Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Significance of the Battle for Ariha

As the fighting in Aleppo city diminishes to a slow burn, an intense battle for Ariha has endured for over a week. The regime tried to clear Ariha almost every month since March, but failed in each attempt. Although the regime’s control over large swaths of the country is quickly eroding, including its hold of crucial cities like Aleppo, its focus on Ariha has not wavered. There is good reason for this, as Ariha's northern edge touches the M4 highway linking Aleppo city to the coast. This route has grown in importance as rebel controlled territory along the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus now extends south from Jebel al-Zawiyah into the Maarat al-Numan region, threatening the regime's only alternate route for resupplying its troops in the north.

The M4 Highway as it runs past Ariha toward Aleppo city

On August 22, Suqour al-Sham’s website claimed that the M5 highway linking Damascus to Aleppo is already closed to regime convoys. If this is true, the regime will not be able to maintain control of either Idlib or Aleppo city if it cannot keep the M4 highway open. The regime simply does not have the air assets to supply its northern garrisons via helicopters and transport planes. In any case, the number of operational helicopters possessed by the regime is dwindling, due to ground fire, rebel attacks on air facilities like the recent attack in Taftanaz, and regular maintenance problems. Regime logistics relies on the highways.

The rebels in Ariha are faring well. Earlier this week Suqour al-Sham used a tank to capture a regime position just south of Ariha, and has also used one inside the city itself. The regime may be able to keep the M4 Highway open by simply maintaining pressure on Ariha, thereby forcing the rebels to focus on protecting the city, not closing the road, but this is not a sustainable solution. On the other hand, if the rebels drive the regime out of Ariha, they will turn their attention to the M4 Highway. If the Rebels can shut down the highway, the regime’s entire presence in the north may become untenable.