At a time when the battles are getting fiercer on the southern and eastern Aleppo fronts following the Syrian army’s operation to extend its control over strategic roads, the “home front” of the opposition gunmen is in a state of chaos.
Five major opposition leaders have been assassinated, the most prominent of whom was Abdul Qader al-Saleh, also known as Hajji Mareh, the military commander of the Tawhid Brigade, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Amid all that, fears are growing of “regime-linked sleeper cells that are active in the liberated areas,” in the words of an opposition source.
The anonymous source asserted that the state of fear has grown in the past two weeks and described the situation as a “phobia.” He told As-Safir, “The phobia has hit most opposition factions, which have started searching for these cells,” pointing out that the campaign carried out by several factions has affected several houses in the neighborhoods of al-Chaar, Tarik al-Bab, al-Masir and Masakin Hanano, where persons “suspected of being associated with the regime” were arrested, including “a media activist in the opposition.” The source didn’t mention his name.
He recalled that the Tawhid Brigade had imposed a curfew two days before its military commander was assassinated and that the opposition’s “Sharia committee” — a judicial committee formed via agreement among the various armed groups in Syria, most notably Liwa’ al-Tawhid and Jabhat al-Nusra — decided to close the Bustan al-Qasr crossing. That crossing was the only one connecting the eastern districts of Aleppo, which are controlled by the opposition, and the center and west of Aleppo, which are under the government’s control. Later, the decision was amended to allow citizens to cross from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. if they carried nothing with them.
The source explained, "These two decisions are completely linked to the sleeper-cell phobia. The Sharia Committee has learned about some of these cells and how the cells work to inform on the opposition’s movements, which helps the regime to liquidate them by air strikes, or by missiles or artillery. … In fact, after only three days, the regime has targeted a leadership meeting at the infantry school in Aleppo by two missiles launched from a plane. Four [opposition] leaders were instantly killed. Hajji Mareh was injured and later died in a hospital in Turkey.”
The source said the opposition also fears that “Some factions may switch sides and start fighting on the regime’s side as the army approaches. That would collapse the rebels’ domestic front. … The targeting of the leaders meeting at the infantry school has raised many questions about the timing of the targeting, and about who informed on the meeting’s time, bearing in mind that this type of meeting is highly secret. Suspicion fell on leaders who were supposed to attend the meeting but didn’t. That raised the opposition’s suspicion about the extent of the regime penetration, amid the differences among opposition leaders.”
About how the opposition factions are searching for these “cells,” the source explained, “A group of factions have recruited citizens and revitalized intelligence operations among citizens, whereby the armed forces raid any house suspected of hosting activity that is hostile to the revolution." He said, "Dozens of citizens were arrested and are being investigated. As of now, not one of them has admitted to being connected with the regime," adding, "Most of the suspects are citizens who are neutral or who have come to constitute a danger to the opposition.”
On the ground, the source said, opposition gunmen have started moving out of the Sheikh Najjar industrial city, especially from the “Zone 3” buildings. That move is happening as the Syrian army approaches the city after it took control of Nqirin and is advancing toward Tayyara, where a hill overlooks the city. The opposition gunmen are now on that hill. The army was able to control Sheikh Yusuf hill, which is another strategic overlook on Zone 3.
Meanwhile, people are leaving some east Aleppo neighborhoods — such as Kahia, Tariq al-Bab and al-Maisar — as the army approaches. The source expected the opposition to turn these neighborhoods into a “direct contact line” if the army continues its advance.
The Syrian army has regained control of six villages that the opposition had entered several days ago: Diman, Sadaaya, al-Husseiniyya, Rasm al-Sheikh, Rasm Akirsh and Rasm Bakkour, in the south of Aleppo. These villages form a contact line, and at their edges are running battles after opposition fighters tried to retake them to cut off the Aleppo-Khanasser-Hama road, one of the army’s supply routes.
On the other hand, a source with a direct relationship with the leaders of the military operation in Aleppo characterized to As-Safir the Syrian army’s strategy in Aleppo at the moment as “defensive” on the home front (within Aleppo), and “offensive” in the eastern and southern countryside.
This anonymous source said, “The opposition gunmen are trying to exploit the military action in rural areas to increase pressure on the interior regions in order to score internal victories that would muster the fighters’ will and give them a [feeling of] superiority that would mask their withdrawal from rural areas, where they are waging continuous attacks on several axes, most notably Saif al-Dawla, across the region of Mansoura in west Aleppo toward the al-Assad military academy. That is accompanied by the extensive use of mortars on the city center from the Boustan al-Qasr side. The most recent [shelling] was the falling of several mortars on the neighborhood of Jamiliyya, causing the deaths of 11 citizens in front of a fast-food restaurant, in addition to the al-Ashrafieh neighborhood, which is being targeted from the Bani Zeid area.”
The source said, “From a military standpoint, those shells are not important in the field of battle.” He described that shelling as “absurd” and a reaction to the army’s advancing in an attempt to shape public opinion in Aleppo that the opposition gunmen are still taking the initiative and are not in a defensive position, which is “not true.”