This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
The city, formerly Syria’s largest and its commercial and industrial hub, has proven pivotal to the civil war in the past. As Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explained to me, the rebels’ push to take Aleppo in 2012—following a year in which the city had seen relatively little of the protests and violence that had been escalating elsewhere in the country—“was one of the first real major offensives of the armed opposition in Syria.” The hope was to set up an alternative capital there to rival Damascus, and from that base to gradually expand opposition control. The city has been roughly divided between the regime and the rebels ever since, with Assad’s forces mainly in the west and opposition forces mainly in the east, and “with some parts of the city changing hands on a daily basis,” according to the BBC.