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Aleppo: The theatre for regional and international conflicts

On Sunday, US secretary of state John Kerry announced that a “provisional agreement” on the terms of a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria had been reached between the US and Russia. This follows the “cessation of hostilities” agreed in Munich a fortnight ago, which failed to come into force on Friday amid heavy bombardment in and around the Syrian city of Aleppo.

But over in Aleppo, as heavy fire rages, hopes of a ceasefire seem a distant prospect. The Syrian government’s supply route by land to the citywas cut by Daesh on Monday, as the army, supported by allied militias and the Russian air force, fought to consolidate its recent gains.

Recently, the government launched a major offensive to take Aleppo, which was loosely split between Bashar al-Assad’s forces to the West and opposition controlled areas to the East. Once Syria’s second largest city and the commercial hub of the country, Aleppo has now become a theatre for secondary regional and international conflicts to play out.

It was the fighting in this area that helped derail the most recent Geneva peace talks, suspended on 3rd February, just days after they begun. The opposition claimed the regime and Russia had used the talks to play for time, creating facts on the ground with its heavy bombardment of Aleppo which captured many strategically important towns. Warplanes pummelled civilian areas with hundreds of airstrikes, angering the opposition’s Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), who had said it would only agree to attend the talks if the airstrikes and blockades stopped. Meanwhile, the failure of the more recent “cessation of hostilities” agreement was likely partly due to the same issue- there was no provision for Russia to stop its airstrikes and the campaign in Aleppo continued unabated.

The regime’s recent gains in Aleppo have also pushed certain countries to consider re-thinking their role in the conflict. Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that it was ready to send troops to Syria. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) followed footsteps, signalling that they would be prepared to do the same. As the first “cessation of hostilities” agreement was being finalised, the Turkish Foreign Minister announced that Turkey and Saudi Arabia could launch a ground operation in Syria, adding that Riyadh was also sending war planes to a Turkish base to fight the extremists. Both, however, recently stressed they would only do so with the support of the US-led anti-Daesh coalition.

Saudi Arabia backs the Syrian opposition’s HNC and Iran’s staunch support for Assad has enflamed tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, who are embroiled in a battle for influence in the Middle East. The two countries have found themselves at odds in Yemen where Saudi is leading a coalition targeting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and, in a sign of how the tension is creating regional difficulties, yesterday Saudi warned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon regarding the country’s failure to condemn the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January. Assad’s current battle for Aleppo, supported by Iranian manpower, means it has become an arena for these tensions to play out.

For Turkey, Syria’s Aleppo province is home to the Azaz corridor, a crucial bloodline connecting rebel-held eastern Aleppo with Turkey- its fall would deal a major blow to the Turkish-backed opposition. Its fall also opens up the possibility of Kurdish forces taking control. Last Monday,news surfaced that Kurdish forces had taken Tal Rifaat, a vital town to the south of Azaz. The next day, reports were emerging they had struck a deal to enter Marea, the last town before Azaz. In response to the advances, Turkey began shelling YPG positions in Aleppo province earlier this month.

The US support for the YPG, a leading part of the Syrian Democratic Forces engaged in the fight against Daesh, has angered Turkish leader Erdogan who accuses the group of being behind a recent terrorist attack in Ankara. They are accused of working with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey has been battling for decades. Their presence on the border with Turkey is fuelling national security concerns and fears they could join the land gap between their two enclaves, Kobane and Afrin, creating a contiguous Kurdish state along its southern border.

Concerns that YPG was supported in their advance by the Syrian regime and Russian air-cover has also not helped matters. Tensions have heightened between Turkey and Russia, supporting opposing sides of the conflict, following an incident where Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet. The news that a US ally in the fight against Daesh is being assisted by Russian air cover also puts the US in a difficult situation, especially in the face of growing pressure from Ankara to follow its line on the YPG. On top of that, the Russian bombing of civilian areas in Aleppo is pushing thousands more Syrians refugees towards Turkey.

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The battle for Aleppo is a game changer. Whether it is because its fall would sever the bloodline of the opposition, allow the Kurds to control the sensitive border with Turkey, strengthen Assad’s position at negotiations or simply represent a symbolical loss of a key rebel base since the early days of the Syrian civil war. The implications of its loss or capture risks expanding the conflict even further, as regional and international tensions play out on its battlefields.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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