Meanwhile, on the ground, rebel groups have been fighting each other, pushing internal refugees into rebel-held areas.
The regime offensive is part of a strategy to gain a stronger foothold in the city, which has been split into regime and rebel sides since fighting escalated in July 2012. Since then the battle for Aleppo has been at a stalemate. The goal for each side, analysts say, is to grasp as much territory as possible before the start of peace talks in Switzerland, scheduled for Jan. 22.
What will be the net effect of the Aleppo offensive, once the regime reaches the negotiating table? We asked experts to weigh in.
Riad Kahwaji, Institute for Near East & Military Analysis:
Barrel bombing is nothing more than regime’s version of strategic bombing — you bomb your enemy into submission. The purpose is to demoralize the community, send them into despair and get them to revolt against the rebels.
It’s significant because it’s the second biggest city in Syria. If you control Aleppo you control the north. But we know that’s not going to happen. The barrel bombings started right after the government’s northern offensive failed – the offensive that started at Sufair. They managed to capture that town and some villages around it, but when they reached the airport they were repelled and pushed back, and so the whole offensive failed. And when they were stopped there, they started barrel bombing, which shows that the regime’s military plan has failed – usually strategic bombings happen when they are incapable of scoring any true victories on the ground.
The offensive won’t lead them to win Aleppo. Because the struggle in Syria right now is ideological, the people who are being bombed are only going to hate the regime more. It’s not getting them to hate the rebels. And the regime is just asking for revenge.
The regime will be disappointed because in Switzerland, they will find that it’s maybe now given the rebels a strong case to demand a no-fly zone [over Aleppo]. It’s one possibility. But you cannot expect to have genuine talks for peace when you are bombing the other side.
It could be that enough damage will be created [between now and then in Aleppo] that the international community would demand a no-fly zone. Would Assad adhere to it? That depends on the strength of the international campaign for it. If there is a decision to enforce a no-fly zone, that would mean there would be jets up in the sky from a third party. If the U.N. calls for a safe corridor, it would have to come with the ability to enforce it. I don’t think the regime will benefit in terms of concessions from the rebels at Geneva II.
Chris Phillips, Lecturer, Queen Mary, University of London:
I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Assad’s going to take Aleppo – for him, it’s much more about reinforcing the notion, to the international community and various rebel groups, that the regime is winning. Moving into negotiations, if they actually happen, Assad will feel he’s in a stronger position if he can maintain the illusion that his side is winning the civil war. He wants to build and maintain momentum going into the talks.
What’s in it for Assad? The more Aleppo comes under assault, the more it will be perceived as having a negative effect on the rebels, increasing their disorganization. He wants to increase this narrative that encourages Western actors to reconsider Assad staying, to consider him the best of a bad bunch. The increase in Aleppo is about reinforcing that narrative.
No one is under any impression that the regime has changed its methods. The use of barrel bombs doesn’t surprise anyone. Bear in mind that the Western stance is such: they believe Assad has used chemical weapons, so the fact that he uses [a new type of] bomb isn’t going to change its view of him. If the White House and the West do decide to at least informally acknowledge the possibility that Assad might stay in power, it will have nothing to do with how brutal his hand has been in Aleppo.
Neither Assad nor the outside world seem to care about Assad’s image. If the West does cut a deal with him, it won’t be alongside some major facelift or PR exercise to improve his image – it will be with the acknowledgment that this guy is a brutal dictator, but we can’t do anything about it.