REYHANLI, Turkey—Peace in Syria might appear less remote today than it has in recent years, but rebel commanders on the ground—like Colonel Hassan Rajoub, commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Division 16—aren’t betting on it.
Col. Rajoub is taking advantage of the current lull to do what he thinks is wisest: stockpile weapons and plead with American and other foreign officers to provide enough support to resist a triple threat facing the FSA.
“We are at a very dangerous crossroads,” Rajoub said in an interview in Rehanli, the Turkish border town that serves as rear area for most of the rebel groups that openly take military support from the “Friends of Syria,” an alliance that includes the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
Since a February 27 cessation of hostilities, Russia has suspended its major air offensive, although it could quickly resume if it chose. Talks are underway in Geneva between the Syrian government and an opposition delegation backed a number of rebel groups, but not all. Increasingly, it appears that the United States and Russia share a desire for a political transition that allows a more effective military campaign against ISIS.
According to rebels in the Turkish border zone, weapons have flowed steadily into Syria since the ceasefire began. Even those who hope for a political settlement aren’t betting on one any time soon. Instead they’re stockpiling for the next round, which they expect will be as desperate as the last. Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov say they want a transition by the summer, none of the rebel commanders in northern Syria expect a political settlement before 2017.
Up close, however, to commanders like Rajoub interviewed in mid-March during an extension of the ceasefire, the patchwork of diplomatic developments looks less like momentum toward a settlement and more like a timeout.
Aleppo’s state of play underscores just how difficult it would be to work out the details of a lasting settlement. It has proven impossible, even with massive Russian support, for the Syrian government to fully encircle the rebels in Western Aleppo. It isn’t known whether Russia made a tactical decision not to allow a full government takeover of Aleppo, in order to prevent government overreach, or whether it wasn’t able to. Moreover, despite indications that the Syrian civil war might be tilting toward a punishing stalemate, the factions around Aleppo—once the economic and industrial hub of Syria—have plenty of fight still left in them. During the ceasefire, skirmishes have continued over city’s strategic choke points. Militias have shifted their forces in anticipation of major battles they expect as soon as the ceasefire breaks down. And commanders with access to foreign arms, like Rajoub and his FSA colleagues, are shopping across the border in Turkey.
“We ask the Friends of Syria and they give us,” Rajoub said with a smile. “They have just now given us new supplies of everything. But we want some special weapons to give us a little bit of leverage.”
In the past, FSA commanders ritualistically complain that the United States won’t let them have high-tech missiles (man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS) that would enable them to shoot down government bombers and helicopters. But during interviews this with nearly a dozen FSA commanders, none of them lingered on the issue of MANPADS.
Instead, several FSA commanders said the United States had been forthcoming during the ceasefire period, replenishing arms stocks and leaving open the possibility that some anti-aircraft missiles might be released into northern Syria.
“We expect a surprise,” said one satisfied commander.
Another commander, who runs the operations room in Aleppo that coordinates among all the factions, nationalist and Islamist, fighting in the city, said that the February bombardment had driven many insurgent militias into retreat, but they had re-infiltrated most of their important positions since the ceasefire.
“We still are counting on the supporting nations, and we emphasize the United States because it is the ‘indispensable nation,’” said the commander, who goes by the sobriquet Abu Ahmed al Amaliat (which loosely translated means “Ahmed’s father, the operations guy”).
A complex web of combatants with very divergent agendas is competing for Aleppo. The FSA battalions, nationalist in orientation and allied with the Friends of Syria, wants Bashar al Assad gone but strongly favors a unified post-war Syria that preserves the institutions of state.
Hard line jihadists, including the Al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front and ISIS, are not party to the ceasefire and are trying to establish their extreme version of Islamist governance in areas under their control. They can be distinguished from all other rebel groups because of their practice of takfiri jihad, through which they declare other groups apostate and then believe they are justified under religious law in using any tactic against them, no matter how nihilistic.
Kurdish forces have fought effectively against ISIS, and have at times collaborated with the United States, Russia, and the Syrian government, but they hope for an autonomous Kurdish region—a position anathema to all the other factions, which oppose federalism and support a unitary state.
The government wants to reconquer the entire city, and has employed its own forces, and has drawn as well on support from Iran and Russia, along with militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are also wild cards, such as the powerful Islamist rebel faction Ahrar el Sham, which has nationalist and jihadi constituents but hasn’t yet decided whether to break decisively in favor of an alliance with the FSA or with Nusra.
The government side of Aleppo is still home to an estimated 1.5 million people. The population on the rebel side has dwindled to about 300,000 living under horrific conditions: near constant bombardment, and shortages of everything. Rebel Aleppo can only be reached by one route, the Castello road, which is sandwiched between government forces on one side and jihadists on the other. Rebel-held Aleppo has lived in fear of a total siege for more than a year. Aleppo residents have watched the regime employ a siege-and-surrender tactic against places such as Eastern Ghouta and Madaya, where starvation has become common.
Opposition administrators are stockpiling food, fuel, and medicine, and working feverishly to unify their political and military leadership, but opposition leaders say that the decisive development won’t occur in Geneva but on the battlefields of Syria.
Rajoub said he planned to request fifty tons of explosives that night at meeting with with foreign officers at the Military Operations Center, or MOC. He said that fifteen nations have officers stationed in the MOC; they ask detailed questions about planned operations and demand thorough accounting for the weapons distributed. Rajoub had prepared satellite photographs of his area of operations with overlays showing his positions, enemy positions, and planned operations, which he displayed on his smartphone. His division is fighting around Aleppo, and if the government of Bashar al-Assad managed to reunite the divided city, it would mark a decisive turning point.
“The U.S. military commanders are always with us,” Rajoub said. “We ask. They are very cooperative. They understand our needs.”
He said he still fantasizes about MANPADS, but figured that the FSA could turn back its opponents without them.
In the midst of a continuing meltdown, it striking that plenty of actors, as angry as they are about a perception of American indifference, still welcome American help: activists, humanitarians, and military commanders arrayed against Bashar al Assad’s cynical dictatorship—which we ought to remember, played the most pivotal role in abetting ISIS and continues to devote resources to smashing nationalists while leaving ISIS, for the most part, untouched.
A close look at the Battle for Aleppo suggests it is far from won, and that progress on the ground, or stalemate, is ultimately what will determine the stance of the delegations in Geneva. Russia and the United States are trying to shape a military balance on the ground that will encourage their local allies and proxies to accede to a Moscow-Washington deal. But contested battlegrounds with so many factions are notoriously hard to shape, especially when many of the militias are fighting for their own neighborhoods and villages, or for what they view as a matter of ethnic or sectarian survival.
The budding superpower diplomacy, and even the tentative talks at Geneva, give cause for hope. But the military machinations around Aleppo should temper any unbridled optimism. In a destructive round-robin, where so many sides have lost so much, it’s a surprise how many still think they can win outright.