With the militants defeated in Aleppo city, many have raised the questions: ‘What will happen now?’. A common answer is ‘Idlib’. Although this sounds logical, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will have to put a lot of resources in an operation that drives into the rebel heartland.
Furthermore, the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield forces and the Islamic State are still threatening Aleppo city from the east, while the Jaish al-Fateh agglomeration threatens the city from the west and the south.
These series of articles will focus on several possible scenarios that will further shape the military balance in the Aleppo Governorate (figure 1). Note that most front-line positions are based on recent satellite footage.
First article about the western front of Aleppo can be found here.
Breaking the siege
Since the fall of Idlib in march 2015, the Shia villages Al-Fu’ah and Kafarya have been besieged by the Islamist coalition of Jaish al-Fateh.
Even though the government is able to supply the villages from the air and some wounded are evacuated after a deal with the Islamists, the situation in these towns remains critical.
To imagine what fate awaits the people of the villages once the Islamist hordes will manage to break in, one has just have to look at the footage of the bus burnings last Sunday.
The attackers threatened to burn and kill everyone trying to get in and out of the villages.
At the moment of writing, many Shia militias based in Syria are now preparing a final push to break the siege of the villages and end the suffering of its inhabitants.
The SAA and its Shia allies managed to create a staging area with their south Aleppo campaign at the end of 2015.
In a rapid collapse of Islamist militants’ defenses, the SAA managed to push all the way to the villages Al-Hader and Al-Eis and assert fire control over the strategic M5 highway.
Unfortunately, multiple counter-offensives by the militants led to the loss of Al-Eis and a large swap of the Qinnasrin plain (figure 2).
When the military operation in East Aleppo was in full swing, already reports came out that the Shia militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, were preparing for a large-scale offensive to break the siege of Al-Fu’ah and Kafarya.
It is very likely that the main axis of attack will be from Al-Hadher towards Al-Eis, continuing westwards towards Kafr Halab.
These villages are all situated on a ridge that dominates the surrounding area and is therefore very critical for such offensive. Furthermore, to have a broad corridor, the northern part of the Qinnasrin plain has to be recaptured from the militants.
It’s also very likely that another offensive group will focus on the southern axis: pushing towards Tell Bajir and Huwayr al-Eis.
From here, the SAA and its allies can attack westward towards Sheikh Ahmad and put themselves in place to break the siege from the west (figure 3).
With the high ground at Kafr Halab and the M5 highway under control, the next phase consists of actually breaking the siege and start forming a broad corridor that can act as a supply line (figure 4).
All villages/cities (most likely with the exception of Idlib city) that are directly next to Al-Fu’ah and Kafarya need to be taken to remove the direct line of fire of the militants.
Creating this buffer will be the final phase of the operation in order to secure the former besieged villages and create a staging area for future operations in the Idlib Governorate (figure 5).
While this offensive looks doable on paper, there are many factors that can hinder this operation.
First of all, most forces involved in breaking the siege are Shia militias. This is the drop of blood in the sea the sharks of Al Qaeda are waiting for.
What we will see is a small holy war that will result in a relative huge casualty count. Furthermore, the Shia militias will push into the rebel heartland.
If they break the siege, they will be on the doorstep of the Al Qaeda bastion Idlib city, threatening the center of the rebel heartland.
Also, when the offensive is launched it’s very likely the forces surrounding Al-Fu’ah and Kafarya will try to take both villages. This potential massacre will either lead to repercussions by the Shai militias or nullify the whole operation (or both).
The Supply line
One of the weaknesses of the whole Aleppo front is its vulnerable supply line (figure 6). For the past years, we have seen numerous attempt by both the armed opposition and the forces of the Islamic State to disrupt the flow of goods from and to Aleppo city. Shortly after the surrender of the East Aleppo pocket, militants already announced an offensive to attack the Aleppo supply line. South of Khanaser is mostly open desert and is therefore not the most likely area they want to capture. It is however, more likely that the attack will take place between the Military Research Base and Khanaser, with a dominating elevated area west of the supply line.
To counter such (future) attacks, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies should aim to extent the buffer along the supply line. Preferably against both the militants and IS, but as the latter occupies mostly open desert this is less critical. A final solution would be to capture the Tell Azzan, Tell al-Daman, Nawwarah, Khanaser axis in a pincer movement (figure 7).
A pocket will be created that should be easily be mopped up or offered a reconciliation deal. This will not only remove the threat against the Safirah Defense Factories and the Research Base, but also create alternative routes towards Aleppo city (figure 8).
With the capture of this axis, a new staging area is created to capture the strategic Abu al-Dhuhur airbase (figure 9). This will offer new possibilities to create entire new supply lines towards Aleppo city (figure 10), but also attack the Hama and Idlib front from the east.
With the increased massacre threats and attacks against the inhabitants of the Shia villages Al-Fu’ah and Kafarya, it is very likely an operation to break the siege is kicked off in the near future. The southwestern front of Aleppo is mostly occupied by members of Al-Qaeda (linked) groups and thus the current cease-fire does not include them.
An operation to secure the southernmost countryside of Aleppo is less likely to happen, as it requires quite some manpower that is needed elsewhere. Any incursion by the armed opposition or IS will be beaten back by force
The next article will focus on Aleppo’s eastern countryside, where the Turkish led Euphrates Shield is struggling to capture Al Bab from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army is preparing to launch its own attack in the Al Bab / Deir Hafir area…
Article was written by Ian Grant, a Dutch analyst. You can read more of his analysis on his Twitter account @Gjoene