Emile Hokayem writes: Military and diplomatic efforts in Syria are converging in Aleppo, once the country’s largest city and commercial center. Last week, U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura reported to the Security Council that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to suspend for six weeks all aerial and artillery bombardment of the besieged city, which is divided between the regime and rebel groups.
The supposed agreement, however, does not represent much of a breakthrough, especially when compared with the diplomat’s initial ambitions of a broad “freeze” over the whole province of Aleppo, which would then be replicated in other regions later. Behind closed doors and in front of the media afterward, de Mistura sought to lower expectations, saying he had “no illusions” about the difficult task ahead. He also did not explain how a limited freeze in Aleppo could change the calculations of the various local and regional players or create new incentives for a political negotiation among the warring sides.
De Mistura’s New York briefing coincided with a large-scale regime offensive to fully encircle Aleppo from the north. Regular military units, the paramilitary auxiliaries of the National Defense Force, and Hezbollah fighters sought to press their advantage in the areas of Handarat and Malaah, north of the city, with the intention of seizing three important villages and breaking rebel groups’ siege of the Shiite towns of Zahra and Nubl. Controlling these villages and connecting roads would sever the links between the Aleppo countryside and the vitally important border with Turkey.
But the initially rapid advance of the pro-regime forces was stopped and rolled back in several areas. Bad weather grounded Assad’s helicopters and aircraft during much of the battle — overcast weather, a rebel commander quipped to me, imposed the no-fly zone that the Americans had denied the rebellion since 2011. After capturing important territory in surprise attacks over two days, Assad’s forces were surrounded by Syrian rebels who killed well over 100 soldiers and captured dozens more, making this time among the costliest days for the regime since the beginning of the armed uprising. [Continue reading…]