ISTANBUL — It began with two massive suicide bomb attacks.
A ferocious ground offensive quickly followed, punctuated by artillery strikes and even a tank offensive that appeared to catch regime forces off guard. Within hours on Saturday, Syrian rebel forces, including US-backed fighters and jihadi extremists, had punched a hole through the blockade around eastern Aleppo. It took the rebels — many of them were equipped with new weapons — less than 24 hours to break a siege that the regime, backed by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-backed militias, had taken nearly a year to assemble.
The rebels not only secured the precarious Ramouseh route to opposition-held eastern Aleppo, they also cut the main supply route for the western half of the city, which is controlled by the regime and is now itself in danger of being besieged. One Syrian expert called the tangle of troops and territory a “kind of Mexican standoff.”
The fight over Aleppo is a crucial, symbolic, and strategic battle for all of the regional and global powers tied up in the Syrian conflict. Regime victory over rebels in Aleppo could spell the end of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, while rebel control over the city's center and its eastern surroundings keeps them as major players in any potential settlement of the conflict. Charles Lister, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, described the victory as “a huge symbolic development,” giving the beleaguered rebels some breathing room.
The rebels themselves were elated at a rare, clear-cut battlefield victory.
“The morale of the rebels is so high,” said one Syrian activist, embedded among the fighters in the western outskirts of Aleppo, in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “They won't stop till they liberate all of Aleppo.”
Syria’s conflict, now in its fifth year, has become a grueling, zero-sum sectarian war pitting Sunni rebels against pro-regime forces dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect and allied Shia militias. Few believe the battle for Aleppo, once the country’s largest city and commercial capital, will end anytime soon. After the breaking of the month-long siege, Russian and Syrian warplanes responded furiously. Pro-opposition Syrian activists provided photos that showed jets showering civilian districts in the rebel stronghold of Idlib with banned phosphorous weapons, effectively attempting to burn alive the families of the rebels who had just handed them a defeat. Rebels say government forces dropped chlorine gas in a barrel bomb. This week, pro-regime media reported that 2,000 Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters were heading to Ramouseh to mount a regime offensive.
The UN has reiterated calls for a renewed cessation of hostilities, while Russia floated a daily three-hour ceasefire to allow for the flow of supplies into civilian areas. But the stakes of the Aleppo battle compel every party to fight to the end, despite the difficulty of achieving an all-out victory. Russia has made northern Syria a showcase to demonstrate its military prowess to the world. Syrian rebels, and their Turkish and Arabian Peninsula allies, see it as a crucial stand for their Sunni rebel allies against an assertive Iran. Tehran and its allies see rebel control over huge chunks of Syria as a threat to weapons supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The regime needs control of the city to boast that only it is capable of running Syria.
"The battle is still open [in Aleppo] and will not end except when the Syrian army and its allies declare victory and liberate all Syrian soil from the gangs of terror,” Ahmed Orabi Baaj of Syria's government-owned Al-Thawra daily wrote on Thursday.
But the rebel victory at Ramouseh has already badly damaged the reputation of the regime. No one ever doubted the Syrian regime’s superiority in the air, especially since the Russians began flying sorties last September. But the cracking of the siege by rebel forces demonstrated the weakness of Assad’s ground capabilities without massive Russian air cover or the thousands of religiously motivated militiamen organized by Iranian and Lebanese commanders.
“The reinforcement that we see coming to Aleppo are Hezbollah and Iraqis,” Fabrice Balanche, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in an interview. “I haven’t seen too many Syrian troops coming to Aleppo. You are in the middle of Arab Sunni territory very hostile to the Assad regime. The Aleppo population doesn’t want to fight. The young men want to escape the military service and go abroad,” he wrote about the battle in a paper earlier this week.
Even Hezbollah fighters have complained repeatedly to BuzzFeed News that both the regular Syrian army and allied pro-Assad militias have performed poorly on the outskirts of Aleppo. Arab media this week described multiple Hezbollah sources in Syria directly blaming the Syrian forces for an unwillingness to fight in the predominantly Sunni Arab city and its surroundings.
Rebels had been preparing for a confrontation against the regime in Aleppo for months. Rebel fighters insist most of the weapons they have are their own or were acquired by plundering regime warehouses. But videos uploaded online recently showed rebels with mint-condition Grad multiple rocket launchers, and many suspect the weapons have come across the Turkish border. Asked about the provenance of the apparently fresh flood of weapons wielded by Syrian rebels, a Turkish official declined to comment.
“We’ve got new weapons,” acknowledged one fighter, Abu Mostafa, a former lawyer who joined the armed rebellion after he was imprisoned in 2012. “We have Grad missiles and so many other weapons. We’ve been studying war for years now. We are more professional.”
The planning intensified a month ago with the fall of the Castello Road, which connected the rebel-controlled countryside to the center of Aleppo. The current assault kicked off shortly after Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most powerful of the rebel groups, officially cut its ties to al-Qaeda and changed its name to the Levant Conquest Front, allowing it to join forces with other rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the US.
Syrian forces knew an attempt to break the Aleppo siege was coming, though many assumed rebels would aim to retake control of Castello. But when the offensive began, the push came from the south of the city, where rebels had been fighting Iranian troops as well as Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and militiamen from Iraq and Afghanistan for months.
“There was a high level of military planning and that was a surprise for the regime,” said Col. Mohammed al-Ahmed, a spokesperson for the Levantine Front, a unit of the Free Syrian Army. “The regime thought that we will attack on the Castello Road but we surprised them and attacked them from the southwest of Aleppo.”
One fighter said at least 20,000 fighters from different groups had been assembled for the offensive. Charles Lister, at the Middle East Institute, said in a video interview posted online that militants from nearly two dozen rebel groups were involved in the battle. But most agree that the Army of Conquest, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups led by Ahrar al-Sham and the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Levant Conquest Front, played the biggest role in the penetration.
The two suicide bombings that kicked off the battle targeted a military academy that had been used as a regime bastion. “It was like an impenetrable fortress that the regime had under its control for so long,” said Abdul-Hamid, an activist on the outskirts of Aleppo.
Afterward, forces of the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, alongside Levant Conquest Front fighters, advanced toward the second line of defense near Aleppo’s Hamdaniyeh district in the west, which had been under regime control since 2011.
As Ahrar al-Sham and the Levant Conquest Front moved toward central Aleppo, Free Syrian Army units inside the besieged city moved outward toward Ramouseh. Rebels from inside and outside the city met up at the highway. But any celebrations were short-lived. The more extremist groups leading the offensive and the Free Syrian Army immediately began sniping over who deserved credit for the victory. While food convoys have begun entering western Aleppo, making their way in through the heavily contested Castello corridor, the Russian and Syrian aerial bombing intensified, barring any but small convoys of food to reach besieged eastern Aleppo, home to as many as 300,000 people.
“Until this moment, the civilians didn't receive any kind of official aid or food,” said Abdul-Hamid. “There’s a lot of bombing on the roads, and even the media couldn't enter. The shelling is unplanned and random. Hopefully when the rebels will control or gain more areas and widen the corridor, it will get less dangerous.”
Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar, Munzer al-Awad, and Mitch Prothero.