(CNN)Aleppo’s fall to rebels — back in 2012 a much more moderate bunch than the often al-Nusra-infected alliances we see now — was a symbolic moment: the commercial heart of Syria turning on the country’s own government.
Now, as thousands flee to the Turkish border from Russian airstrikes pounding the city and government forces moving in, the battle for Aleppo is again gaining significance.
The towns of Nubul and Zahraa were reached by government forces late Wednesday and their seizure could mark a turning point in the war in northern Syria. Not because they are significant in themselves, but because to reach the towns, the regime had to cross through towns that mark the main supply route into the rebel-held area of Aleppo.
Nearly five years into the civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people, according to the United Nations, Aleppo remains split in two with 320,000 civilians thought to be in the rebel-held area in the east of the city.
Last year, the regime tried to cut off its main supply route, but failed. This time it looks like they have succeeded, and if Russian air power persists, it will be tough for rebels to open the road again.
Since then it has been bombarded, seen al-Nusra Front (al Qaeda in Syria) sweep in, have moderates resist them as well as ISIS, and now faces what might be a prolonged siege.
All sides on the move
It is too early to tell whether the move to take Nubul and Zahraa really has cut off rebel supplies into the city. Both sides exaggerate — the rebels to urge outsiders to assist, and the government to show their prowess. But something is changing, and the march of thousands of refugees north, towards Turkey, where an uncertain welcome awaits, is evidence enough of that.
This change comes at a time of other changes to the status quo in the north. To the east of Aleppo, Kurdish forces are, with American support, eyeing the remaining ISIS strongholds along the Turkish border — Jarablus and Manbij. The U.S. wants ISIS out, to remove its access to resupply of materiel and fighters from Turkey.
Meanwhile, Turkey, America’s NATO ally that is engaged in a brutal but often unseen war with the Kurds’ allies in Turkey’s southeast, doesn’t want the Kurds to advance, and may stop at nothing to prevent that. Slightly southeast of there, the regime was advancing on ISIS in the town of Al Bab.
North of Aleppo, the moderate rebels in the tiny gap below the Turkish border crossing of Bab Al Salama, are under Russian fire, and pressure from the regime forces that moved against Nubul and Zahraa. Slightly to their west, the Kurds who have long been in an enclave to Aleppo’s north, known as Afrin, have moved slightly east, moving in to new villages, according to the SOHR.
All sides are on the move. And one problem looms for the rebels’ backers in the West and Gulf: one of the main forces moving in to try and fight for rebel-held areas of Aleppo, is the al-Nusra Front. They have issued a call for fighters to defend the city, and published video of their huge column of fighters moving towards the city.
What comes next may take months to play out. A siege is a complex and ghastly prospect that will take weeks to come into effect, on a population already struggling, but long aware this could happen.
A humanitarian disaster will build, likely meters away from Turkey’s military. And Russia, whose decisive and often brutal intervention has given the regime a momentum it has not seen in years, will continue to see its military might reshape the landscape of this war, and effectively scupper the negotiations it has, on paper, bought into in Geneva.
But it won’t end there — whatever the outcome. ISIS still exists, mere miles away, and could step into any void. Those killed in the government advance have relatives who will seek vengeance. Turkey won’t accept Kurdish fighters controlling much of its southern border. Iran and Russia will not accept the Damascus government falling. The political track for negotiations has stuttered, perhaps for its final time.
It may change fast, but Syria’s war refuses to see even the beginning of its end.