Campaign in Aleppo,” Genevieve Casagrande, February 13, 2016

  • “The distribution of Russian airstrikes in Aleppo Province demonstrates that its air campaign is primarily directed at weakening the armed Syrian opposition generally, not ISIS or al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.”
  • “Russia obscures its true intentions in Syria through an active disinformation campaign.”

Read the full article here

Syrian Armed Opposition Forces in Aleppo,” Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande, February 13, 2016

  • “The U.S. has a short time frame in Aleppo to prevent the upcoming humanitarian catastrophe and preserve opposition groups the U.S. needs in order to destroy ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in the long term.”
  • “There is very little to indicate that Russia, Iran, or the Syrian regime have any intention of halting their military campaign in northern Syria, despite this diplomatic overture.”

Read the full article here

Assad Regime Gains in Aleppo Alter Balance of Power in Northern Syria,” Christopher Kozak, February 5, 2016

  • “The regime and its allies have waged a multi-pronged campaign in Aleppo Province over the past four months to set conditions for an offensive to isolate and ultimately seize Aleppo City…The operations in Aleppo Province have hinged upon heavy military support from both Russian warplanes and Iranian proxy fighters.”
  • “The flows of displaced persons generated by this campaign will place additional strain upon regional U.S. allies while fueling further resentment and radicalization among the refugee population.”

Read the full article here


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