Three weeks ago the regime began moving troops across Syria toward Aleppo city in order to retake neighborhoods controlled by Syrian rebels. The strategic importance of this battle and its high profile nature has sent rebels in Idlib province streaming toward Aleppo as well. In some cases, commanders have dispatched troops to Aleppo while in other cases, the senior leadership of Idlib rebel groups have themselves fought in Aleppo city. For example Lt. Bilal Khabir, the leader of the Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib Battalion, participated in recent fighting in the Aleppo neighborhood of Salah al-Din. Other rebel groups have opted to consolidate control of their own regions rather than join the fight in Aleppo.
In order to mass sufficient forces to take back Aleppo city, the regime had to drawdown elsewhere, creating opportunities for rebels willing to sit-out the battle for Aleppo city. The Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion is using the opportunity to seize a series of regime positions on the southern road leading into Jebel al-Zawiyah. They first captured a regime position in Maarat al-Numan, then headed west to Kafr Nabl where they not only took a regime position, but captured two armored personnel carriers and a tank. When the dust in Aleppo clears, the regime will find itself contending with an expanded rebel stronghold in Jebel al-Zawiyah and its environs.
This is the central dilemma facing Assad. The regime can mass sufficient forces to take any terrain the rebels try to hold, but doing so requires drawing down elsewhere. The rebels first obtained safe zones in March after the regime drew down in the countryside in order to secure the cities of Idlib, Aleppo, and Homs. The rebels are now forcing the regime to draw down yet again, leaving the positions that they still hold extremely vulnerable. The regime is clearing the rebels from Aleppo city and is likely to succeed, however, they will control an isolated city surrounded by rebel-held territory that will be exceedingly difficult to resupply.