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The Syrian army is close to retaking full control of Aleppo for the first time since the uprising began. FRANCE 24 interviews a leading journalist to discuss what’s behind the rebels’ retreat and the big picture implications for Syria and the region.
Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and the nation’s economic hub, has been a prized, fiercely contested zone throughout the Syrian conflict. After nearly six years of bloody fighting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is about to seize control of the entire city.
Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, captured more ground in Aleppo’s Old City, Syrian state media and an opposition monitoring group reported Wednesday. Once a bastion of anti-Assad rebel groups, the historic Old City fell after rebel fighters were forced to flee a Syrian military advance. With the Old City now under regime control, Assad now has a critical foothold in the heart of the divided city.
Régis Le Sommier is a war reporter and deputy director of French weekly, Paris Match. He has covered the Syrian conflict since 2011, making frequent trips over the past five years and was last in Aleppo towards the end of September. Le Sommier analyses the reasons for the regime’s military gains in Aleppo and its consequences.
FRANCE 24: Over the past few years, the Syrian regime tried to retake Aleppo from rebel control several times without succeeding, suffering bitter failures and heavy losses in the process. Now they’re making rapid advances in the former rebel strongholds of eastern Aleppo. What has changed this time?
Régis Le Sommier: The battle for Aleppo has gone through several phases. It is often forgotten, but in 2013, for example, the government-controlled western part was encircled by the rebels. In its strategy to re-conquer Syria, the regime has always tried to preserve a sort of umbilical cord with Aleppo.
Two factors have been decisive this past year. Firstly, Turkey’s military intervention [known as Operation Euphrates Shield], which was carried out with the approval of Moscow, with the official aim of fighting the Islamic State (IS) group. The operation saw Turkish military officials requesting the support of Syrian rebels. In reality, the purpose of Ankara’s intervention was to prevent the Kurds from joining their two enclaves, Afrin and Kobane, into a contiguous zone. [Turkey has long maintained that it would not allow Kurdish YPG peshmergas from seizing territory west of the River Euphrates in northern Syria.]
But Turkey’s mobilising of Syrian rebels who originally fought in Aleppo — moderates and Islamists such as the Noureddine al-Zinki Brigade — helped weaken the rebellion in Aleppo and thus facilitated the advance of the Syrian army.
The other factor that marked a turning point was the fall of the famous Castello Road to regime forces in July 2016. [Nicknamed “Death Road,” the Castello Road is considered the only route into the rebel bastions of eastern Aleppo and the only means of getting arms and aid into Aleppo’s besieged neighbourhoods]. With fewer rebel factions and no refueling possible, the rebellion found itself on the back foot.
F24: What will be the consequences of a total Syrian regime takeover of Aleppo?
RLS: Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict on September 30, 2015, changed the situation. I was in Syria a few months before that and you could feel a real excitement in the country. In areas considered secure, there were active rebels everywhere. That year, the rebel offensive on Idlib revealed the regime’s fragility and flakiness and prompted Moscow to act.
Today, with Russia’s help, Damascus has regained the upper hand. Assad’s departure is no longer a talking point. Amid advances in Aleppo, there are truce negotiations in other besieged cities, where the rebels are agreeing to lay down their arms and leave.
They are then led by the Syrian authorities to Idlib. There, the rebels have been unable to propose an alternative project, such as a model of a democratic society. Most of the fighters are Islamists, Idlib has turned into Nusra’s [the old name for al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front] de facto capital and sharia law is applied there.
F24: What was Russia’s calculation in playing this decisive role? Should we expect more involvement from Moscow?
RLS: We must not be mistaken about this, Russia’s involvement in Syria is not new. Russia has been present in Syria for 40 years and the two countries have very close ties. For Russia, Syria is their access to the Mediterranean. Russia’s support for Damascus will only strengthen this.
F24: As the Syrian army advances into the eastern districts of Aleppo, the western neighbourhoods, home to around 2 million people, are seeing an influx of displaced people. You were in western Aleppo in late September, what can you say about the humanitarian situation there?
RLS: The situation for civilians in the east is terrible. The rebels try to use them as human shields, and on the other side [western Aleppo] is the government. But civilians do not know if they can trust the government and are afraid of being arrested. In recent days, we have seen images of the Syrian state’s green buses, which bring the displaced from one place to another. But the destruction across the city is so immense, it’s difficult to imagine where these people can be housed.
When I was in Aleppo in September, I saw people fleeing from neighbourhoods targeted by rebel bombing to other, safer places in the west. In the absence of real housing, they found refuge in the skeletons of destroyed buildings. There is not a single neighbourhood in Aleppo that has not suffered any damage. Not to mention the food shortages in the western areas. Even if this part of the city is not besieged, it remains very difficult to supply. I was struck by the lack of food in September.