REYHANLI (Turkey) - Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the civil war erupted in March 2011, has been one of the key battlegrounds in the conflict but no side has been able to secure overall control. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad hold a large area of the ancient city and rebel groups control the rest.
In many ways, the battle for Aleppo, which began in 2012, is the civil war in microcosm. Neither side is strong enough to crush the other. It is a cruel war of attrition that is steadily devastating the country.
Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities and once Syria’s commercial heart, is in ruins, its architectural treasures obliterated. With many of its pre-war population of 2 million either dead or driven from their homes, the city is dying.
While rebel forces, particularly the Islamic State (ISIS) and rival groups supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have made gains in northern and central Syria in recent weeks, there seems little likelihood of a knockout blow by an opposition unable to unite.
Events in Aleppo illustrate why. Early in July, several rebel groups consolidated under the banner of Fateh Halab — “Conquest of Aleppo” — in what is known as an “operations room”, a command centre in which all the diverse groups are represented. At least 15 rebel groups, numbering some 28,000 fighters, are controlled by the Aleppo centre.
In this incredibly complex war, with a cornucopia of rebel groups funded by various Arab powers and a bewildering variety of ideologies and political agendas, along with the Islamist groups that include Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda’s official Syrian wing, and the more fanatical ISIS, opposition factions are constantly shifting alliances or fighting each other as well as the regime. This multiplicity of players and divergent agendas is arguably Assad’s greatest asset. It allows his forces, heavily augmented by Iranian-backed Shia groups such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and Iraqi militias plus mercenaries from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan, to hold onto large swathes of territory.
The Aleppo coalition includes the Liwa’ Suqour al-Jabal group, al-Sham Front, the Nur el-Din Zanki Brigade, the Safwa Brigades, and the Dawn of the Caliphate Brigades, and Battalion 16.
Fighters interviewed by The Arab Weekly said that while most factions cooperate during battles, they also have different goals, which impede coordination and formulating an overall rebel strategy against Assad’s regime. “Some groups favour a civil management of Aleppo but radical groups such as al-Nusra oppose that,” one source explained.
At first, Fateh Halab made gains. On July 3rd, it overran an area known as Bouhouth al-Ilmiya (Scientific Studies and Research Centre), a regime-held position on the city’s western edge. Lieutenant Hassan Khalil of the Liwa’ Suqour al-Jabal (Falcons of the Mountain) said rebel forces are heavily entrenched in some 60% of the city, opposed on two sides by Assad’s troops, but they have been unable to exploit their July 3rd success.
He told The Arab Weekly in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the Syrian border, that the regime has repeatedly hit the rebel-held sector with shellfire and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters and on July 7th mounted a chlorine gas attack.
Khalil said the rebels should expand on recent gains by targeting regime strongpoints, such as the Mukhabarat Jawiya (air force intelligence) headquarters in Aleppo and the Military Academy, which are used to launch attacks on rebel-held sectors.
“The fall of such positions would liberate large civilian neighbourhoods,” he said. While al-Nusra has focused on civilian areas, other groups, such as the Nur el Dine el- Zinki Brigade, believe that priority should be given to cutting the regime’s supply routes.
A 60-kilometre front-line with ISIS, the Aleppo alliance’s other enemy, that stretches from the Turkish border to Aleppo has compelled the rebels to split their forces between sectors. “We’re being exhausted by these two fronts,” said an officer in the Nur el Dine el-Zinki Brigade.
Another critical factor that prevents the rebels forming a battle-winning alliance is differences in ideology and sect. “Our militants face a dilemma when they fight ISIS because they’re Sunni Muslims like us,” Khalil explained. “This is an issue they don’t think of when clashing with Hezbollah or the National Defence Force (NDF),” a military formation trained by Iran’s al-Quds Force and Hezbollah to support Assad’s overstretched army. The NDF is largely made up of Shia and Syria’s Alawite minority, a Shia offshoot that dominates the regime.
These problems are crippling rebel forces across Syria. The prospect of a unified command capable of bringing down Assad’s hated regime is decidedly dim in a region where sect is often more important than nationality.