Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The battle for Aleppo

Aside from inflaming the civil conflict in Syria, the battle for Aleppo heralded the beginning of a new phase marked by anarchy and radicalisation, writes Edward Dark

The battle for Aleppo
The battle for Aleppo
Al-Ahram Weekly

The battle for Aleppo is nearing its final stage. It comes after more than two years of deadly stalemate. The city is split down the middle and a once-hopeful rebel movement has disintegrated into chaos, spawning radicalism and extremism in its wake.

On 20 July 2012, rebels attempted to storm Damascus. The attack came after four senior officials of the Al-Assad regime were assassinated on 18 July. The killings were believed to be the result of a sophisticated intelligence operation mounted by an unidentified foreign agency.

The rebels’ backers hoped that this would be a decisive and deadly blow to the regime. But their assault failed; a similar push was made by the rebels of Aleppo, with mixed results.

In the spring and summer of 2012 in rural Aleppo, the main rebel brigade that would lead the campaign to take Aleppo was slowly and covertly being put together by Turkey. Among the fighters was an assortment of foreign and local jihadist fighters from Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Al-Nusra, or Al-Nusra Front.

The formation of a rebel alliance called Liwa’ Al-Tawheed, said to have thousands of fighters, was announced on 18 July 2012. This brigade united a large number of poorly organised local rebel groups that made up the core of the nascent armed insurrection in northeastern rural Aleppo.

With the explicit go-ahead and logistical and military support of Turkey, and the tacit approval of its NATO allies, Liwa’ Al-Tawheed launched what it called the Forqan Battle on 19 July. Its aim was to liberate Aleppo from the regime’s forces and claim it in the name of the revolution.

The hoped-for outcome was to initiate a domino-like collapse of regime control over northern Syria, right down to Homs. In essence, this was “Plan B,” designed to complement the assault on Damascus and seal the regime’s fate once and for all.

But “Plan B” also failed, and instead of removing the regime, it brought large-scale death, destruction and suffering to millions. Out of the ensuing chaos, a new scourge of deadly terrorist groups would fester and be unleashed on the world.

The battle began when sleeper cells took over the neighbourhood of Salah Al-Deen on 19 July, followed by a lightning push into the eastern and northeastern areas of Aleppo over the following two days. The battle for Aleppo, though, was not formally announced by Al-Tawheed until 21 July, and later by the Military Council of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) through its leader, Abdel-Jabar Al-Akidi, who called for a mass mobilisation.

The FSA was not thought to have been involved in the initial planning or the assault itself, but wanted to appear as if it had been. To that effect Al-Akidi made full use of a photo-op showing him strolling through Bab Al-Hadeed in the old city.

It is important to remember that at this stage the strong presence of foreign jihadist fighters in Aleppo, as well as the Syrian offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jabhat Al-Nusra, was well known to the outside backers of the Syrian opposition and rebels. Al-Qaeda in Iraq would later split off from Al-Qaeda central and become the Islamic State (IS) group.

In fact, the entrance of foreign jihadists into Syria was facilitated, or at least not meaningfully hindered. The hope was that their superior military prowess, gained through years of brutal fighting on global jihadist battlefields, would help Syrian rebels defeat the regime’s forces.

For a critical week after the rebel assault began, the Syrian regime seemed to be completely paralysed. It was unable to mount any effective counterattacks until significant reinforcements finally arrived. In the meantime, those few troops stationed in Aleppo took up defensive positions, garrisoning themselves inside army barracks, government buildings, security HQs and even the iconic Aleppo Citadel.

During that brief window of opportunity, Aleppo was theirs for the taking, but the rebels halted their advance in the eastern and northeastern neighbourhoods. Aside from a few limited incursions and skirmishes, they never made any serious attempt to challenge the regime’s vital positions and centres of power.

There is a lot of speculation surrounding why the assault was suddenly halted, as well as the exact circumstances of those fateful initial days. The official narrative at the time was that the rebels had run out of ammunition. They simply did not have enough manpower to take and hold what is a very large metropolis, let alone battle hundreds of garrisoned and well-provisioned regime soldiers.

It could be argued that the rebels had plenty of time to re-arm and reorganise for the final assault, especially since thousands of fighters from various rural groups as well as seasoned jihadists had flooded into the city after its successful storming. Furthermore, they had already captured the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey (on 19 July), meaning that weapons and supplies could freely flow, if their providers so wished.

So were they prevented from doing so by an order from outside? Was “Plan B” stopped when Turkey realised the Damascus offensive had failed and the fall of Aleppo would bring anarchy to its shared border areas (which it eventually did)? This seems to be the only logical conclusion.

Equally, was the regime purposefully luring the rebels into Aleppo and calling Turkey’s bluff, knowing full well the negative repercussions on Turkey if Syria’s second-largest city fell into chaos? Was it allowing conflict to reach Aleppo because it feared the city would erupt into full-scale civil disobedience and mass protests, as Hama had before it, given the unprecedented anti-regime demonstrations at Aleppo University?

Was Aleppo to be sacrificed to show that rebellion was a disastrous folly? Was the city being set up to become a symbol of the entire Syrian conflict, as part of a cynical, tragic theatre where the victims would be the real flesh and blood Syrian people?

In hindsight, these conclusions would appear to be credible and not so farfetched. A cursory look at events shortly before the rebel assault would seem to support this. Significantly, it seems the regime had at least some advance warning of an impending invasion, as it had placed 85 checkpoints at strategic locations across the city.

Mysteriously, the checkpoints were removed just days before the assault. And the assault itself was met with at best token resistance, mostly by police officers who had taken refuge inside their stations in neighbourhoods that had been overrun by rebels.

Some claim that it was due to the complicity of Mohamed Al-Mifleh, then head of the powerful Military Intelligence Branch in Aleppo. Al-Mifleh is considered responsible for the murder of protesters in the city. He is infamous for his role in the massacre of over 100 protestors in a single day on the streets of Hama, during a time that he was stationed there. Indeed, Al-Mifleh vanished soon after the fighting in Aleppo began and his whereabouts are still unknown.

 Was he just following orders after the plot to assault Damascus was uncovered and was already known to the regime on 13 July? Or had he become a bought-off turncoat after becoming convinced that the regime was about to collapse?

And, if so, why was the regime’s central command not aware of his actions? Answering those critical questions is key to understanding what took place in Aleppo and why. But that is for future historians to work out.


METEORIC RISE: In any case, there is no denying the profound significance of the battle for Aleppo and the impact it had on the rest of the Syrian uprising. It inflamed the civil conflict and heralded the beginning of a new phase marked by anarchy and radicalisation. The central state’s grip was weakening. As it fought back to hang onto power, the state unleashed a wave ofdeath and destruction. It also set the stage for the dramatic rise and increasing dominance of the jihadist groups on the Syrian and Iraqi scenes.

The seasoned jihadists of Al-Nusra were at the forefront of the battle for Aleppo. Indeed, they were instrumental in overrunning the heavily armed regime checkpoint at Anadan, which guarded the northern approach to the city from the Gaziantep highway. Back then, Al-Nusra forces were bolstered by foreign fighters, the majority of whom later formed their own groups or joined IS after Al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed Al-Golani, refused to recognise the authority of his former boss, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and split off.

 These foreign jihadists were later clearly seen manning checkpoints across rebel-held areas inside Aleppo and freely flying the black-and-white Islamist and Al-Qaeda banners. Their presence and contribution to the fight was extolled and defended by both the Syrian opposition in exile as well as the rebel leadership, who called them “freedom fighters coming to help their Syrian brothers against tyranny.”

Al-Nusra had the fiercest and most fearless fighters defending crucial front-line positions. They fought to take vital strategic areas like the Izaa’a Hill, one of the highest points in Aleppo and home to the main broadcast towers. After the initial push, their presence became increasingly more important and moderate rebel groups took the backseat.

These groups preferred to hang back from the front lines and engage in what became one of the defining hallmarks of their presence in east Aleppo, much to the dismay of its confused and shell-shocked residents: rampant looting, crime and human rights abuses.

The steering wheel was being slowly handed over to the extremists, and the rebellion in Aleppo was beginning to veer dangerously off course, with disastrous implications for Syria and the entire region. To make matters worse, the linchpin of the moderate rebels and the dominant power among them, Liwa’ Al-Tawheed, was headed by a charismatic leader who lacked militarily inexperience.

He was the infamous “Haji Marea,” nom de guerre of Abdel-Kader Saleh. The former grain merchant comes from the town of Marea in northeast Aleppo province and has strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. He made a series of disastrous strategic mistakes, starting with his failure to turn Liwa’ Al-Tawheed, a collection of groups with tribal and territorial affiliations, into a properly structured rebel army. His decision to to assign battalions according to those original groups only reinforced the divisive and disruptive allegiances.

 This further exacerbated the endemic and serious problems emerging among the ranks of the moderate Aleppo rebel movement. The fractiousness, disunity and lack of discipline among the competing rebel groups resulted in constant infighting and reduced effectiveness in battle. From this turmoil, a new class of opportunistic and criminal warlords began to emerge, which Al-Tawheed was either unwilling or unable to stop.

Warlords like Hassan Jazara (later executed by IS), who demolished the minaret of the Grand Umayyad Mosque, Mohamad Afash of Ahrar Souria and Khaled Hayani of Shuhada’ Bader orchestrated the organised looting of residential and industrial areas.

They were responsible for serious war crimes, still ongoing today, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighbourhoods with high-explosive canisters, rockets and mortars. Hundreds have been killed and injured in the attacks.

The reduced effectiveness of Al-Tawheed and other rebel groups sparked fears of a possible regime counter-offensive that might successfully break rebel lines and recapture rebel-held areas of the city. This led Haji Marea to make another fatal strategic mistake. He reached out for help to the Salafist militant group Ahrar Al-Sham and accepted their terms and conditions for joining the fight in Aleppo, which were basically the “Islamisation” of the revolution.

 This meant changing the stated objectives of the armed struggle against the regime from establishing a pluralistic democracy into creating an Islamic theocracy ruled by Sharia law. This change could be clearly detected after Liwa’ Al-Tawheed dropped the green colour of the wing and the red stars from its insignia, which symbolised the revolutionary flag adopted by protesters throughout the uprising.

But far more importantly and controversially, it also acquiesced in participation and support of the Sharia courts (haya’a shariya) set up by Al-Nusra and other jihadists. In rebel-controlled territory, the cleric-run courts deal with civil and military disputes on the basis of strict Sharia law.

This was in direct competition with a rebel court (al-qada’ al-muwahad) set up on the basis of common law and employing more moderate elements of Islamic law. The jihadists saw this as a direct challenge to their authority. They attacked, ransacked and effectively destroyed it in November 2013, without anyone lifting a finger to intervene. In protest, the court soon dissolved itself.

It is likely this was done out of necessity and not true conviction, as Liwa’ Al-Tawheed, along with the rebel FSA umbrella organisation, also supported civil secular initiatives like the city council (majles mahali), which was set up to provide public services and administration in rebel-held areas of Aleppo city.

Either way, the support of the jihadists gave them increasing influence and a strong say in many matters, both civil and military. This campaign of “radicalisation” was furthered by the unchallenged emergence of foreign jihadist preachers, who at gunpoint would take to mosque pulpits during communal prayers and give sermons espousing the virtues of holy war and the establishment of Islamist rule.


RADICALISATION: Aside from radicalising the public and rebel fighters, another major extremist policy that went unchallenged would prove to be pivotal in greatly weakening the moderate rebel cause, that of “take no prisoners.”

To be precise, the policy was to take prisoners and openly execute them. The grotesque killings were filmed and then publicised through videos uploaded onto social media sites. Haji Marea, in fact, tried to blame the prisoner executions on regime agents, whom he said were trying to damage the reputation of Liwa’ Al-Tawheed and the rebels.

But it was clear that both the Islamists and moderate rebel groups were now engaging in prisoner executions that were serious violations of international law. These war crimes would come back to haunt them and have disastrous consequences on the rebel movement as a whole.

In essence, what this type of execution propaganda did was reinforce the perception of their own strength and imminent victory among viewers on social and mainstream media. For the jihadist groups, it also raised their profile and credibility on the global “jihadist scene,” resulting in vital flows of impressionable recruits and funding from backers sympathetic to their ideological cause.

This propaganda strategy has been successfully emulated and greatly enhanced to devastating effect by IS, which continues to disseminate gruesome but professionally produced videos of its atrocities against captured “infidels” and Westerners.

The drawback to all this was that it also stopped the slow but steady trickle of defections and desertions that had hemorrhaged the regime and threatened to seriously weaken its military capabilities. Besieged Syrian troops, many of whom were unwitting conscripts, had no choice but to fight to the death, as capture would mean certain torture and a grizzly end.

Effectively, the jihadists strengthened not only their own presence but also that of the regime, creating a symbiotic relationship and a mutually deadly balance, to the ultimate detriment of the moderate rebels and their revolutionary cause.

 The rest, as they say, is history: Haji Marea was killed in a regime air strike in November 2013 that targeted a secret meeting of top Aleppo rebel leaders. Questions still remain about who gave the coordinates away and why. It greatly weakened the Aleppo rebels, who tried to unite under a new, ambitious pan-Syrian formation called the Islamic Front, signalling an end to their a secular identity and the adoption of a religious one.

Al-Nusra had by then been seriously weakened, after it split in May 2013 from its mother movement, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Many of its members, especially veteran foreign fighters, left to join the newly created terror group, IS.

Al-Nusra ousted the newly created IS from most of Aleppo in January 2014. But by then IS had already become an unstoppable colossus that dominated former rebel allies and took over their strongholds across east Aleppo, from Minbeg and Al-Bab and onto the provincial capital of Al-Raqqa. It also captured much of the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

 These achievements in Syria gave it the momentum to overrun, in a dramatic fashion, huge swathes of western Iraq last summer. The gain saw IS move on step further in its campaign to create a functioning proto-state in the mould of a hardline Islamic caliphate, to be named simply “the Islamic State”.

This caused panicked alarm among world powers that had been ignoring, or indeed facilitating, its meteoric and destructive rise in Syria, treating it with indifference and apathy, even though there were clear warning signs. A hasty military coalition led by the US was formed and tasked with degrading IS’s military capability and halting its growth until a comprehensive strategy for its final defeat could be formulated.

Meanwhile, the final remnants of a defeated rebellion in north Syria were collapsing. Some fled the battlefield while others joined the extremists, or pledged their allegiance to IS as it captured their territory and absorbed their groups.

Al-Nusra is now doing much the same thing to rebels in Idleb and Aleppo, fearful that they will soon turn on it, backed up by the US-led coalition’s air strikes targeting Al-Nusra’s positions.

This brings us squarely back to where we are today in the messy and complex Syrian conflict. The horrific menace of the IS was birthed out of the chaos of Aleppo’s battle lines, which were directly fed and orchestrated by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the complicity of their Western NATO allies.


The writer is a journalist based in Aleppo.

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