March 6, 2014
By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar, Abdulrahman al-Masri and Osama Abu Zeid
AMMAN: A forbidding, kilometer-wide complex in northern Aleppo, the Aleppo Central Prison towers over the northern district of Syria’s most populous city, holding for rebels a valuable prize: hundreds, and possibly thousands, of anti-government activists and combatants trapped inside, scores of whom may have already starved to death.
For months, a coalition of Islamist and Free Syrian Army rebels has completely blockaded the regime-held prison, releasing periodic videos of alleged breakthroughs in the facility without ever actually seizing control. When rebels claimed to have freed thousands of prisoners from the prison on February 6th, its eventual capture seemed inevitable. That didn't happen and they were pushed back by regime forces.
Now, amidst a month-long regime surge in Aleppo, rebels are seeking to strengthen their hold over the areas surrounding the prison after an ongoing government advance from outside the rebel perimeter has brought the regime perilously close to reaching its besieged troops defending the prison.
If the regime reaches the facility, it will have established an arc of control in northeast Aleppo, in addition to its partial control of southeastern supply roads and the entire western half of the city. The prison sits on one of many rebel-held supply routes into northern Aleppo province and border crossings into Turkey, all under rebel control.
Government troops are attempting to “isolate [rebels] from the northern suburbs and keep [a regime] presence in northern Aleppo,” said Omar, a citizen journalist in Aleppo who asked to be identified by only his first name.
In recent weeks, the Syrian government has consolidated control of the northern Aleppo villages of a-Naqarrein and Sheikh Yusuf, and are heavily shelling Sheikh Najjar, six kilometers east of the prison and a few kilometers north of the city of Aleppo.
If they move into the town, and its accompanying industrial area, three kilometers of relatively open territory will separate the Syrian army from its blockaded forces.
“The regime is taking advantage of the fighting in the north of Aleppo between rebels and ISIS, which has led to the regime’s advantage” said Ahmed al-Ahmed, an Aleppo-based activist.
Rebels unite to stave off advance
Rebels have coalesced into a joint “operations room” that includes the Islamic Front and al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra as well as the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Jaish al-Mujahideen. Other militias, such as the Civilian Protection Body, are fighting alongside these groups but not included in the operations room.
Rebel groups including Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic Front this week announced the formation of a joint "operations room" in Aleppo. Photo courtesy of @ahlalsham01.
Rebels say they have halted the government’s recent advance after bringing reinforcements from the northern Aleppo suburbs, where rebel battalions had been busy fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS).
“Thus far, the rebels have repelled the attempted attack” on the Central Prison, said citizen journalist Omar.
On Monday, Ahl al-Sham, the rebels’ joint operation room, posted online a video of rebels returning from the north of Aleppo to fight the regime, denouncing it as taking advantage of the resource-draining battle with ISIS.
For that, a rebel commander is filmed decrying the regime as “exploiting the situation in Aleppo and its suburbs,” shouting in formal Arabic in a video entitled “Assistance from the northern suburbs to reinforce Sheikh Najjar.”
On Wednesday, Jaish al-Mujahideen uploaded a similar video of hundreds of combatants preparing to move. “We, Jaish al-Mujahideen, are sending a convoy of reinforcements to the fronts in Aleppo, and particularly to the front at Sheikh Najar,” says a red-headed rebel leader.
With the reinforcements, al-Ahmed says, “the rebels have the advantage.”
Pro-opposition news sources suggested rebels have turned the tide. This week, All4Syria reported rebel troops had used Grad rockets to kill “Captain Suleiman,” the head of regime operations in the battle for Sheikh Najjar, while the rebels’ joint operations room uploaded a video of its combatants firing the heavy-grade missiles.
But the effort to hold off regime reinforcements postpones the long-term rebel goal of seizing the prison, which came firmly within its sights when rebel combatants, then supported by ISIS, seized the adjacent al-Kendi Hospital on December 20th.
A month-and-a-half later, reports circulated the rebels had seized the prison when a British-born Jabhat a-Nusra combatant detonated himself and a truck full of explosives near the prison’s entrance.
When the dust settled, regime troops remained in control. The Islamic Front’s Ahrar a-Sham detailed the complexity of the operation: “The construction of the building makes seizing the prison very difficult,” he says, “as all the parts of the prison are divided from one another.”