In Fight for Aleppo, Tangled Alliances Add to Chaos

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — There are Iraqi Shiite militiamen cheering for clerics who liken the enemy to foes from seventh-century battles. There are also Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Afghan refugees and Hezbollah militants — all joining the Syrian government’s ground battle for the critical city of Aleppo, each for its own reasons.

There are Syrians fighting, too: a few elite units from the army exhausted after five years of war, as well as pro-government militias that pay better salaries. And, of course, overhead there are the Russian pilots who have relentlessly bombed the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo.

The Syrian civil war, now concentrated in the bloody battle for that divided city, is often seen as a contest between a chaotic array of rebel groups and the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the reality on the ground is that Mr. Assad’s side is increasingly just as fragmented as its opponents, a group of unlikely allies with often-competing approaches and interests.

“The government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords,” was how one analyst, Tobias Schneider, recently summed up the situation.

The battle for eastern Aleppo, where the United Nations says more than 250,000 people are besieged, has raised tensions between the United States and Russia to their highest levels in years, but the Cold War rivals do not wield clear control over their nominal proxies. The competing interests on both sides and lack of clear leadership on either one is part of why the fighting has proved so hard to stop.

Mr. Assad is desperate to retain power, Moscow is seeking to increase its clout at the global geopolitical table, Iran is exercising its regional muscle, Afghan fighters seek citizenship in Iran, and leaders of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, have always vowed to go “wherever needed” to prevail in the war.

While both Washington and Moscow say preservation of Syrian state institutions is a priority, a look at the fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, shows that those structures are already atrophying.

At least one elite Syrian Army unit has been filmed seizing positions in Aleppo, but the bulk of the pro-government force is made up militiamen trained and financed by Iran, the Shiite theocracy that is the Syrian government’s closest ally, according to experts, diplomats, regional officials and fighters battling for and against the government.

“Aleppo is Shiite, and she wants her people,” goes a song overlaid onto a video posted online of an Iraqi cleric visiting Iraqi Shiite militia fighters on the front lines south of Aleppo. The message ignores the fact that the mainstream Shiite sect that accounts for the bulk of the Iraqi militias makes up less than 1 percent of Syria’s population.

The government’s Aleppo offensive has moved aggressively in the past week, worsening an epic humanitarian crisis. Syrian or Russian airstrikes have hit seven hospitals and have killed hundreds of civilians, in what Moscow and Damascus describe as preparation for a final battle for the city.

The Syrian military has dropped leaflets urging rebels to surrender and civilians to leave, but the United Nations says that pro-government forces have not allowed access to the escape routes, and that residents are afraid of arrest if they head to the government side.

Pro-government ground forces have taken bites out of rebel territory from several directions, but have faced tough resistance in street fighting from insurgents who in many cases are defending their own neighborhoods.

To the north, the Quds Brigade, made up mostly of Palestinians living in Aleppo, seized the Handarat Palestinian refugee camp, lost it to rebels, and seized it again. To the south, Iraqi militias and other fights have battled rebels for crucial territory close to a water pumping center. Syrian Army forces, meanwhile, seized a neighborhood in central Aleppo near the ancient citadel.

As rebel groups called for a general mobilization, residents on their side have stockpiled equipment for digging wells, fuel for generators and seeds to grow food, in preparation for a lengthy siege.

There is no precedent in the Syrian war for ground forces’ quickly rolling into an area that rebels have held for years. The disjointed forces, many with no local connections, are not strong enough to take fortified urban rebel positions in a frontal assault.

Rather, airstrikes, artillery and starvation sieges have typically been used to force rebels to surrender in exchange for safe passage – a process that has taken months or years in places far smaller and less strategically vital than Aleppo. But it could go quicker if pro-government forces managed to take control of the water distribution plant and shut off water to the rebel side, or if thousands of Russian soldiers and veterans now working for private security contractors joined the ground battle.

The Russian opposition-leaning newspaper RBK, citing a security service source, said that private Russian military companies had 1,000 to 2,500 employees in Aleppo and in one other Syrian city, Latakia, under the de facto command of Russian military intelligence officers. Russian special forces are also on the ground in Syria.