‘Our battles are like gang warfare’: Fight for Aleppo unfolds building by building
February 19, 2014
February 19, 2014
By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Osama Abu Zaid
Since January 22nd, the Syrian air force’s barrel bombing campaign in Aleppo has coincided with a larger ground campaign, seeking to wrest more of Syria’s largest city from rebel control.
Since then, regime ground troops have combatted a coalition of rebel groups led by the Islamic Front, Jabhat a-Nusra, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Jaish al-Mujahideen on multiple fronts throughout the city.
Neither side has made much progress, as rebels retain control of most of central and eastern Aleppo, while the Syrian army has gained suburban towns southeast of the city, notably a-Safira, and retained western parts of the city around the University of Aleppo.
Here, we piece together images and videos to piece together the battle for Aleppo through the eyes of the combatants on the ground.
In early February, Syrian forces announced progress expanding outward from the Aleppo International Airport, which it has retained control of throughout the conflict. Syrian media has twice reported that Syrian troops have seized the village of Karam al-Turab, west of the airport, but rebel troops claim barrel bombs continue to fall on the neighborhood.
Here, on February 1st, Syrian state media interviews a solider from the Syrian army and reports that regime forces seized Karam al-Turab in the first stage of an advance into eastern Aleppo.
The Syrian government has long attempted to advance into Aleppo from the southeast via an alternate supply route from Hama, seizing a string of towns from a-Safira to Tel Arn in late 2013 as they approached the city.
A week later, on February 8th, the Islamic Front’s Liwa a-Tawhid explicitly rejected the Syrian media’s reporting in a video titled “Denying what Syrian media broadcasts about its control over Karam al-Turab.”
“The regime has not been able to achieve any advancement in this area,” Yaseen Abu Ra’ed, a citizen journalist in Aleppo, told Syria Direct.
“The regime is trying to advance in eastern Aleppo and in parts of northern Aleppo, with the aim of imposing the same kind of siege that it’s been imposing in Homs and Ghouta,” said Abdulrahman Ismail, a Free Syrian Army leader in the city.
At the same time, rebel groups have been trying to encircle the regime. “With the grace of God, the road to Aleppo Castle has been cut and four Assad troops have been killed in their attempt to infiltrate to inside the castle,” the Islamic Front said on their Twitter account.
Many videos posted online have shown rebels using low-grade, “locally-produced” rockets to attack regime positions across the city. On Wednesday, February 19th, an Islamic Front-affiliated group launched a rocket they produced themselves, targeting “groups of shabiha and Assad forces in the al-Alm Building.”
“Another challenge is the increasing gap in advanced weaponry, with the regime receiving more and a decrease in the level of support for the FSA,” Abdulrahman Ismail, a leader of the Free Syrian Army-aligned Syria Liberation Brigade in Aleppo told Syria Direct.
Later on Wednesday, the Islamic Front’s Liwa a-Tawheed claimed to have destroyed the building the rebels had targeted earlier in the day.
Rebels scored their biggest victory in the weeks-long Aleppo fighting when they destroyed a government base in the Carlton Hotel in Aleppo’s Old City on February 15th, reaching the hotel by digging a tunnel dozens of meters long and detonating from below.
Here, Islamic Front rebels celebrate, pumping their weapons in their air as smoke pours over them. “Our battles are like gang warfare,” says Ismail.
For months, rebels have been seeking to gain control of Aleppo Central Prison, and on February 6th, reports briefly circulated that they had done so, freeing hundreds of prisoners. Then, a rebel using the nom de guerre Abu Suleiman al-Britani became the first confirmed British suicide bomber in the Syrian conflict when he detonated this truck laden with explosives within 100 yards of the prison. In this video, al-Britani departs for Aleppo Central Prison, as his fellow jihadis joyfully shout “God is greatest.”
On February 8th, the Islamic Front’s Ahrar a-Sham described the ongoing battle for the prison. A total of 4,000 prisoners are detained inside, the videographer says, including women and children. “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.”
“Six hundred have died inside the central prison,” says a bearded man. “That’s because of starvation, tuberculosis and other illnesses.”
The battle for the prison continues Wednesday, as government media reports the Syrian army is sending reinforcements to the besieged facility. Above, a photo of the pro-government “Protection Forces of the Aleppo Central Prison.”
The rebels’ ongoing war with the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham in northern Aleppo province has complicated the battle to bring down the Assad regime, with some rebel leaders citing the intra-rebel fighting as a distraction. “The fronts have been weakened, because the FSA is preoccupied fighting ISIS,” said Ismail, the FSA leader. Here, an ISIS promotional video from January 30th boasts its victory at the Tel Hajij checkpoint in northern Aleppo province, as ISIS trucks drive by graffiti marking the checkpoint as belonging to the Islamic Front’s Liwa a-Tawheed.
Despite the catastrophic loss of life and hundreds of thousands of displaced, neither side has gained much through three weeks. “Despite the barrel bombs that have been falling on eastern neighborhoods and all the killing and destruction they have caused,” Ahmed al-Ahmed, a media activist in Aleppo said, “the regime has not advanced a single step.”