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Aleppo siege

Sophie Cousins, Turkish-Syrian borderJuly 15, 2014

The Syrian army is advancing to retake the country’s largest city, Aleppo, which would deliver a devastating blow to the opposition after two years of stalemate. Doctors are preparing for the worst.

Image: Reuters

Aleppo, formerly Syria's commercial hub, has been the target of the conflict's most vicious air campaign, with government barrel bombs - oil drums packed with hundreds of kilograms of explosives and metal fragments - killing thousands in the rebel-held areas this year.

Fears of a siege by government forces have risen after the army made dramatic gains in the last two weeks, taking the Sheikh Naijar industrial zone in the northeast.

The army is focused on capturing Handarat camp, an area beside Aleppo Central prison, which, if successful, would put the government in a position to besiege an estimated 300,000 civilians remaining in the city and cut off the rebels' main supply route in the countryside.

The advance follows months of slow gains by government forces as President Bashar al-Assad prepares to be sworn in for a new seven-year term this week.

Since the conflict in Aleppo began in mid-2012, the government has controlled the south and west but has been unable to push rebel fighters out of the city after they entered from the north.

Political prize

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the recapture of Aleppo would constitute a shift in the conflict.

"The retaking of Aleppo would represent a big blow in terms of morale and political significance," he told DW. "For the regime to reassert effective control of the city is a big signal of its ability to turn the tide and fight its way back. It doesn't represent a major military prize, but a political one."

Sayigh said it was likely government forces would encircle the city. "The regime would prefer to encircle because it's a relatively easier task. It won't necessarily go in but it will besiege, starve and bomb. But taking neighborhoods and an estimated 300,000 people won't be easy."

Siege preparation

People standing in rubble Copyright: BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images
The siege and potential fall of Aleppo to the Syrian army could prove decisive in the conflictImage: Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Doctors on the ground told DW they were preparing for the worst. "The situation is very horrible," one doctor, who didn't want to be named for security reasons, said. "There is enough medicine for now but we are working to store more to have enough for the longest time possible. It is the same situation for food. We must try to make something for our country."

Another doctor added that there were no more than 20 doctors on the ground - a far cry from the 6,000 in the city before the war.

He expressed concern about increasing barrel bombs on the city, which had also recently targeted a few of the remaining functional hospitals.

"We have enough medical supplies for one month," said Muhammed, a medical supplier in Aleppo. "But we really need external fixation and anesthesia."

Revolution over?

Despite the situation in Aleppo deteriorating rapidly, Oubai Shahbandar, a spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, said the opposition would fight the battle until the end.

"The Assad regime is dependent upon Iranian military forces and Hezbollah militias in their attempt to encircle Aleppo," he said.

"Syrian revolutionary forces are dug in and are fiercely fighting back in order to protect the inhabitants of Aleppo city and the surrounding countryside. Assad's tanks cannot destroy a revolution."

Anas Al-Haj from the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo stressed that the opposition was not only facing government forces but also those of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which recently pushed into the Aleppo countryside.

"The regime doesn't want to attack the city, it just wants to create a siege. We have the regime on one side and ISIS on the other."

Al-Haj said that rebel groups were increasingly coordinated, boosted by a 600-strong elite force to combat the offensive.

"The problem is that we can't see any soldiers because the whole battle is overhead - just barrels and more barrels," he added.

"Innocent people are trying to leave the city but the poor people can't leave Aleppo city because they have no money to get to Turkey or to the countryside. But even if the regime makes a siege, he cannot do what he [Assad - the ed.] thinks because we have the ability to break the siege and we will do our best."

people in a car
Civilians are trying to get away while they canImage: Reuters

But political analyst Sayigh was more skeptical. "I think the rebels are unable to win. This is not to say that people aren't resisting and fighting back. But as a political set of structures that aims to achieve battlefield results on the ground, I think they peaked already a while back and I don't think they're able to deliver results."