Syrian Showdown: Russia, Iran Rally Forces, US Rearms Rebels As "Promised" Battle For Aleppo Begins

On Friday, we previewed the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city prior to the war. 

It’s now run by a hodgepodge of rebels and militants including al-Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, and ISIS and for the Assad regime, regaining control of the city is absolutely critical. As Reuters noted last week, "the assault means the army is now pressing insurgents on several fronts near Syria's main cities in the west, control of which would secure President Bashar al-Assad's hold on power even if the east of the country is still held by Islamic State." 

In other words, if Assad can secure Aleppo, Iran and Russia will have successfully restored his grip on the country for all intents and purposes. 

Here’s a look a map showing where Aleppo is in relation to Russia’s base at Latakia, along with the before and after images we highlighted last week which depict nighttime light emissions on the way to vividly demonstrating the effect the war has had on the city.

For reference, this is one of Syria's most war-torn areas. To give you an idea of what's taken place there since the war began, we present the following stark visuals from in and around the city ca. 2012 (as you might imagine, it's only gotten worse since):

And here's a short audio clip from NPR which explains why Aleppo matters (it's largely objective and thus worth the three minutes):

The offensive is also notable for the scale of Iran’s involvement.

Between Hezbollah and Iranian forces, the battle for Aleppo is shaping up to be the largest ground operation orchestrated by Tehran to date. Underscoring how deeply involved Iran truly is, Quds Commander Qasem Soleimani (who we profiled here) showed up near the frontlines late last week to rally the troops. Here’s GOP mouthpiece Fox News (who are most assuredly not Soleimani fans): 

Iran's shadowy top military commander has been spotted in Syria addressing Iranian military officers and members of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, according to photos that emerged Thursday on social media.


Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani -- the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or Qods Force -- was pictured rallying Iranian military and Hezbollah members in western Syria in photos that appeared on Twitter.


On Thursday, Reuters confirmed Soleimani's presence in the western province of Latakia in Syria. The news agency said Soleimani was seen addressing Iranian officers and Hezbollah fighters with a microphone while clad in dark-colored clothes.

Here are the images Fox references:

As WaPo, goes on to point out, some of the fighters called to Syria by Soleimani are from Iraq's Shiite militias, supporting our contention that as soon as Syria is "secure" (whatever that means in this context), Russia and Iran will take the fight across the border, where militiamen loyal to Tehran are already battling Sunni extremists:

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds forces and the public face of Iran’s military intervention in the region, has ordered thousands of Shiite militiamen into Syria for an operation to recapture Aleppo, according to officials from three Iraqi militias. The militiamen are to join Iranian troops and forces from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, the officials said. The Iraqi Shiite militia Kitaeb Hezbollah has sent around 1,000 fighters from Iraq, one said.


The new arrivals shore up the position of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose beleaguered forces had been losing ground before Russia began launching airstrikes three weeks ago. Pro-government forces have claimed victory in a string of villages around the Aleppo in recent days, in a conflict that Shiite militias frame as a single regional struggle between Shiites and Sunni extremists from the Islamic State.


“It makes no difference whether we’re in Iraq or Syria, we consider it the same front line because we are fighting the same enemy,” said Bashar al-Saidi, a spokesman for Harakat al-Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia that says it has fighters around Aleppo. “We are all the followers of Khamenei and will go and fight to defend the holy sites and Shiites everywhere," he said, referring to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


The Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Quds Force, which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, have also sent reinforcements, he said. Last week, a U.S. defense official said hundreds of Iranian troops were near the city in preparation for an offensive.

“It’s not a secret. We are all fighting against the same enemy,” said Saidi.

His militia released a photo of Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, with its fighters near Aleppo on one of its social media accounts last week.


“The operation is an extension for our operations in Iraq because it’s the same enemy, and when we hit them there it means that it will get results in Iraqi lands,” the Kitaeb official said. Soleimani “specifically requested they go there for the launch of the operation for Aleppo,” he said.

And here's a look at an airstrike map which delineates bombing runs by date, thus giving you an idea of the extent to which the Russians targeted Aleppo last week to soften up the rebels ahead of the offensive:

Meanwhile, as Russia revved up the Sukhois and the shadow commander rallied the ground forces, the US rearmed the rebels. Here’s Reuters:

Rebels battling the Syrian army and its allies south of Aleppo say they have received new supplies of U.S.-made anti-tank missiles from states that oppose President Bashar al-Assad since a major government offensive began there on Friday.


Rebels from three Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups contacted by Reuters said new supplies had arrived since the start of the attack by the army backed by Iranian fighters and Lebanon's Hezbollah.


A number of rebel groups vetted by states opposed to Assad have been supplied with weapons via Turkey, part of a program supported by the United States and which has in some cases included military training by the Central Intelligence Agency.

And so, with the proxy war lines clearly drawn, the battle has begun. Via WSJ:

Syrian pro-regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes have expanded their ground offensive to the strategic city of Aleppo, one of the clearest signs yet of how Russia’s recent military intervention has emboldened President Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists.


In the bitterly fought multi-sided war, Aleppo is among the most coveted prizes. Losing partial control of the city, which was once Syria’s largest and its commercial capital, was an embarrassment to the regime. But with the backing of Russian warplanes, Iranian forces and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Mr. Assad’s forces could now be in position to regain large parts of the city and the surrounding countryside.


“I suspect Assad always wanted to take back Aleppo because it is such an important city and retaking it has such strategic and symbolic importance,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based military and security think tank. “And it would deny the rebels a foothold in any major city.”


Since Friday, the regime has netted a number of villages on the southern outskirts of the city and thousands of civilians are fleeing fighting in the area. On Sunday, the regime captured one additional village and U.S.-backed rebels destroyed two regime tanks using American-supplied weapons as they tried to stem the regime’s progress.


The regime appears to be advancing westward toward the strategic highway linking Aleppo with the capital Damascus, rebels said.


In a rare move, the offensive is being led by regime-allied Iranian fighters, according to Ahmad al-Ahmad, a spokesman for the moderate Islamist rebel group Faylaq al-Sham, which is involved in the battles.


The city of Aleppo is now divided in two, with an array of rebel factions controlling the eastern half and the regime holding the western half.


The regime’s ground offensives over the past two weeks have been led by fighters and military advisers from Iran and forces from Hezbollah, supplemented by Syrian security forces.


So far the battles in Aleppo are concentrated in the southern countryside on multiple fronts pushing toward the crucial highway that links the city with the coastal province of Latakia and the central provinces such as Hama, rebels said.


One of the goals of the offensive could be to prevent rebel reinforcements from Aleppo being sent to help fighters along other fronts. Rebels also report an amassing of pro-regime forces elsewhere in Aleppo province that could be aimed at cutting off the rebel supply route from Turkey.


Such moves could severely weaken the array of rebel forces in Aleppo, which include Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front as well as U.S.-backed rebels.

Note how shockingly close this is to an actual shooting war between the US/NATO and the Iran-Russia "nexus."

CIA-trained rebels are now using weapons supplied by the US to kill Iranian soldiers backed by Russian airstrikes. The fact that the ground invasion is now clearly run by Iran and Hezbollah means that one side of the "rebels vs. SAA" proxy label has been removed. This is now "rebels vs. Iran and Russia", meaning there's literally but one degree of separation from an outright NATO vs. Russia-Iran armed conflict. And don't forget: the nation through which the US is suppliying the rebels at Aleppo (i.e. Turkey) just shot down a Russian drone. 

And so, as we wait to see whether the US will finally step in on behalf of its proxy armies before they are routed in the most critical battle yet in the war for Syria, we leave you with a few still shots taken over the weekend in Aleppo.