By Patrick BAHZAD
As SST had forecast yesterday, the junction between SAA controlled Aleppo and the Shia enclaves of Nubl and Zahra, located some 7 miles North-West of the city's outskirts, was completed by armoured units of the R+6 in a matter of 24 hours. Despite the rebels throwing everything they got at the advancing SAA and NDF forces, the last village standing in the way of total junction was taken a couple of hours ago.
It had been four years since the enclave was cut off government controlled areas in Aleppo. Gaining access to it already represents a huge symbolic victory for the R+6, after the previous major siege they lifted around Kuweires airbase in November 2015. Additionally, and this is much more important in military terms, the R+6 will now make sure they can secure these territorial gains, withstand a probable rebel counter-attack, and then expand the area under their control, so as to make sure the rebels' Northern LOC with Azaz and Turkey is definitely interdicted.
With R+6 gaining more and more control over the border areas in the North and West of Syria, the rebels around Idlib are being confronted with the increasingly likely prospect of encirclement and destruction at the hands of SAA, NDF or Hezbollah forces, or a run for their safe havens and rear bases in Turkey, as long as some of the border posts remain open to them. For the time being, they still control Bab al-Hawa, in the West of Aleppo, but it is questionable whether they will be able to cling onto it for very much longer.
Another option some of the most radical groups will consider is to try and join ranks with ISIS in the Eastern desert or Euphrates valley. Some of the "independent" Jihadi outfits that have been wrongly dubbed as "moderates" might definitely fancy their chances with an Islamic State they have had good – although informal – relations with for months, and sometimes years. Such a development would certainly strengthen Russia's case, which has been arguing since the start of its involvement that it will fight in Syria "until all terrorist groups are destroyed".
The Western Coalition on the hand had argued that the Russians should be targeting ISIS only and not the "moderate" groups operating in North-Western Syria. Any rapprochement between some of these so-called "moderates" and ISIS would certainly undermine the Western stance on the Syrian rebels and make it more difficult to support them during the negotiations in Geneva.
For now however, it looks like the R+6 are tightening their grip on Idlib and heading for total annihilation of any group still in the area, once they launch their final assault onto it. Furthermore, it should be noted that government forces are also closing in on Rastan enclave (North of Homs), which had resisted previous R+6 attempts at clearing the area. Overall, whether in Northern and Western Syria (Latakia, Aleppo and Homs) or in the South (Daraa), the R+6 is definitely increasing its operational tempo. In some areas of strategic importance in particular, we might soon witness a total breakdown of any organized resistance and combat by various rebel groups.