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New front in Aleppo hints at rebel staying power

April 22, 2014 By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Mohammed Ali al-Haj […]

22 April 2014

April 22, 2014

By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Mohammed Ali al-Haj Ali

AMMAN: Rebels say their latest advance on the regime’s most important installations in southwest Aleppo has proved their staying power in Syria’s largest city, but as the Syrian air force drops barrel bombs on the city daily, it is not yet clear whether they can do more than just sustain a stalemate.

The latest in a series of coordinated rebel operations in Aleppo, the I’tassam battle targets a string of pre-conflict military installations on the government’s supply route into western Aleppo. Launched April 7, the campaign swings the center of gravity in the battle for Aleppo away from the rebel-controlled east, putting government forces on the defensive in Syria’s largest city for the first time this year.

I’tassam target five regime military installations, slicing through swaths of neighborhoods previously isolated from the war’s violence. It is a stark reversal after four months of a crawling government advance into the city’s rebel-held east.

“The mujahidoun have been able to liberate a number of the most important positions,” the Ahl a-Sham Joint Operations room announced last Thursday. In two weeks, the coordinated rebels have seized a section of just one of their five targets – a-Ramousa – but have advanced toward all of them.

On Thursday, rebels seized an electrical facility and an orphanage next to the Aleppo branch of the Air Force Intelligence, one of the five stated targets, between the eastern neighborhoods of a-Zahra and al-Jazeera.

Since April 7, rebels unified in the I’tassam campaign have seized the neighborhoods of a-Zahra, al-Jazeera and al-Lirmoun in northern Aleppo, as well as parts of a-Ramousa, and  Aqrab and Souq Jebes near the al-Assad Military Academy, in an arc stretching eight kilometers southwest.

Aqrab and Souq-Jebes lie one kilometer west of al-Assad Military Academy, while rebeln control of parts of a-Ramousa has cut the supply road from west to east the government uses for its soldiers at the Aleppo International Airport and the embattled a-Nairab Military Airport.

Those sites “are important because they are the entrance to Aleppo from the west,” said Ahmed al-Ahmed, a citizen journalist in Aleppo. “They are Aleppo’s first line of defense,” he added. They hold symbolic and strategic value as pre-conflict regime outposts in Syria’s economic capital.

Gang warfare

The campaign marks the most significant rebel gains in months. For most of 2014, rebels have been defending their east Aleppo home turf building-by-building on a north-south axis stretching from Sheikh Sa’eed in the south to Sheikh Najar near Aleppo Central Prison, 16 kilometers north.

Screen_Shot_2014-04-22_at_6.58.37_PM.pngAleppo’s citizens stood in the rubble of their city after a mid-April Syrian air force bombing campaign. Photo courtesy of the Aleppo Media Center.

“Our battles are like gang warfare,” an activist named Ismael in Aleppo told Syria Direct, with battles being fought meter by meter in a push-and-pull stalemate that has created immense destruction and little gain for either side.

In January and February, rebels fought a two-front war in Aleppo, driving the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) from the city itself while bending under the pressure of an all-out Syrian air force assault.

Now, unified under the Ahl a-Sham Joint Operations Room, rebels present a unified front, though they still fight ISIS in the northern Aleppo province towns of al-Bab, Menbej and Jarablus.

Since ISIS was expelled from Aleppo, “the situation has improved dramatically, and disagreements have dissipated,” said Abu Omar, a fighter with the Islamic Front’s Liwa a-Tawheed, which is coordinating with al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra and moderate Jaish al-Mujahideen in the campaign.

“There is basically unity among the brigades.”

A long campaign

In shifting the battle for Aleppo’s focal point to the regime-held southwest, the rebels may have scored a symbolic, more than strategic, advance.

Since the Syrian air force began a barrel bomb campaign on the city in January 2014 – dozens of barrels fell on Aleppo Tuesday and the city has had no electricity or water for a week – more than half a million civilians have fled the city, emptying out entire neighborhoods.

On the ground, the Syrian government inched forward, claiming to control 80 percent of the city as it sought to establish a “security belt” around the city’s perimeter.

Rebels dispute those numbers. “The regime controls only 40 percent of Aleppo,” Abu Ammar claims, echoing opposition media reporting a similar number.

Weeks after losing Yabroud in Qalamoun, once an impenetrable rebel capital, and as the Syrian government intensifies a final push for the besieged neighborhoods of Old Homs, Aleppo, the industrial heart of pre-conflict Syria, remains rebels’ most vital prize.

It is one both sides will continue to fight for.

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