Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad are closing in on rebel-held Aleppo for what could prove a decisive strike against the dictator’s non-jihadist opponents.
Last week, Syrian troops, supported by Shia militias from Iran and Lebanon, severed the main road from Aleppo to the Turkish border, a narrow corridor through which aid organizations and rebels alike had moved supplies.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based advocacy group, reports that several villages in the area were hit by airstrikes on Sunday.
CNN reports that loyalist forces on the ground, supported by Russian bombers in the air, are tightening the noose around the eastern half of the city, which is still held by a coalition of rebel groups.
The regime and its allies will attempt to complete their encirclement of Aleppo in the coming weeks, the Institute for the Study of War predicts.
The end result could be a protracted siege, the American think tank warns, “that bolsters the political leverage exerted by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad while subjecting the remaining civilian population in opposition-held districts to a punishing campaign of starvation and aerial bombardment.”
Some 320,000 people out of a prewar population or more than two million are believed to live in what remains of Syria’s once largest city.
The institute argues that the operations around Aleppo have hinged on heavy military support from both Russian warplanes and Iranian proxy fighters.
Russia intervened in the Syrian war last year, claiming to support Assad in his fight against fanatical Islamists like supporters of the self-declared Islamic State.
But from the start, Russian planes carried out far more bombings in the vicinity of Assad’s Alawite homeland in the northwest of Syria than over the desert lands that are in the hands of the Islamic State.
Iran, Assad’s only ally in the Middle East, joined in by raising an expeditionary corps of Shia Islamists for the front south of Aleppo.
In October, an American official put the number of Shia fighters around Aleppo, including members of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, at 2,000.
The push to Aleppo comes on the heels of Assad’s retaking of the Nusayriyah Mountains that separate his Latakia homeland from the Sunni-populated highlands.
Aron Lund wrote at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month that Russian support was critical there as well. What the regime lacked in numbers it made up in firepower, including Russian artillery systems and bombardments.
By systematically showering Latakia’s forested mountainsides and peasant hamlets with airstrikes and rocket barrages, they made it almost impossible for their enemy to maintain fixed positions.
The regime was forced to withdraw from the fertile Ghab plain beyond the Nusayriyah Mountains last year. It is now on the verge of retaking it from rebels who must rush to defend Aleppo.
The combined efforts to retake Aleppo and the Ghab plain suggest a broader strategy on Assad’s part to push rebels who have been supported by other Arab states and the West out of Syria’s most populated areas.
Such a strategy would ultimately focus on securing the M5 motorway which links Damascus, the capital, to Homs, Hama and Aleppo in the north.
Russia appears to have concentrated its airstrikes in this area and Assad already retook Homs, one of the first cities that rose up against him in 2011, in December.
These events give further credence to the theory — as reported by the Atlantic Sentinel as early as 2012 — that short of reconquering the whole country, Assad’s best option is to retreat into those parts that are mostly populated by Alawites, Christians and Druze and leave the Sunni-majority center and east to what is now the Islamic State.