November 18, 2014
Regime forces launched a surprise attack in early October against rebel positions just north of Aleppo city, capturing the town of Handarat and cutting off the main rebel supply route that runs from the northern Aleppo countryside into Aleppo.
Since that time, various rebel outfits have been deadlocked with regime forces in a high-stakes battle for Aleppo's northern entrance, the last rebel-held gateway into the city.
Control over Handarat and the nearby areas of Haritan and al-Malah will allow for a regime-imposed siege of the city, a scenario regime militias are “desperately” trying to realize, Yasser Abdul Lateef, a media trainer for the Islamic Front living in Aleppo, tells Syria Direct's Mohammed al-Haj Ali.
The possibility of a siege has residents in rebel-held areas of Aleppo are afraid of “a repeat of the Homs scenario,” i.e. forced surrender by starvation, an opposition activist photographer in the northern Aleppo countryside told Syria Direct earlier this month.
Rebel groups who fought openly earlier this month across Idlib province are now working together against the regime in Aleppo, Lateef says. Jabhat a-Nusra and Harakat Hazm are both active on the Handarat front in addition to the Islamic Front, Jaish al-Mujahidin, and various FSA outfits.
Differences still exist between the various brigades, Lateef says, but “in the end, their goal is shared: The fall of Bashar al-Assad.”
Q: What's going on currently in Handarat? What are you seeing and hearing?
Clashes are ongoing day and night, as Assad's militias try desperately to take control of the area, considering it has great strategic importance. It allows for control over the entrance to Aleppo city.
A young rebel on the Handarat front. Photo courtesy of @tkbaar.
Q: Why does the regime want to capture Handarat?
The regime needs to take Handarat in order to advance towards rebel-controlled areas in the city of Aleppo.
A siege of Aleppo will not take place unless the regime controls Haritan and the al-Malah farms. The regime is trying to capture elevated areas there, the hilltops.
Q: How are civilians doing in the area?
Civilians leave immediately from any areas that witness clashes. Most of Handarat's residents have fled to neighboring areas, and a number of them went to Turkey. Handarat is now nearly empty of inhabitants, there are [only] combatants.
Q: Who's making progress in these battles? Can the rebels drive back the regime?
Despite the indiscriminate, continuous use of barrel bombs, and despite the fact that they brought in Iranian and Afghan militias in the most recent battles, Assad's militias have had difficulty in realizing progress on the ground.
We're involved in hit-and-run battles.
Q: What would happen if the regime took control of Handarat? How would that affect the revolution?
Strategically, it won't have a huge impact, because the regime would need to take additional points in order to impose a siege on rebel-controlled areas in Aleppo.
But in reality, it will have a big morale impact on the residents of rebel-held areas, and on the fighters themselves.
Q: How are these brigades cooperating with one another in light of the fact that they're fighting each other on other fronts?
As you said, there are differences between these brigades. But in the end, their goal is shared, the fall of Bashar al-Assad. On this front, they are fighting Bashar al-Assad.