February 6, 2014
As the Syrian government continues to bombard rebel-held areas of Aleppo with barrel bombs, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its Islamist allies are fighting a two-front battle against regime forces on one hand and the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) on the other. Government forces have recently begun a push to regain territory in northern and eastern Aleppo, in response to which a grouping of Islamist militias on Thursday announced a major campaign targeting regime military installations. Meanwhile, fighting between rebel groups and ISIS has centered on the towns of al-Ra’ee and Manbej in northwestern Outer Aleppo.
Syrians flee barrel bombs and intensified fighting in Aleppo. Photo courtesy
of Syria Relief.
Syria Direct’s Muhammad al-Haj Ali spoke with the Media Director for the FSA-aligned Syria Liberation Brigade (SLB) in Aleppo, who explained that the FSA has been forced to retreat from parts of Aleppo due to a lack of material support and fighting between rebel groups and ISIS. He asked to remain anonymous.
Q: What has allowed the regime to make advances in Aleppo?
Government forces haven’t been making noticeable progress in Aleppo, with the exception of the southern countryside, in Khanassir and a-Safira. Rather, the Free Syrian Army has been pulling back and not taking over new areas, which has led observers to imagine that the regime is advancing. There are a number of reasons for the FSA retreats. Most importantly, the regime has received new, modern weapons and support for the FSA has been scaled back. The FSA’s fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) has also had a major impact, given that the whole FSA as well as elements of ISIS were previously fighting the government. So you can imagine the impact when ISIS withdraw from fronts [in Aleppo] and the FSA withdrew to fight ISIS.
And let’s not forget that the FSA liberated and took control of the Canadian Hospital, which shows that the FSA is still capable of military advances if it receives the necessary assistance. All these reasons led to minor FSA retreats, and to an increase in Shia fighters from the Beqaa to fight alongside the regime.
Q: What are the most important areas where the regime is pushing for control?
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. Also, some of the city’s areas that have symbolic significance for the FSA, like the Ummayad Mosque in Old Aleppo.
Q: What kind of impact has ISIS had in Aleppo?
ISIS has had a significant negative impact on the Syria Liberation Brigade’s operations against the regime. For instance, when we were fighting side by side with ISIS against the regime in Tel Aran—where we were able to capture equipment from the regime, including five tanks, medium weaponry and ammunition—we had agreed that we would divide the spoils two-thirds to ISIS and one to the SLB. The agreement was never implemented, because ISIS’ emirs rejected it after it had already been concluded. They actually targeted one of our tanks with a heat-seeking missile, claiming that they thought it was a regime tank. They also kidnapped a number of leaders and fighters affiliated with the SLB, which had a detrimental effect on the group’s morale—many fighters left the country to Turkey and other countries. All these issues had a negative impact on the SLB and on the course of the battle against the regime.
Q: What challenges does the FSA face in repelling regime forces?
There are a huge number of challenges. The degree of popular support has started to decline due to the length of the war, which still has no end in sight, and because some groups have harmed civilians. There’s also the fighting with ISIS. 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. Even worse is the conditional support that has forced some factions to completely follow their donors. This has led some factions to diverge from the goals of the revolution.
Decisions cannot be made by the West, but must be made by the FSA—the first step is for us to acquire advanced weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons that will allow us to stop the daily massacres. Today, popular opinion has a huge impact on the FSA fighters. When civilians can live normal lives, with water and bread and electricity provided, and when protests return to the squares, you will see FSA fighters’ morale increase. The opposite is also true.
Q: How are you able to fight against ISIS and the regime at the same time, despite lacking weaponry?
It’s an extremely hard mission, but necessity is the mother of invention; in view of the lack of advanced weapons and ammunition, the revolutionaries have begun to plant mines along the battle lines in order to prevent any regime attempt to infiltrate [FSA territory] at the lowest cost possible. We’ve also begun shelling regime installations almost daily with cheap, homemade explosives. Fighting ISIS requires more advanced weapons and a great deal of ammunition, because they fight the same way the FSA fights—our battles are like gang warfare. Oftentimes you will see the FSA lose ground on a certain front, whether with the regime or with ISIS, and then we call for assistance from other groups and regain control of the situation.
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