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Aleppo's Liberation is Close, But It'll Be a Tough Slog

© REUTERS / Hosam Katan/File Photo A general view shows a damaged street with sandbags used as barriers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, Syria March 6, 2015.
A general view shows a damaged street with sandbags used as barriers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, Syria March 6, 2015. - Sputnik International
The Syrian Army has surrounded the jihadist-held portions of the city of Aleppo. Offering fighters a chance to lay down their weapons and leave the city, the government is hoping to liberate the area and help put an end to Syria's long war. However, analysts are warning against too much optimism. Encirclement, they note, does not mean victory.

On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Moscow and Damascus has launched a massive humanitarian operation in Aleppo, establishing exit routes for civilians and any militants wishing to leave the jihadist-held portions of the city. Three routes were designated for civilians, along with a fourth for militants with weapons and equipment.

A general view shows a frontline in Old Aleppo - Sputnik International
Russia, Syria Launch Mass Humanitarian Operation in Aleppo
The minister explained that "since our US partners have not provided information on disengagement between the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army, we will create the fourth corridor in the north of Aleppo toward Castello Road for the safe passage of armed militants." 

In accordance with the humanitarian operation, the Russian Defense ministry has called on the Syrian government to guarantee amnesty for those militants who choose to voluntarily lay down their arms, so long as they do not belong to groups accused of war crimes. In turn, Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a decree providing amnesty for all armed parties, if they surrender and lay down their arms, and release any persons who are being forcibly held. The amnesty will be valid for a three month period.

The Syrian Air Force has also begun dropping leaflets calling on militants to surrender their weapons and leave the city through the specially designated routes.

Earlier this month, assisted by Russian air support, the Syrian Army succeeded in cutting off the main route used by insurgents in the north and eastern quarters of the city. On July 28, the Syrian Army continued their advance through the outskirts of Aleppo, liberating the areas of Bani Zaid and Layramun. At the same time, Kurdish YPG forces successfully dislodged militants from an Aleppo youth housing complex, adjacent to the Kurdish quarter of Sheikh Maqsood, thus helping to form a tight ring around the insurgent-held areas.

Syrian army soldiers patrol the area around the entrance of Bani Zeid after taking control of the previously rebel-held district of Leramun, on the northwest outskirts of Aleppo, on July 28, 2016 - Sputnik International
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However, as Svobodnaya Pressa contributor Anton Mardasov pointed out, "the destruction of the militants blocked off in eastern Aleppo is still a long way off."

The journalist recalled that "according to Western analysts, the surrounded territory is populated by about 270,000 civilians and 10,000 opposition militants. It's up in the air whether or not they will agree to leave" the city.

At the same time, liberating a large urban area takes a great deal of time and military resources. "For example, the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces alliance, with US support, has been storming the city of Manbij for two months, having surrounded it in a tight ring, and even cut it into two enclaves. But the Daesh militants are holding, and even forcing the Kurds into negotiations, given the heavy losses taken by their troops. Manij, by its size and density, can't be compared to the Aleppo pocket, and has significantly fewer militants."

Asked to comment on the military operation to free the city and the parallel large-scale humanitarian operation, CIS Institute deputy director Vladimir Evseyev suggested that the latter effectively serves as a preemptive measure, aimed at disarming Western critics talking about a humanitarian disaster in Aleppo once the military operation heats up.

At the same time, Evseyev added that hopefully, "the provision of a corridor for insurgents will help to minimize losses among both civilians and the Syrian Army, which will also be mauled in case of a sweep through the city. After all, militants actively use civilians as human shields, and use snipers, mines and improvised explosive devices as well."

Members of jihadist group Al-Nusra Front take part in a parade calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, at the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood of Aleppo, on October 25, 2013 - Sputnik International
Islamists Easily Betray Each Other Under Syrian Army Pressure in Aleppo
Evseyev believes that while the operation to surround militants in Aleppo was carried out on the ground using exclusively Syrian Army and Kurdish troops, the effort to clean the city from militants will also involve the use of Hezbollah fighters, who are well-versed in urban combat, and possibly even Russian special forces. 

At the same time, he said, "some reports have indicated that the Syrian Army has concentrated artillery units in the area. We should probably also expect active operations by the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force."

Ultimately, the analyst noted that he is optimistic about the prospects for Aleppo's liberation. "Moreover, President Putin is expected to meet in St. Petersburg with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 9. In this connection, we can assume that active support for the militants from Turkey will not be forthcoming."

For his part, independent military expert Anatoly Nesmiyan suggested that the operation to provide civilians and fighters passage out of the city is an indication that strategists are actively working to try to find a solution to the problem without storming the city, since they understand that clearing the city of militants will be difficult and costly.

"The pocket, in addition to civilians, has about seven to ten thousand fighters, who will fight desperately, hiding behind civilians as they do so. It's not necessary to look far for a similar example," Nesmiyan noted, pointing to the painfully slow operation to liberate Manbij. "And this is the case despite the fact that unlike Syrian troops, SDF forces are not dispersed along several fronts."

Syrian army soldiers patrol the area around the entrance of Bani Zeid after taking control of the previously rebel-held district of Leramun, on the northwest outskirts of Aleppo, on July 28, 2016 - Sputnik International
Militants in Eastern Aleppo Forbid Local Men From Leaving Combat Zone
"In Aleppo, the situation is much more complicated, and storming the eastern part of the city will require an assault group twice the size of the defending force." As a result, the analyst suggested, Damascus and Moscow are instead trying to convince the 'Fatah Halab' militants to get out of town. "If this occurs, organized resistance will not be possible, and the city can be taken."

Unfortunately, Nesmiyan noted that he does not expect militants to accept the offer any time soon. "On the contrary, they'll likely reject it. As a result, a situation similar to the one in Manbij may develop. There, the Kurds offer the militants the opportunity to leave the city for the Daesh capital of Raqqa what seems like every other day, but they refuse. Subsequently, [in Aleppo] too the situation can get hung up for a long time."

The analyst pointed out that even isolated pockets of militants can hold out for a very long time. Effectively, Islamist militants in both Iraq and Syria have been resisting in pockets for years at a time.

Ultimately, Nesmiyan suggested that everything will depend on how many units take up the government's offer to surrender or withdraw. In any case, "losing Aleppo is not something the opposition wants to do. There will probably even be attempts made to break through the blockade from the outside. For example, three weeks ago, groups from the Salafist Jaish al-Fatah coalition broke through a portion of the Castello Highway, thus managing to get several thousand fighters out of Latakia."

Smoke billows from buildings during an operation by Syrian government forces to retake control of the rebel-held district of Leramun, on the northwest outskirts of Aleppo, on July 26, 2016 - Sputnik International
'Battle of Aleppo Would Have Been Long Over if Not for the US'
At the same time, the analyst noted, militants are likely to make attempts to cause chaos on other fronts to distract from the Aleppo operation. "This is a standard tactic of spoiling attacks which, incidentally, is also used by government troops."

Finally, Semyon Bagdasarov, the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Central Asia, suggested that he believes that militants are likely to dig in, rather than leave Aleppo. Worse yet, "it's obvious that the militants will also discourage the civilian population from leaving…since they use them as human shields in their defensive operations." 

The analyst also warned that wide holes in the Turkish-Syrian border continue to exist, and suggested that the flow of militants and equipment from Turkey is thus set to continue. "In addition, the US too remains watchful, having again offered a seven day ceasefire recently. It's obvious that this would be used for the redeployment of terrorists and the regrouping of forces."

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