Half a decade ago, you could travel from breakfast in Damascus to a late lunch in a thriving, multicultural city; Aleppo. Then came the Arab spring, and a year later on the 5th of July 2012, an armoured rebel column. Within weeks, vast swathes of the city had fallen to an assortment of rebel groups, and checkpoints littered the streets. Now, after three and a half years of constant warfare, bombing and mortar attacks, the city is in utter ruins. There has been no power for 140 days, and recently access to its water supply has been impossible with Islamic State (IS) forces refusing to allow water to be piped to the city through their territory. The pre-revolution population was over 2 million. Now, barely half remain, with 400,000 of those living in the rebel held zones.
The combatants in Aleppo are, at face value, relatively simple. Roughly half the city is held by pro-government forces, including Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah operatives, whilst the other half of the city is held by an assortment of rebel groups. However, whilst the picture in the city is relatively coherent, outside of the urban area, things become far more complex. To reach the city from Damascus is incredibly risky; with IS territory coming within mere miles of the key road links, and Al-Nusra Front territory also close-by, the journey is by no means safe, whatever the Syrian government might claim.
Whilst the government of Syria, backed by Russian airstrikes, believes that they can capture the city without a prolonged siege, based on other similar actions such as the fight for Damascus, this is likely to turn into a prolonged slogging match. With the town of Madaya still in the spotlight after Médecin Sans Frontier (MSF) reported further deaths caused by starvation amongst the civilian population, it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to see long term violence in Aleppo leading to starvation and disease.
To make matters worse, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have threatened to deploy ground troops in Syria. The Saudi’s have long been arming rebel groups, and Turkey has a major stake in the conflict in Syria. Should the Kurds of northern Syria be allowed to flourish, there is a serious risk of a Kurdish autonomous zone being formed, one potentially linked to Iraqi Kurdistan. To Turkey, with a longstanding internal conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish government, this is viewed as a serious security threat.
Recent developments have shown that Saudi is not afraid of joining the conflict; they are rumoured to have deployed troops to Turkish territory, implying that if a Saudi intervention were to occur, it would be working alongside Turkey. Turkey has recently shown that it is willing to defy just about anyone within the international community; in recent months they have shot down a Russian jet in what was clearly a carefully thought out attack, deployed troops in Northern Iraq, as well as telling the United States to stop passing judgement on the crack downs against the PKK. Should this rogue duo enter into the Syrian conflict, there is a serious risk of a full scale war between Iran and Saudi Arabia occurring within Syrian territory.
There are numerous reasons that we should care about this, but from a truly utilitarian point of view, allowing Aleppo to fall will cause new refugees to flee Syria. With xenophobia on the rise throughout Europe and repeated scapegoating of refugees, this risks even greater heightening of tension. As well, should the city of Aleppo fall, then one of the last major rebel strongholds will fall. This risks pushing the international coalition combatting IS towards supporting the Syrian government. This is clearly a highly unpalatable move given that, within the last fortnight, the Assad government has been accused of wide scale torture and mass killings of prisoners.
Whether Aleppo is taken, or if instead it faces a long siege, one thing is all but certain; thousands of Syrians will suffer, and the end of the civil war remains lost in the haze.