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In northern Aleppo province, the Bashar Assad regime only exists in the air. Lack
of manpower has forced the dictator’s forces to pull back to Aleppo city,
leaving a swathe of land under the precarious control of the rebels.
the regime’s air force is still free to strafe and attack. It is a cruel tactic,
and a logical one, from Assad’s point of view. It is intended to prevent
anything like normal life from coming into being in the areas he has ceded.
Life, nevertheless, is continuing in these areas.
As it does so, the
faultlines of the new Syria the rebels would like to create are becoming
I crossed into Aleppo province, in the northwest of Syria, from
Turkey. My intention was to get a sense of the balance of forces in the long and
grinding civil war under way in Syria. I wanted also to observe the various and
disparate forces that make up the rebelcontrolled part of Syria, and the
interplay between them.
There are rebel checkpoints all the way from the
border to Aleppo city. They are operated by different brigades, with clearly
different military capabilities and political outlooks.
The Bab al-Salaam
border crossing, jointly administered by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the
Turkish armed forces, is controlled from the rebel side by the Asaf al-Shamal
(Storm of the North) battalion. This is a secular force, gathered around its
leader, Ammar al- Dadikhli. It operates throughout the province, including in
the frontline battle zones of the city itself.
Further toward the city,
there are checkpoints operated by the Tawhid Brigade, acknowledged to be the
largest single force battling Assad in Aleppo. Unlike Asaf al- Shamal, which has
no clear ideology other than opposition to the dictator, Tawhid is an Islamist
force, adhering to an ideology of Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism.
fighters are well-equipped, serious and businesslike. Tawhid is said to be
supported by Qatar and the Brotherhood. It operates independently of the main
Aleppo military council, which seeks to bring together the various and disparate
rebel groupings of the province.
But despite the checkpoints and the
impression of control and coordination, the rebels’ domination of the ground in
northern Aleppo is not quite complete. There are still isolated areas in the
hands of the regime.
At the entrance to the village of Fafeen, for
example, the government controls a large military facility, which served as an
officers’ training school before the civil war began in Syria. The red, white
and black regime flag flies over the complex, and along the walls are large
paintings of Bashar Assad, his father Hafez and deceased older brother
“Don’t look in there as we go by,” my driver Ahmed warned me. Of
course I couldn’t resist.
But there were no sentries at the entrance,
only a locked and imposing looking iron gate and an abandoned guard position.
“For a while they’d try and put a checkpoint on the road, but the FSA would come
along and kill the soldiers within a few minutes,” Ahmed tells me. “So now they
just stay in there. They bring the soldiers in and out in
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