Closing in on Aleppo, foreign Shiite fighters tighten grip on Syria
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Analysis

Closing in on Aleppo, foreign Shiite fighters tighten grip on Syria

The forces laying siege to the war-torn country's one-time commercial hub are loyal to Tehran and Hezbollah, not the Assad regime

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Refugees push each other as they wait for tents as Syrians fleeing the northern embattled city of Aleppo wait on February 6, 2016 in Bab al-Salama, near the city of Azaz, northern Syria, near the Turkish border crossing. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)
Refugees push each other as they wait for tents as Syrians fleeing the northern embattled city of Aleppo wait on February 6, 2016 in Bab al-Salama, near the city of Azaz, northern Syria, near the Turkish border crossing. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

The torrent of refugees fleeing Aleppo to the Turkish border may herald the imminent fall of Syria’s financial capital to Shiite hands – Iran, Hezbollah, plus what is left of President Bashar Assad’s army and the Russians.

Conquering Aleppo would establish the Assad regime’s control over the entire northwestern part of Syria — the Latakia area that came to be known as “Alawistan,” after the Alawite sect from which Assad hails.

But Aleppo, once the country’s largest city, is far from being the commercial hub it was before the civil war. The city has become a battlefield, mostly deserted. It is now but a shadow of its past glory and a prize only in the eyes of the forces fighting to control it.

The battle over Aleppo may be a critical point in the Syrian war from a different perspective: it may be a tipping point in the fight between Saudi Arabia, which supported the anti-Assad rebels, and Tehran, which helped prop up the regime.

Russia and its allies, however are still far from defeating Islamic State, based in the east, in Raqqa near the border with Iraq, even if Aleppo falls into their hands.

Over the weekend, Aniseh Makhlouf, the mother of Bashar Assad and wife of former president Hafez Assad, the “Lion of Damascus,” passed away.

Hafez died in 2000, but would have died all over again if he had lived to see the condition into which Syria has fallen and the way in which foreigners are taking over his land. It is not the foreign Sunni militias that would have troubled him but the Shiite militias, from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iraq and Lebanon, all acting under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and with Russian air cover.

The issue of Shiite involvement in Syria did not start in the current civil war but immediately when Bashar came to power in 2000.

Members of Hezbollah attend the funeral of Ali Ahmed Sabra, a fellow fighter who was killed in combat alongside Syrian government forces in Aleppo, on February 6, 2016, in the Lebanese village of Jibshit. (AFP / MAHMOUD ZAYYAT)
Members of Hezbollah attend the funeral of Ali Ahmed Sabra, a fellow fighter who was killed in combat alongside Syrian government forces in Aleppo, on February 6, 2016, in the Lebanese village of Jibshit. (AFP / MAHMOUD ZAYYAT)

Unlike Hafez, who fought Hezbollah in the late 1980s and never let the Shiite organization become too strong, the younger Assad allowed Hezbollah to do as it pleased in Syria and make the country a second motherland of sorts.

The Lebanese Shiite organization’s military involvement in Syria grew over the years and the dependence became mutual. When the civil war broke out in 2011, it became one-sided, with the great Syria, a country that used to meddle in Lebanon at will, now allowing Hezbollah and Iran to slowly but surely take over.

The “Shiite Axis” is now close to laying siege to Aleppo. The US, after the failure of recent talks in Geneva, may say that it does not support Russia and its allies but de facto, it prefers the Russians and the Iranians to the prospect of an emboldened Islamic State.

Without Washington’s interference, Moscow continues its incessant bombing of Aleppo, killing hundreds of innocent civilians.

And Iran is taking over large parts of Syria and in the future may establish strongholds that will threaten Israel, whether in northwestern Syria or in its next target, the Deraa area close to the border with Israel and Jordan.

Syrian government soldiers celebrate after taking control of the village of Ratian, north of the embattled city of Aleppo, from rebel fighters on February 6, 2016. (AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN)
Syrian government soldiers celebrate after taking control of the village of Ratian, north of the embattled city of Aleppo, from rebel fighters on February 6, 2016. (AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN)

The only country that can tip the scales back toward the rebels is Saudi Arabia. But at this point it’s hard to gauge whether Riyadh’s plan to send tens of thousands of troops to “save Syria,” as Arabic media outlets recently reported, is a genuine promise or empty threat.

Even if it does not send troops to Syria, Riyadh still needs to deal with other fronts of the Sunni-Shiite war, in Yemen, the Gulf and Lebanon. All this, while its coffers bottom out along with the price of oil, and as a newly sanctions-free Iran begins to gets rich again.

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