“The Opposition Forces in Aleppo” (PART II – FULL TEXT) / by Jennifer Cafarella & Genevieve Casagrande (ISW) .

What the US can do ?

First, the U.S. could conduct humanitarian airdrops of supplies into opposition-held neighborhoods of the city in order to sustain both the opposition groups and the hundreds of thousands of civilians in opposition-held areas of Aleppo City to forestall a humanitarian catastrophe. Providing humanitarian aid to opposition groups in Aleppo increases their ability to endure the siege without submitting to Jabhat al Nusra’s leadership. The U.S. has the capability to do so from airbases in Turkey currently used for the antiISIS campaign. Turkey would support such operations and almost certainly grant the use of its bases for them to preserve opposition groups in Aleppo, including those that already receive Turkish aid, in order to pursue regime change in Syria. Jabhat al Nusra would be able to access some of this aid, but the U.S. should not let Jabhat al Nusra’s presence in the city condemn the civilian population and opposition groups at risk. Any American intervention in Aleppo, even an airdrop of humanitarian supplies, will risk provoking Russia. Russia is very unlikely willing to rise escalation over Aleppo, however, as it is not a core Russian strategic interest. U.S. policymakers are reportedly considering humanitarian airdrops, and should undertake them immediately.

Second, the U.S. should significantly increase the military and financial support to the non-Ahrar al Sham powerbrokers and potential powerbrokers examined in this report. The U.S. already provides aid on a limited scale to many of them. The U.S. should provide these groups with increased TOW anti-tank missile shipments in addition to increased shipments of light weapons, ammunition, and money to pay their fighters. The U.S. could do so from Turkey, where a covert U.S. program to provide small numbers of TOW anti-tank missiles to vetted opposition groups is already reportedly based.72 The U.S. can deliver these supplies quietly through the Bab al Hawa border crossing with Turkey west of Aleppo City. This is advantageous because air dropping the supplies is more vulnerable to Russian interdiction.

The provision of military supplies in addition to humanitarian aid would preserve the powerbroker status of four ideologically viable powerbrokers (al Jabhat al Shamiya, Jaysh al Mujahideen, Feilaq al Sham, and Fawj al Awal) and increase their relative strength vis-à-vis Ahrar al Sham. The increase in both military and humanitarian support could also transform all of the potential powerbrokers into powerbrokers by both providing them more access to resources than smaller Aleppo based groups have and closing the gap between powerbrokers and potential powerbrokers. It would also mitigate Jabhat al Nusra’s ability to coerce or exploit the weakness of potential powerbrokers in order to absorb or transform them. It could even be sufficient to coalesce smaller opposition groups in Aleppo under the leadership of powerbrokers that are potential U.S. allies as opposed to al Qaeda-allied Ahrar al Sham.

The U.S. should not make additional support contingent upon a refusal by opposition groups to coordinate with Jabhat al Nusra, because it is not a demand these groups can meet under current military conditions. The U.S. should instead adopt an approach to incentivize and enable these groups to retain freedom of action and to withstand Jabhat al Nusra coercion over the medium term while potentially growing stronger. The severity of the situation in Aleppo will likely prevent Jabhat al Nusra from attacking these groups directly because doing so would greatly harm the group’s image. The upcoming siege of Aleppo thus offers the U.S. the opportunity to build future partners against Jabhat al Nusra by exploiting conditions in which Jahbat al Nusra’s freedom of action against Western clients is limited.

Third, The U.S. could also support the establishment of a humanitarian safe zone along the Turkish border. Turkey may independently do so in order to address the flow of refugees that it cannot absorb. A safe zone north of Aleppo could also provide Turkey with basing it can use to deliver additional support to opposition forces in Aleppo City, such as indirect fire. The U.S. could support this course of action with aerial overflight to prevent the regime from attacking the safe zone, and could leverage U.S.-trained forces operating near the Turkish border to help secure the zone and pressure the regime’s forward line of troops (FLOT).  Read the full paper here.