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War in Syria
Will ISIS Gamble on Aleppo?

ISIS and Assad’s forces had been circling each other warily, without engaging, until ISIS attacked a gas field near Damascus last week. That fight is still going on, but there may be another, bigger battle in the offing: for Aleppo, the crown jewel of Syria’s cities and its financial center.

Al-Monitor has an important piece on the chance that ISIS will make the boldest gamble of its short career, a gamble that could destroy the group if it loses—or shower it with fame, fortune, and followers if it wins. The article lays out exactly why ISIS might place this bet, what a threat the group will be to the Syrian regime, and what riches it stands to gain:

IS has not yet attacked regime positions in Aleppo. It is likely waiting for an opportune moment — either after the regime roots out rebels or when it has other fronts under control and can send substantial reinforcements. It is guaranteed, however, that a confrontation is coming soon. […]

The Syrian regime will find in IS a much tougher opponent than the rebel factions it has been fighting. IS fighters are well trained, well armed, ideologically motivated and disciplined — a far cry from some of the ragtag, corrupt and chronically undersupplied militias the Syrian army had previously faced. That IS could make short work of some of the toughest rebel groups on the ground, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, must have the regime worried, at least insofar as it would mean even heavier reliance on already overstretched elite foreign troops and militias.

Aleppo remains a prized target for IS, as it would provide the group contiguity of the territory under its control, which stretches across Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor right into Iraq, as well as an enormous cache of financial and human resources. IS has also been engaged in fierce battles with the Kurdish enclaves in the north, as it attempts to wrest control of the strategic border regions. Kobani, in Aleppo province, seems to be firmly fixed in its sights as the group begins its slow sweep from the east.

A Syrian army officer interviewed by al-Monitor is entirely certain that this fight is coming. Maybe not tomorrow, but “very soon,” he says—and the regime is preparing itself.

The fall of Aleppo would have strong symbolic resonance across the Middle East. If ISIS were to capture Aleppo, it will have two of the oldest cities in the Middle East in its pocket. Mosul is the fabled city of Nineveh while Aleppo is the ancient city of Halab, and no one power has held both strongholds since the Ottoman Empire. While this may not seem like a big deal to Western observers, history is experienced very differently especially in that part of the world. And jihadists love a winner: The possession of two storied cities would be a big selling point in ISIS’ recruitment drive.

If all this comes to pass, that is. As al-Monitor notes, ISIS will face a much tougher opponent in the Assad regime than it did in Iraq. Even if ISIS is more battle-hardened and better financed than the usual run of rebel, it may not have the man- and firepower to take the city. On the other hand, if ISIS does aim for Aleppo, it could attract all sorts of people who want to take a bite out of the Syrian President: defectors from other rebel factions, local tribesmen defending their territory, and jihadist thrill-seekers from all over. While ISIS will be overmatched, a groundswell of support could make this a more serious fight than Assad probably once supposed.

Which is the crux of the problem. Assad has treated ISIS much the way Israel used to treat Hamas—as a minor irritant useful for annoying a major irritant (the PLO), and one that could be dealt with, if at arm’s length. But just as Hamas graduated to the status of major irritant, and genuine threat, so has ISIS. It looks like Assad has underestimated the group. That may come at a price.

It won’t do to overestimate ISIS, of course. Assad still has at least the reluctant backing of Syria’s minorities, who fear that ISIS will conduct the same sort of ethnic cleansing in Syria as it has in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Saudis and the Jordanians, though strange bedfellows for the Assad regime, may be rooting for the government to take down ISIS lest it turn toward their borders.

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  • Tom Chambers

    Perhaps we will learn whether Assad still has undeclared chemical weapons up his sleeve.

  • gabrielsyme

    Assad still has at least the reluctant backing of Syria’s minorities, who fear that ISIS will conduct the same sort of ethnic cleansing in Syria as it has in Iraq.

    This is as near a sure thing as there is in the world today. Nor do they justly fear only ISIS – every single rebel group, including the moderate, US-supported ones, are likely to turn into ethnic cleansers or worse if they emerge victorious. American policy has resulted in the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands) of Christians in Iraq, and the emigration of at least two-thirds of the community from their homeland. America must turn away from its attempt to overthrow the only protection minority groups have in Syria, or far more blood will be shed.

  • Breif2

    The Assad regime and ISIS have exactly the same (unoriginal) strategy: accentuating the contradictions, ie forcing the population to take sides. The more murderous Assad (ISIS) is vis-a-vis his Sunni (Shi’ite) opponents, the worse the backlash of those opponents will be, consuming even those who would have prefered to sit on the fence, thus forcing them to join the first. In concrete terms, Syria’s minorities definitely did not enjoy living under the Assad’s Baathist dictatorship, but Assad deliberately created a situation where they might now have to choose betwen him and ISIS. In which case, it would be hard to blame them from siding with the murderous tyrant. One can argue that an early intervention in Syria could have short-circuited this process. Now? Allahu Akbar. (In the colloquial Arabic sense of “Only God can deal with this”.)

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