As Battle for Aleppo Rages, Residents Fear Both Sides

The Syrian opposition claims to control more than 60% of Aleppo and the entirety of its countryside, including border passages with Turkey. Tarek al-Abed reports that winning Aleppo may permit the opposition to establish a buffer zone, but many residents fear the militants, whose unpredicable behavior some attribute to a lack of organization.

al-monitor A Free Syrian Army fighter walks through a hole in a wall of a house during heavy fighting in Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo August 11, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.

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street battles, jihad, turkey, syria, islamists, iraq, free syrian army, fsa, assad, aleppo

Aug 15, 2012

Aleppo is Syria’s economic capital as well as its financial center. Despite the charm of its old neighborhoods and the city’s penchant for traditional music, we now find Aleppo experiencing the bitter taste of death. The city remains under attack by the opposition as a result of its tardiness in joining the demonstration bandwagon. Today, Aleppo is drowning in a sea of gun battles between the regime's forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which entrenched itself in the neighborhoods and among civilians.

The regime claims that the current battles are but a precursor to what it has called “the mother of battles,” while the FSA insists that Aleppo’s fate will be different from that of Baba Amro, Douma or even Damascus. However, even some FSA supporters have begun hinting that Aleppo will not be the war’s deciding battle, and that withdrawing from the city is within the realm of possibility. These statements coincided with information leaks pointing to ammunition shortages among the FSA and thus the likelihood of an imminent “tactical withdrawal.”

Yet, as the regime continues to shell the city’s neighborhoods and the FSA is determined to continue a war that lacks any military planning or organization, many accounts are emerging from those who have left the city for Damascus, fleeing the violent battles. While these accounts may differ from information spread by both regime and opposition media outlets, all sides agree on the likelihood of a long battle that could last for months — a battle which would not result in the opposition liberating Aleppo and establishing a buffer zone, nor the regime regaining control over the city and restoring its grip on the country’s second capital.

The FSA and Aleppo’s residents

The FSA currently controls more than 60% of the city, and is entrenched in the neighborhoods of Seif al-Dawla, al-Marjeh, al-Soukari, Salaheddine and al-Sakhour. It has military operations reaching all the way into the heart of the old city and Aleppo’s citadel, in addition to affecting dozens of security centers and Baath Party offices. Opposition sources claim that the entirety of Aleppo’s countryside is now under FSA control, including border passages with Turkey to the north.

However, something is happening on the inside that points to residents’ dissatisfaction with the behavior of some of the armed groups and their disregard for civilian life. Khaled, a 28-year-old engineer, said, “The FSA lacks a unified command, and this allows militants to consider themselves rulers of the land. They broke into several houses and looted our homes under the pretense of gathering support for the revolution. Additionally, it is commonplace for them to kill anyone they merely suspect of working for the regime.”

This fleeing engineer also talked of decisions to close or open streets at the whims FSA soldiers, without any authority to deter them. In fact, their military operations against regime forces “seem to lack military planning, and are more akin to the work of civilian groups that know very little about war tactics.”

Khaled’s assertions were confirmed by Fadi, a 24-year-old student, who tried to initiate contact with fighters of the FSA, only to discover that most of them were civilians who decided to take up arms, alongside some defecting soldiers and non-commissioned officers. One of the militants told him that most officers, especially the high-ranking ones, immediately left for the countryside after defecting and traveled from there to Turkey. This could explain the militants’ lack of military tactics in Aleppo.

Furthermore, Fadi claimed that most fighters are intent on destroying a given target, without any regard to their own personal safety and without knowing a thorough understanding of the target, including what surrounds it. He said that most FSA fighters originated from Aleppo’s countryside, in addition to some from Idlib, where foreigners bent on waging jihad in Syria have joined their ranks.

In contrast, a young man who preferred to remain anonymous said that most militants considered Aleppo’s residents supporters of the regime. Thus, the FSA has forced the revolution upon them, especially considering that Aleppo had long kept its distance from any popular movement. According to militants, Aleppo’s residents had refused to back the FSA or open their houses to its fighters. This is similar to an argument used by the opposition during the last days of clashes in Damascus to justify their withdrawal from heavily bombed neighborhoods.

The truth is that all the neighborhoods controlled by the FSA in Aleppo are subject to its absolute power. All local businesses and schools can be ordered shut or open by the militants without the possibility of anyone objecting. Yet, calls for popular support of the revolution never cease, without clarification as to the nature of that support.

On the other hand, the neighborhoods not taken over by the militants live under a constant state of curfew, with life there proceeding at a minimal pace. This follows a decision by most businesses to limit their activities as much as possible, while residents of these neighborhoods live in fear of snipers or a possible attack by either the regime's army or the militants. In other words, this means that life has come to a standstill in the country’s economic center.

A third individual, Abdullah, a 39-year-old nurse, noted that these practices cannot be generalized as being espoused by all FSA brigades. He pointed out that militants have carried out some very difficult rescue efforts, successfully escorting many civilians out of troubled areas. Furthermore, with the residents’ help, they were able to open dozens of shelters, as well as provide other neighborhoods with daily necessities.

This lack of a unified command could explain why some brigades were welcomed by residents, while others were met with resentment. It is also necessary to take into account that the same errors kept repeating themselves, as militants insisted on being present in civilian areas. They considered these areas bastions of popular support and used them as centers for their operations, despite the fact that Aleppo is very different than Homs, Douma or other areas.

Battles and geography

People fleeing Aleppo explained a lot about the geography of the terrain and the chances of each side to control the city. This led us to postulate that the battle for Aleppo will be unlike any other engagement between the regime and the opposition.

According to Hussein , a 37-year-old activist, the countryside is of strategic importance for the city. Since Aleppo’s countryside, as well as all the roads connecting the city to Turkey, are under FSA control, this means that supplies can easily reach the militants. 

Facilitating this situation is the flat nature of the terrain, particularly when compared to the mountainous geography surrounding Idlib, where FSA fighters are also active and have succeeded in obtaining advanced weaponry capable of thwarting the regime’s attacks. Therefore, any talk about ammunition running low or tactical withdrawal is utterly meaningless unless the regime army decides to adopt the FSA's own guerrilla warfare tactics.

The young man added that the demographic makeup of the area’s inhabitants helps the opposition. This is especially true in the countryside, which is connected to neighboring Idlib in the west, and to desert regions around the Euphrates river in the east. These areas are controlled by the region’s tribes, all of which tend to oppose the regime.

In addition, one must consider the Kurds, who constitute a majority in many areas of Aleppo’s countryside, particularly Afrin, the population of which strongly opposes the regime. These factors will certainly play a role in both sides' calculations in preparing for the battle for Aleppo. The fall of Aleppo would permit the opposition to establish a buffer zone where defectors can come, as well as facilitate a greater flow of weapons.

According to Tarek, 33-year-old teacher from the Seif al-Dawla neighborhood, this is something the the regime will surely not allow. In Tarek’s opinion, the regime is prepared to use all its might to regain control over Aleppo, for the city falling to the opposition would not be an easy pill to swallow. 

Once the regime regains control over Salaheddine [neighborhood], which is the FSA’s main line of defense, taking the remaining neighborhoods would be an easy task to accomplish ... This is despite the fact that the weapons we’ve seen the militants use seem more advanced, lending possible credence to the news that [FSA fighters] are now in possession of anti-aircraft Stinger missiles.

Economically, the regime cannot afford to lose Aleppo because of its commercial importance and the considerable revenues it generates for the state. The city has always been Syria’s main avenue to Turkey, Europe and Iraq and cannot be replaced, especially in the absence of any economic development of other provinces bordering Turkey. Add to that the industrial weight it possesses as a result of the hundreds of factories that play a vital role in Syria’s economy, and the loss Aleppo to the militants would constitute a heavy blow to the economy of a state reeling to prevent this 500-day-old crisis from getting worse. 

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