July 24, 2013
By Michael Pizzi and Abdulrahman al-Masri
AMMAN: Heavy shelling from government warplanes resumed on rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Wednesday, just two days after Syrian rebels announced that they had finally captured the town of Khan al-Asal, one of the regime’s last strongholds in the Aleppo suburbs and the site of a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of residents on March 19th.
The renewed shelling indicates that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not yet ready to give up on Syria’s most populous city, even in light of the groundbreaking rebel victory in Khan al-Asal, the latest development in what activists say is a palpable resurgence for the revolution in the Turkish borderlands.
Activists report heavy shelling of Khan al-Asal, as well the towns of Dar Azza, al-Mansoura and the Aleppo neighborhood of al-Myasar. Mortar shelling also targeted the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, where a rebel-held checkpoint there drew large protests last week when the jihadist faction in charge of it began to enforce its version of Islamic sharia law.
“Khan al-Asal was a reservoir for shabiha (pro-regime armed militias),” says Abu Mujahid, a correspondent for the opposition Sham News Network in Khan al-Asal, adding that the suburb is also the northwestern “gate to Aleppo.”
In a video posted to YouTube earlier this week, the leader of a Free Syrian Army rebel faction called the Ninth Division, announced that Khan al-Asal had been “completely liberated.”
The FSA’s Nour al-Deen Zenki battalions also claimed responsibility for killing Syrian Colonel Hassan Yousef Hassan, who they claim was the senior commanding officer in Khan al-Asal.
The battalion appears in the video standing beside the bodies of the colonel and two other regime soldiers, lying in the bed of a pickup truck.
“We killed these dogs,” one of the men says, flashing the Syrian commander’s state-issued ID cards to prove his identity.
Rebel forces note the significance of capturing the Khan al-Asal police academy, which doubled as an operations room for the Syrian army in the region.
What the capture of Khan al-Asal means
With the capture of Khan al-Asal, activists now claim that the rebels have “almost complete control over the suburbs” surrounding Aleppo and a majority of the city itself.
The recent rebel victories in the north come on the heels of accusations that the rebels are imposing a blockade on the remaining regime-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo, by not allowing civilians in government-held areas to cross over and purchase food and other commodities.
Mohamad Yasin, an activist with the Media Office for the Protection of Civilians in Aleppo, opposes the rebel siege, and specifically references the Bustan al-Qasr crossing, where jihadist militiamen prevented vegetables from crossing into the regime-held area and forced women to cover up.
“The siege hurts the people, not the shabiha,” says Yasin.
“It is not one of the revolution’s goals to make the people angry, which will lead to resentment and societal divisions that we don’t need,” he adds. “The only losers in this are the Syrian people, who have gone through hell and back.”
Other pro-revolution activists dispute the notion of an intentional blockade on the part of the rebels, instead interpreting the difficulty of passage as the result of mutual fighting between the two sides.
“What is being spread by the media, that the FSA is the one enforcing the siege on Aleppo, is far from the truth,” says Abu Mujahid, the Khan al-Asal correspondent for Sham News Network. He and other activists attribute the food shortage within certain Aleppo neighborhoods to clashes along the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
“It isn’t to the point of disaster,” says Majid Abdelnour, a pro-revolution citizen journalist with the revolution in Aleppo, who describes the food shortage as “normal” for a war-torn city.
The Syrian government is attempting to rectify the perception that it has abandoned citizens in Aleppo neighborhoods in its control. State aid agencies have delivered 15 tons of vegetables and flour, along with enough fuel to fill 60,000 cars, to “affected residents” in Aleppo, SANA, the official Syrian news agency, reported on Monday.
Rebels credit unity with victory
The Syrian army continues its floundering Northern Storm campaign, launched on June 9th and aiming to retake Aleppo and the surrounding areas from rebel hands. Hezbollah militias were reportedly deployed by the Assad regime across Aleppo to assist in the operation, but even they have not been enough to fend off the rebels.
Activists credit effective coordination between disparate rebel factions, from FSA brigades to the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra as a key factor in the resurgence.
“There are a number of operations rooms designated for joint efforts [between factions],” says Abu Wahid, an activist with the revolution’s Local Coordination Committee in Aleppo, who provided only a nickname.
The rebels had previously attempted to wrest control of Khan al-Asal from the regime in March, failing in that effort and sustaining the loss of over 200 fighters in just eight days.
It was during the March campaign that Khan al-Asal became infamous for a sarin gas attack that killed an estimated 30 of the town’s residents. The regime and opposition fighters traded accusations about who had actually deployed the gas, with the Syrian National Coalition, the revolution’s political leadership in exile, charging “desperate” regime with resorting to “internationally banned weapons, the use of which undoubtedly amounts to crimes against humanity.”
Earlier this month, a Russian study purported to add credence to Assad’s contention that the gas was employed by an FSA brigade.
The capture of Khan al-Asal will likely complicate the UN chemical weapons investigation into who was behind the gas attack, the only alleged site of chemical weapons usage that the Syrian government has granted investigators permission to inspect.
“If the government does not control Khan al-Asal then there is little chance they will let U.N. experts in,” an unnamed UN Security Council diplomat told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday.
The team of investigators was expected to arrive in Damascus this Friday.
With additional reporting from Nuha Shabaan.