Last week, as the battle for Aleppo got under way, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said territorial gains made by Syria’s rebels would eventually result in a “safe haven” inside the country. And she called on the opposition to start preparing for a transition of power.
The rebel commanders too have been talking about Aleppo as their Benghazi ( the wellspring of last year’s Libyan uprising), insisting that with much of the rural countryside in Idlib already under their control. Taking Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, would mean they could control territory all the way to the Turkish border.
“We don’t have goals for the coming months. We have goals for the coming days. Within days, God willing, Aleppo will be liberated,” Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the rebel commander, told Reuters on Tuesday.
The rebels’ ability to withstand the regime’s attacks in Aleppo has been impressive. After claiming that it had wrested back control of the rebel stronghold of Salheddine on Monday, the regime was still fighting for it on Tuesday. But the rebels are still far from their intended mission and many analysts say they are not about to win control over the country’s second city and and might soon have to announce a tactical retreat.
But, as Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the US-based Royal United Services Institute, says, in this guerrilla war, the rebels’ success is not in holding territory but trying to “deny” the Assad regime Aleppo’s use as a functioning city and a business hub. The rebels’ real intention is to put as much pressure as possible on an army with vastly superior military capabilities, stretching its abilities and playing a cat and mouse game in which they have an advantage.
The question though is whether western officials like Mrs Clinton are truly hoping for an Aleppo takeover. If the rebels declare a safe haven, the pressure on the US and its partners to police it, as they did in Libya’s east, will be massive. Although outside intervention in Syria is happening covertly, through the provision of funding and weapons by Gulf states, and logistical assistance by Turkey, western governments are still adamantly opposed to any direct Libya-style involvement.
Last week the Syrian regime raised the stakes of intervention even higher when it essentially admitted to having an arsenal of chemical weapons and said it would only use it in the case of foreign aggression.
Mr Joshi says that continuing to reject calls for a no-fly zone if a safe haven is secured by the rebels – and bombed by the regime – might be embarrassing but would not force the hand of western governments. Turkey, which has already moved anti-aircraft guns near the Syrian border, could be drawn into a more active and open involvement more assistance could make its way to the rebels – but not in the form of patrols of a no-fly zone. “They (the west) would hope that the political base of the regime would collapse before you had to mount a full campaign,” says Mr Joshi.