BEIRUT — There are Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen cheering for clerics who liken the enemy to foes from seventh-century battles. There are also Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Afghan refugees, and Hezbollah militants — all joining the Syrian government’s ground battle for the critical city of Aleppo, each for its own reasons.
There are Syrians fighting, too: a few elite units from the army exhausted after five years of war, as well as progovernment militias that pay better salaries.
And, of course, there are the Russian pilots who have relentlessly bombed the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo.
The Syrian civil war, now concentrated in the bloody battle for that divided city, is often seen as a contest between a chaotic array of rebel groups and the Russian-backed government of President Bashar Assad. But the reality on the ground is that Assad’s side is increasingly just as fragmented as its opponents, a group of unlikely allies with often-competing approaches and interests.
“The government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords” was how one analyst, Tobias Schneider, summed up the situation.
The battle for eastern Aleppo, where the United Nations says more than 250,000 people are besieged, has raised tensions between the United States and Russia to the highest level in years, but the Cold War rivals do not wield clear control over their nominal proxies. The competing interests on both sides and lack of clear leadership on either one is part of why the fighting is so hard to stop.
Assad is desperate to retain power, Moscow seeks to increase its clout at the global table, Iran is exercising its regional muscle, Afghan fighters seek citizenship in Iran, and leaders of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia, have always vowed to go “wherever needed” to prevail in the war.
At least one elite Syrian army unit has been filmed seizing positions in Aleppo, but the bulk of the pro-government force is militiamen trained and financed by Iran, a Shi’ite theocracy that is the Syrian government’s closest ally, according to experts, diplomats, regional officials, and fighters battling for and against the government.
“Aleppo is Shi’ite, and she wants her people,” goes a song overlaid on a video online of an Iraqi cleric visiting Iraqi Shi’ite militia fighters on the front lines south of Aleppo. The message ignores the fact that the mainstream Shi’ite sect that accounts for the bulk of the Iraqi militias makes up less than 1 percent of Syria’s population.
The government’s Aleppo offensive has moved aggressively in the past week, worsening a humanitarian crisis. Syrian or Russian airstrikes have hit seven hospitals and have killed hundreds of civilians, in what Moscow and Damascus describe as preparation for a final battle for the city.
There is no precedent in the Syrian war for ground forces quickly rolling into an area that rebels have held for years. The disjointed forces, many with no local connections, are not strong enough to take fortified urban rebel positions in a frontal assault.
Rather, airstrikes, artillery and starvation sieges have typically been used to force rebels to surrender in exchange for safe passage — a process that has taken months or years in places far smaller and less strategically vital than Aleppo. But it could go quicker if progovernment forces managed to take control of the water distribution plant or if thousands of Russian soldiers and veterans now working for private security contractors join the ground battle.
The messy mosaic of ground fighters on both sides has challenged Washington’s tangled allegiances. The United States is effectively allied with Iraqi Shi’ite militias to thwart the Islamic State in Iraq, but in Syria, some of those same militias are fighting on the side of the Assad government, which the United States opposes, and against a mix of rebel groups, some of them backed by the Obama administration.
There is more cultural affinity between Russia and senior Syrian army officers — steeped in secular Baathist ideology and often trained in the Soviet Union — than between Syria’s formal military and Iran and Hezbollah. But militarily, they are all interdependent. Assad needs ground forces provided by Iran and Hezbollah, which in turn need Russian air power.
Some Syrian officers grumble about Iran and Hezbollah impinging on their sovereignty.
Both Russians and the foreign Shi’ite fighters complain of a lack of discipline among Syrian conscripts. But while many Syrian soldiers are weary after years of war, the foreign militia ranks seem to have buoyant morale. The leader of the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujabaa in a video tells his men to keep up the battle. “We are with God,” he says.