Belmont Club

The Battle For Aleppo

Perhaps the most feared word in Russian military memory is the German term Kesselschlacht, which literally means “cauldron battle”, a form of double envelopment.   In the early days of Hitler’s blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union,  literally millions of Stalin’s soldiers were trapped in cauldrons and were either annihilated or surrendered, often with identical results to the men.  Once you get Kesseled it really schlachts.

Skip forward to 2015 and the Institute for the Study of War thinks the medium-term objective of the Russian backed offensive against the Syrian city of Aleppo is to encircle it, trapping among others a brigade of US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.  The Free Syrian Army, ostensibly built around a core of defectors from Assad’s regular armed forces,  is optimized for small unit operations against the regime’s most potent combat assets.  It has had a checkered operational history.  Shaky at the start, it has evolved into a decent fighting force which often had Assad’s men on the ropes.

The Free Syrian Army on the local level engages and ambushes the state’s shabiha militia … the organization does not have the resources to occupy and take control of territories, and instead relies primarily on hit and run attacks …

The FSA also uses improvised explosive devices to attack military convoys of buses, trucks and tanks that are transporting supplies and security reinforcements and engages in attack and retreat operations on government checkpoints. …

A typical field unit such as the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade numbers between 300 to 400 fighters split into combat units of six to 10 men. Each man in the unit is armed with a light weapon, such as an AK-47, and the combat unit as a whole is equipped with an RPG launcher and a light machine gun.

One area the FSA have succeed in occupying was part of the commercial capital of Aleppo, which in happier times supported a population of 2.5 million.  It is now one of the major strongholds of the FSA, which took their share in the Battle of Aleppo, now regarded as the single biggest engagement of the civil war. The battle developed only only gradually, as its constituent tribes, districts and factions formed themselves into units in order to take part.  But in grew into ferocity into the very epitome of savagery in what is already a savage civil war.

The fight for Aleppo degenerated into a campaign of encirclement and counter-encirclement between the coalition of rebels and Assad’s forces. In 2012 the rebels had taken the southeastern suburbs of the city, cutting it off from direct access to the M4 and M5 highways leading to Damascus. Rebels also took the dam at Assad lake to the East. But just when it looked to be over, the Syrian Army counterattacked to open a route to their garrisons from the southeast, via Tel Shegheb and the Airport.

The Syrian Army tried to reverse the encirclement the rebels, but gave it up when a threat further south emerged. In October 2008 rebels launched an offensive to capture the town of Maarrat al-Nu’man, “which holds a strategic position next to the M5 Highway, a key route which government reinforcements from Damascus would need to use in order to enter the battle in Aleppo”. This was aggravated by the loss of Idlib, a major city to the south of Aleppo, to a coalition led by al-Nusra. “Now that the city was captured, rebels would potentially focus on other objectives, such as the Abu Duhour air base, Ariha, Hama, Nubl, Zahra, military supply routes to Aleppo, and potentially striking the government heartland of Latakia.”

An exhausted Assad ultimately had to let the rebels keep Aleppo, though they remained locked at close quarters. That is the context in which current Russian operations against Aleppo should be understood.  Augmented by Hezbollah fighters, Iranian troops of various kinds and Russian airpower the Syrian Stalingrad is under attack.

Politically prominent among the rebels (at least from Washington’s point of view) are the Free Syrian Army. The Institute for the Study of War now believe that while “the renewed ground operations aim at a minimum to relieve the long-standing sieges of pro-regime enclaves in Aleppo Province” the real Russian/Iranian/Syria goal is more sinister: to fix the rebels in the south while the Russians pinch off the rebel corridor of retreat to the north.  Once the line of escape is closed the FSA will be in a Kesselschlacht.  Once the Russians have them in the pot, then its curtains for those trapped.

The maneuver south of Aleppo City likely aims to set conditions for an upcoming offensive to isolate rebel forces in Aleppo City. Regime and Iranian forces began conducting probing attacks along rebel frontlines throughout northwestern Syria after the Russian air campaign began on September 30. These localized offensives likely constitute components of a larger campaign designed to confuse and overextend rebel forces in advance of a decisive operation to penetrate into core rebel-held terrain. The decisive blow will likely target rebel positions north of Aleppo City. The attacks south of Aleppo City may thus constitute an attempt draw rebel reinforcements away from Aleppo City and fix them far from the northern Aleppo countryside. Any successful operation to seize or otherwise neutralize Aleppo City would deal a powerful symbolic and material blow to the Syrian opposition. Tightening control over Syria’s largest city would also place the Syrian regime and its allies in a position of strength before any negotiations regarding a political transition, an initial proposal for which the U.S. and eight other countries floated over the past few weeks.

Al-Arabiya suggested the Russians were seeking to shape the composition of the anti-Assad rebel alliance by going easy on ISIS while wiping out the FSA.  In fact, they suggested the FSA might even be under attack not only from the Russians, but ISIS as well.   By removing the last of the “moderate rebels” from the board, the Syrian situation would effectively become insoluble from the Western point of view, a choice between two evils.

As the Syrian government and its allies continue their offensive to recapture the city of Aleppo, a series of blows dealt recently to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have raised questions over whether it can successfully fight for a city once seen as its bastion.

Russian airstrikes, now entering their third week, have repeatedly hit opposition fighters, including FSA members.

With Russian aerial bombardment, Syrian army troops, and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters on one front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on another, this battle is a formidable test for the FSA, analysts say.

“Because ISIS is trying to take advantage of this offensive, it’s an unfair fight… It’s very tough,” Mohamed Ghanem, senior political adviser and government relations director at the Syrian American Council in Washington, told Al Arabiya News.

The Guardian cites FSA sources who allege that Putin is out to get them.

Usama Abuzaid, a senior adviser to the Free Syrian Army, said: “In the last couple of days the attacks increased everywhere in the countryside, even in the areas where Isis is trying to advance.

“Aleppo is very important for everyone. For us, it is our supply line to Turkey for food and weapons. Also, it has a revolutionary value for us. It holds our main FSA headquarters, and that’s the reason the Russians are advancing.

“The regime and Isis tried to take Aleppo last year and they couldn’t, and now they are trying again with the Russians. The Russians are doing Isis a huge favour. They are giving them air cover while they are attacking us from the ground.”

Syria Direct has a map which illustrates the scenario which the Russian coalition may be trying to execute. Step 5 is encircle Aleppo.

Encirclement and destruction

Encirclement and destruction

Some indirect confirmation of the Kremlin’s intentions is provided by state-funded RT which reports Putin stretching out a an olive branch to the FSA even while his air force bombs it. Putin professed a willingness to talk to the FSA at the right time:

“During [my] recent visit to Paris, French President Francois Hollande expressed an interesting idea, saying it is worth trying to unite the efforts of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s army and the so-called Free Syrian Army,” Putin said during a meeting with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.

He said, however, that Russia does not know where exactly the FSA is or who heads it.

“If we assume that this [FSA] is the military wing of the so-called healthy part of the opposition, then uniting their forces [with Assad’s army] against the common enemy – ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations – could create good ground for the political settlement in Syria.”

Should the Russian offensive succeed at encircling the rebels in Aleppo that would be the ‘right time’.  Putin will have achieved potentially more than a local tactical success.  By encircling a brigade of FSA they may have no choice but to accept Putin’s offer at “cooperation”.  The Russian president’s modus operandi has been a preference to grab America’s regional partners away from Obama.  To get the FSA to “join” him at gunpoint would be a propaganda coup.

The president’s public response to the Aleppo offensive has been to dismiss the Russians effort as doomed. VOA reported Obama was hardly worried:

U.S. President Barack Obama says a ground offensive in Syria is “not going to work.”

He told reporters Friday that even though the Russians have come in and Iran is sending in more people, “it’s also not going to work because they are trying to support a regime that in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people is not legitimate.”

Yet despite the outward confidence, there are signs the president is secretly concerned.   There appears to be a panic plan to re-arm up anyone who can fight  however vaguely they may be in America’s corner. The administration is now willing to risk letting arms fall into the hands of unfriendly rebels to keep his side alive.  A team of writers from Reuters reports: “U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to directly arm rebels fighting inside Syria is raising concern from Congress and intelligence officials over whether it provides enough safeguards to prevent the weapons falling into the wrong hands.”

The change in plan amounted to an about-turn for Obama, who in past years questioned the wisdom of sending more weapons into Syria’s civil war. Obama’s aides say that under the recalibrated Pentagon programme, the leaders of Syrian units given arms will be rigorously screened, and that U.S. military personnel are in contact with commanders on the ground.

The Pentagon says it can communicate directly with the groups and monitor how the equipment is being used. … Col. Patrick S. Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, adding that “…we cannot completely eliminate risk.”

Risks must be run as an alternative to accepting the greater risk of Putin’s triumph.  By destroying any realistic hope of a rebel triumph over Assad, Putin aims to lock the instability in place. Syria will become a broken state, with the coast in the hands of Assad and the other parts of it divided between the Kurds and various Islamist factions.

This would set the region on its ear. As David Petraeus put it, “Syria is in truth a geopolitical Chernobyl that is just spewing instability, violence and extremism. Not just in the immediate region, although that’s very obvious with the effect on Iraq and a number of the other countries around Syria, but it’s extending all the way of course into Europe, certainly, and of course the attraction for would-be extremists is all the way felt in places as far away as Australia and the United States.”

Putin gains by keeping Syria on the boil. And what better place to boil things than in a Kesselschlacht.

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