In breaking a Syrian government siege on opposition-held areas of Aleppo, opposition groups have set back Bashar Assad's hopes of using Russian air power to reclaim a vital city and speed the end of the five-year conflict. The sudden advance by fighters from western Syria into a military complex in southwest Aleppo on Saturday opened a corridor into the city, breaking the weeks-long siege and providing a launch pad for fresh attacks into government-held territory. Whether they can hold, or even consolidate, their gains in a war marked by fluctuating fortunes is unclear, but the insurgents' success showed they are capable of checking the momentum that Russia's air campaign has given Assad in recent months. In Aleppo the disparate groups fighting the Syrian government army demonstrated a rare unity, while also dealing a blow to Assad, Moscow and their Iran-backed allies who have invested heavily in a victory in what was the country's most populous city before the war. "It's clear that Aleppo will be the toughest and most important battle and most dangerous battle and the longest of all the battles that have erupted," said former Lebanese General Amine Hotait, a supporter of Assad, in an article in the Syrian daily Al-Thawra.
Aleppo is important not only because of its size but also for its location near Turkey. In addition, its opposition-held areas are the main stronghold of most opposition groups apart from the militants of DAESH. The defeat of the Aleppo opposition groups could have been seen in Damascus and Moscow as a precursor to the collapse of the armed rebellion against Assad's rule. Government media have declared the fighting as "the mother of all battles", while Assad's ally in the war, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, has called it ‘an existential struggle'. For their part, the opposition groups speak of an "epic battle to liberate Aleppo", rallying support by citing the plight of trapped civilians in the city being pummeled by air strikes which have regularly hit hospitals and market places.
By far the opposition's biggest coordinated assault since the conflict began in 2011, the Aleppo campaign suggests they have strengthened their capabilities despite suffering heavy losses since Russia began striking against them almost a year ago. An estimated 6,000-8,000 opposition fighters from different groups, using dozens of tanks, broke the Syrian army's fortress-like defenses at Ramousah in southwest Aleppo in only a few days. Suicide bombers led the advance. The groups ranged from the alliance Jaish al-Fateh, which includes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, known as the Nusra Front until it cut ties with al-Qaida two weeks ago, to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), vetted and backed by the West. Jaish al-Fateh drove the army and its allies last year from Idlib province, southwest of Aleppo, before the Russian intervention in Syria turned the tide in Assad's favor.
Last week's success will raise the standing of the rebranded Nusra Front, whose change of name was made partly to narrow differences with mainstream opposition groups. The opposition groups' unity this time, however, seemed mostly to be born of unease at the gradual advances made by government forces since Russia's entry into the war. "We were divided and distanced. Today we are one and the goal is the regime. There are no longer problems between us and we have one enemy who can destroy us, so we became one hand against it," said Alaa al Saqar, a senior military commander in Fatah Halab, the main umbrella group for FSA groups that are present in Aleppo.
After years of near deadlock in Aleppo, it was the air campaign that began with Russia's intervention last September that finally brought Assad within sight of a major victory. Last month the army took control of the Castello Road in northern Aleppo, the insurgents' last route into the city, laying siege to the 250,000 people who live in their sector. Fighters and civilians in opposition-held areas, already facing the bombardment, now contended with a shortage of food, medicine and fuel as the world looked on. But Friday's seizure of the Ramousah base cut the government's own main route into the city and meant the army was instead scrambling to bring supplies to the two million people in its own areas. Residents in government-held districts say oil and food are now being brought in under cover of night via the same hazardous route near the front line that was previously used by opposition fighters. The opposition groups now want to advance further into government-held areas, mobilizing thousands of fighters from Syria's northwestern countryside. "It's the opposition groups who turned the tables on the strategy of the siege," said a senior Western diplomat based in the region. This also represents a setback for Moscow, the diplomat said, which saw victory in the city as vindicating its intervention. So single-minded was Moscow in the pursuit of the Aleppo campaign that it defied U.S. calls for an easing of the stranglehold on the city, despite the risk of jeopardizing a deal with Washington to cooperate in strikes against militants.