A battle is taking shape that could decide the fate of the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating ISIS, and it’s not around the Kurdish town of Kobani. It’s for the future of the second biggest city in Syria, ancient Aleppo, besieged on three sides by the forces of the tyrant Bashar Assad and the murderous zealots of the so-called Islamic State holding part of the other side.
For the relatively moderate Syrian militias to whom the Obama administration already is funneling arms, the neighborhoods of Aleppo where they still hold ground are a last redoubt inside the country. And in the next few hours or days their last supply line to the outside very likely will be cut.
Commanders from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army are calling on the United States to launch airstrikes that will help them halt Assad’s forces. Without such action, they fear, many of their surviving troops may be lured into the ranks of ISIS.
The offensive has been building up since early October. Now, Syrian army units backed by Shia Muslim fighters from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iran are poised to cut the one remaining land route into Aleppo used by mainly Sunni rebels to resupply their forces, ferry in reinforcements, and evacuate their wounded. If the Assad regime severs the Castillo Road, which connects the rebels with the Syrian countryside and Turkey, it would set the stage for a full-scale siege of rebel-held districts in the city.
U.S.-favored brigades such as the mainly secular Harakat Hazm (The Steadfast Movement), which has received TOW anti-tank missiles from the Obama administration, are fully involved in the fight to contain the Assad offensive.
Rebel commanders express deep frustration with the U.S.-led coalition focusing airstrikes on the defense of the Kurdish town of Kobani in a bid to lift a month-long assault by ISIS militants. They argue that a siege of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, risks even greater ramifications, not only for the Obama administration’s objective to “degrade and defeat” the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, but also for the course of the uprising against President Assad.
“The Americans say they want to build up a vetted and trained force of 5,000 and it will take about a year—we don’t have that long,” snapped Abdul Rahman, a top commander in the 3,000-strong Jaysh al-Mujahedeen or Army of Mujahedeen, an Islamist-leaning brigade that emerged from the villages and towns of the Aleppo countryside.