Battle for Aleppo Rages as Ceasefire Looms

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. In Syria, the scales may have been tipped today in the battle of Aleppo. Control of Syria's largest city is seen as critical to the survival of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But now rebel fighters have reportedly seized three key neighborhoods in the north and west of the city. The occupation came on the eve of a four-day ceasefire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Throughout the conflict government restrictions have made it hard to know for sure what's going on inside Syria. Today we called a couple of experts with good contacts inside the country. Amr Al-Azm is a prominent member of the Syrian opposition here in the US and a professor at Shawnee State University. Joshua Landis lived in Syria for years. He now teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Landis says what he's hearing is that the rebels are optimistic.

Joshua Landis: A friend of mine who was on the phone this morning to a leading rebel commander said that this is how the commander described the situation. He said the government does not have more than 6,000 troops in Aleppo. The shabiha, these militias, pro-government, are about 2,000. But he said the rebel troops have 40,000. Now, I'm not sure, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but they claim that they far outnumber the government troops. Of course the government troops have better arms, better communication. But they have now cut off the Damascus-Aleppo road, and access from the west, and of course access from Turkey in the north is cut off as well, so very hard for the government to resupply itself, and they are hoping that they can win the fight for downtown Aleppo.

Werman: Right, and just for our listeners, Aleppo is in the north of Syria, not too far from the Turkish border. So Professor Al-Azm, those government forces and militia in the city center around the old citadel, they look pretty isolated. Are those forces now trapped, do they have a way out? On the map I saw there's only one road down to Damascus.

Amr Al-Azm: I don't know if trapped in the sense of totally trapped. I mean they can still maneuver, they can still move out if they need to withdraw. But I think the situation is becoming more and more precarious, especially now that the opposition has been able to cut the main trunk road in several places, and in fact for large stretches. You know, this is a war of attrition, and I don't think the regime is actually, really winning this, and what we're hoping is that now with the US elections coming to an end and with the possibility of a more united opposition politically with the forthcoming meeting in Doha on the 8th of November, that this might all create the necessary game-changer, if you want, the necessary stimulus that would basically break this deadlock and allow the opposition to gain the upper hand. So there's a conjunction coming I think that coincides with the increased activity in Aleppo and its potential fall.

Werman: Josh Landis, let's consider the people in those neighborhoods in Aleppo occupied by the rebels today. These are primarily Kurdish or Christian neighborhoods, and these people must be terrified of government retaliation through air strikes and artillery. We're even hearing some reports that Kurds are fighting back. What have you heard?

Landis: Well, I've heard that too, that Kurds are fighting back, and at first we thought that possibly the Kurds had just decided to try to stay out of this. It's clearly a dynamic situation, and the Christians are terrified. One friend told me that his maid had fainted earlier in the day because the fighting was so fierce. But once these sharpshooters get to the top of your building, then they begin to set up anti-aircraft guns on the top of your building, of course you're waiting then for the government to come and bomb you with their air force.

Werman: What about this ceasefire? This was supposed to start tomorrow. Now what?

Landis: Well, both sides, this ceasefire, it seems so impossible because the situation on the ground is changing quickly. Both sides, and here we have to speak loosely, The Syrian government has said they will abide by the ceasefire if the other side stops shooting. Several of the major commanders have told Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative, that they will abide by the ceasefire if there's no shooting. But Salafist groups, and more Islamist groups, have said that they're not going to abide by it. It's very hard to imagine how this ceasefire would work, and there are hundreds of armed groups in the opposition who don't answer to any one command and control. So it's very difficult to see how a ceasefire would really hold, particularly if there's major movement in Aleppo.

Werman: Professor Al-Azm, it was kind of eerie, what you said earlier, about Syrians patiently waiting for US elections on November 6 to be over, kind of with the assumption that the US would lead the charge for intervention. When do you think that would happen? When would the White House start refocusing on Syria, November 7?

Al-Azm: All indications that we have from people that I and others have spoken to in the United States government, are telling us that once the elections are over, there will be a change in policy, from what we hear. It's one thing to be actually military intervention or suddenly there's going to be air strikes or anything like that, but what most of us think is going to happen is that the US will allow more arming of the rebels, of the opposition army, and with the sort of weaponry needed to tip the balance, and I think that's going to be the game-changer.

Werman: And Joshua Landis, do you think that's overly optimistic?

Landis: Well, I think it's going to take a long time. The government, the Syrian army is still very powerful, it has backers in Iran, Russia and China to a degree. It has a lot of heavy weaponry. There's still a lot of fight in this regime. But on the other hand, if the opposition manages to take the core, the heart of Aleppo, it is going to be a big boost for the opposition. People today who are talking about a stalemate, who are talking about maybe there are too many Islamists, it's being penetrated by al-Qaeda, and have lost some of the enthusiasm they had for the opposition in the beginning, will be, in a sense, reinvigorated. And everybody likes a winner, so if the opposition can win in Aleppo, that'll be a major, major change.

Werman: Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma and director of their Middle Eastern Studies program. Amr Al-Azm is a prominent member of the Syrian opposition here in the US and a professor at Shawnee State. Thank you both very much.

Al-Azm: Thank you.

Landis: A pleasure.