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The Strategic Importance Of The Battle For Syria's Aleppo


The British newspaper The Guardian ran a headline recently that asked is Aleppo the worst place in the world? Aleppo is Syria's second-largest city. And after four years of war, the eastern side of the city, held by opposition groups, is now largely rubble. The western side of the city is held by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. And last week, the Assad regime announced that it is beginning a final push to take all of Aleppo with help from Russia and from Iran. Let's speak now with Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Andrew, good morning.

ANDREW TABLER: Good morning.

GREENE: Remind us, if you can, why the city of Aleppo is so important strategically.

TABLER: Aleppo is not only the second largest city in Syria but is the main urban center in the northern part of Syria. It's close to the Turkish border. The economy of Aleppo was one of the largest in the country. And it was also home to a number of tourist sites that people from all over the world would visit. So it's also the place where the United States had its longest representation in terms of diplomacy. So a lot's going on there. And unfortunately, large parts of the city have been destroyed as a result of the war.

GREENE: When you hear about Syria being such a beautiful country with such a cultural heritage, a lot of that focus is on Aleppo.

TABLER: Absolutely. You have the citadel there, but also just the number of Islamic sites. Lots of mosques have been destroyed. Lots of other parts of the city have been destroyed. The regime controls about 40 percent of it. And the rest have been controlled by a number of rebels over the last four years.

GREENE: Well, the Assad regime, I mean, not able to take the eastern part of the city from the rebels for so long. Things seem to be changing now. Is this a big, big example of how Russia's helping the government?

TABLER: Absolutely. The Russians are essentially providing air cover for the Assad regime and for Iranian-backed forces to try and encircle the city. They've been trying to do it for years, sort of finger or hand reaching up from the east towards the west to encircle the city and the rebels inside, and they've been unable to do it. They're going to again.

They might succeed in closing the gap. But, again, the regime and those forces would have to take and hold that city, and that's where the regime has always fallen short. The manpower disadvantage the regime has after four years of war is significant. So what I think any kind of taking of Aleppo might take quite some time.

GREENE: And I guess I wonder if this city is so strategically important, are we seeing or going to see the United States and other Western powers supporting opposition groups to fight back and try and hold this city, and does that mean Aleppo becomes, you know, a proxy war in some ways between big powers?

TABLER: Well, officially, no. I think President Obama's been pretty clear about that. But unofficially, a number of countries throughout the world have substantial covert programs to support the opposition. I would suspect that a lot of weapons are going to be going to the rebels, and there are lots of reports that they have elsewhere in the north, via Turkey. But we'll have to see how those weapons stand up against this Russian-Iranian Assad regime onslaught.

GREENE: Andrew Tabler's a fellow at The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics. We're speaking to him about an offensive that the government is carrying out in Aleppo, Syria. Andrew, thanks a lot.

TABLER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.