As peace talks resumed this week in Geneva, the government escalated aerial bombardment of Aleppo in a continued siege of rebel-held areas.Fierce fighting has continued even as the international community and delegations from both sides met to discuss the possibility of temporary cease-fires in the hardest-hit areas of the city.
We asked Aymenn al-Tamimi, Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Nadim Shehadi, a fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, to weigh in.
Syria Deeply: What is the current military situation on the ground in Aleppo?
Aymenn al-Tamimi: It is bombardment by the regime that's the current main tactic. For example, there's videos just today of barrel bombs dropped on Masaken quarter in Aleppo. And also there's on-the-ground fighting in various parts of Aleppo province between the regime and rebel forces despite the [distraction of] the infighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
So the infighting with ISIS has been concentrated around Alevi, which is in the north around the border with Turkey. It's one of these border areas now that has become the main flash points between ISIS and other rebels. Then there's [still] plenty of fighting on active fronts. There's Jaish al-Mujahideen and Islamic Front forces fighting against regime forces in the Sheikh Said area of Aleppo that has long been an active rebel-regime front. Interestingly, there is an offensive on Kweiras military air base, and that's been led by Suqqor [al-Sham], which is an independent foreign fighter battallion led by Saudis. But its ideology is the same as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Also participating are ISIS, Nusra and one other foreign fighter battalion called the Green Battalion, which is again founded by the Saudis and has the same ideology as ISIS and Nusra, but it was founded by Saudis who broke off from those two groups because they felt disillusioned about the dispute between ISIS and Nusra, so they formed an independent battalion.
SD: Why is the regime increasing the barrel bomb offensive even as peace talks are being held in Geneva? Is its confidence level that high?
AT: It's very typical of their tactics, just to bombard as heavily as possible. They've done the same thing in Homs and various other places. They try to clear [the rebels] out and then move in with ground forces. It doesn't come as a surprise to me. I think with Geneva II, the regime's hope was to get some kind of acceptance that Assad will be staying in power, and then the idea would be to have the understanding of some form of alliance against, for example, ISIS and Nusra.
But that's not what's come out of Geneva. On the contrary, the U.S. insisted that Assad had to leave, and the opposition delegation accuses ISIS and the regime of collaborating, so the regime hasn't been able to get what it wants out of Geneva II, and I don't think it's interested in any kind of accommodation at all there. So the fighting on the ground doesn't come as a surprise.
Nadim Shehadi: I think it's difficult to read the regime's confidence because it is programmed to show confidence all the time. It's sticking to its narrative. We've seen that in many instances, this idea of sticking to the narrative even though it's clear it's not true. In my view, it's a mind game that they play. It's a battle of wills and they're not blinking, whereas the international community is.
It has been doing what it wants on the ground in Aleppo. And the message it is getting is that it has the green light to do what it wants in Aleppo because nobody is going to stop it. There is nothing stopping the regime from doing what it's doing, and the regime's barrel bomb strategy is sending a message that whatever they don't control, they will destroy.
SD: Have the escalated bombings had the effect the regime wanted, to exhaust civilians and coerce them into abandoning the opposition?
AT: The more the bombs drop, the more it just alienates the locals. It doesn't do the regime any favors. Despite the infighting [which temporarily weakened opposition forces], they haven't made that many gains territorially. It's been very limited. And that really points to the weakness of the regime in terms of ground manpower, to be able to push forward. Despite any territorial gains made by the regime, it still hasn't broken the overall stalemate in Aleppo in terms of the overall front.