Back in October, we previewed the “promised” battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city prior to the war.
By the time Russia began constructing an air base at Latakia, the city - which is immensely important both from a strategic and psychological perspective - was controlled by a hodgepodge of rebels and militants including al-Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, and ISIS.
As we noted four months ago, if Russia and Hezbollah manage to recapture the city, it would effectively restore the Assad government in Syria even if the east of the country is still controlled by Islamic State.
In many ways, the city is emblematic of the wider conflict. Here are a few visuals which underscore the extent of the desolation and utter sorrow that plague this once thriving urban center.
And for anyone who might have missed it, here's a look at nighttime light emissions in the city along with a few visuals from "a night in Aleppo":
Despite the fact that the city - like many others across the country - has been reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble, it's key to Russia and Iran's plans to consolidate Assad's power in the west of the country.
As noted above, if the SAA can retake Aleppo, Assad will have control of most of the country's major urban centers, effectively restoring his grip on power.
So critical is the city, that when the SAA, Hezbollah, and a variety of Shiite militas were gearing up for the push north, Quds commander Qassem Soleimani himself showed up to rally the troops (he was later injured on the frontlines).
Fast forward four months and it appears that after a protracted fight, Russia and Hezbollah are indeed poised to recapture the city where militants are now surrounded. Critically, Russia and Iran have now cut off supply lines from Turkey.
"Backed by Russian firepower and Hezbollah militants, Syrian government troops have cut off rebel supply lines between the northern city of Aleppo and Turkey," Bloomberg writes. "Taking Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial hub, would give Russia, Iran and Assad more bargaining power at any future settlement talks and more say in how the region will be redefined."
Speaking of settlement talks, negotiations in Geneva brokered in part by John Kerry were suspended on Wednesday as a Saudi-backed rebel coalition voiced anger over Russia's airstrikes near Aleppo. On Thursday, Kerry demanded that Moscow halt the offensive so peace talks could resume. Although America's top diplomat swears his phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov was "robust" Lavrov said on Wednesday The Kremlin doesn't see why the campaign against "the terrorists" should stop. "I can't see any reason why we should halt our aerial operations until the terrorists shall be defeated'', Lavrov said, flatly.
"On the ground, nearly 40,000 people have fled an offensive this week by President Bashar al-Assad's regime north of the city of Aleppo," AFP said on Thursday, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (or in other words, "citing one guy in London"). "Assad's forces also entered two Shiite villages that were under siege by rebels, prompting what state news agency SANA called 'mass celebrations' in the streets of Nubol and Zahraa."
For their part, the Turks are of course blaming the Russians for the stalled peace talks.
"Russia continues to kill people in Syria. Could there be such a peace gathering? Could there be such peace talks?" President Tayyip Erdogan asked in a speech in Peru."In an environment where children are still being killed, such attempts do not have any function apart from making things easier for the tyrant," he said.
And trust us, Erdogan knows something about what makes "things easier for a tyrant."
In any event, the urgency expressed by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey shouldn't be mistaken for some kind of benevolent regard for the lives are lost each and every day the war drags on. Rather, Washington, Riyadh, and Ankara know that if Aleppo falls, that's it for the "moderate" opposition.
Sure there will still be elements of the FSA and other groups explicitly backed by the West and its regional allies, and they'll undoubtedly wage a long war of attrition against the SAA. But once the urban centers are secured, Assad can begin the slow process of rebuilding his security apparatus and restablishing some semblance of normalcy in the country's west.
As for eastern Syria, the fate of Raqqa and Der al-Zour still hangs in the balance.
Once the west is solidified, the question will be: can the US, France, and Britian swallow their pride and coordinate with Russia and Iran to oust Islamic State?
Or perhaps the more important question is this: what will Russia and Iran discover if they manage to liberate Raqqa before the West has time to bury the bodies (figuratively speaking) and burn all the evidence?