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
There are also identifiable pockets of civilian political
support for Assad in the rebel-held area. The town of Sheikh Issa, for example,
wedged between Tal Rifaat and Kaljibrin, retains its loyalty to Assad. The
ubiquitous rebel flags and graffiti suddenly disappear as one enters the town,
then start up again on the road beyond it.
A deceptive air of normality
prevails in the rural area close to the border. In the town of Azaz, children
walk to school past a line of burned-out tanks. These are remnants of the fierce
battle that drove the last remnants of Assad’s army out of the town in June. The
main mosque in the town has a gaping hole in it, a remnant of regime shelling
from the same engagement.
But in Aleppo city itself, there is no
ambiguity. This is a war zone. The frontline areas are scenes of utter
devastation. The civilian population has long since fled these areas. All around
is the noise of small arms fire, punctuated every so often by the massive noise
of an aerial bomb exploding.
For four days, I travelled from rebel
position to position in Aleppo city, interviewing fighters and commanders. At
the furthest point forward that I reached, the government positions were a
couple of hundred yards away. The fighting in Aleppo was in stalemate in the
latter half of September. The men in the forward positions spent long hours
When fighting began, they told me, it usually erupted out of
nowhere. They would receive word that a regime tank or a group of soldiers was
moving in the area and would go out to engage them. The firefights in the
narrow, ruined streets are short and brutal. When they are over, the two sides
return to their adjoining positions and resume the wait.
Abu Ahmed, a
gaunt commander in the North Storm battalion with eyes full of fatigue, told me
that the main problem preventing further rebel advances was a lack of ammunition
and higher caliber weaponry. This, he said, in turn derived from the West’s view
of the revolution as controlled by “Salafis.”
“There are some Islamic
groups,” he admitted, as we talked in a dark room at a frontline position in the
Bustan Basha neighbourhood of the city. “But the US has the wrong idea about
them. And its afraid to support us because of these Islamic groups. So we have
to take our weapons and ammunition from Assad’s army.” Assad, by contrast, was
not short of supplies. Because, “Assad in the end is just a servant of
These themes were repeated to me countless times as I travelled
the FSA positions in the days ahead. The rebels were certain of their eventual
victory, but at the same time the paucity of international support, the
nonavailability of vital weapons and the shortage of ammunition were preventing
them from breaking the stalemate in Aleppo.
The absence of a clear
political strategy and of unity was also plainly apparent. Saumar, commander of
the Ahfad al Rasul battalion in the Mashad district, a big and very calm man,
slow of speech, surrounded by his fighters, told me “I’m a field commander, and
I belong to the Aleppo military council. But not to any external or political
These improvised rebel battalions, consisting overwhelmingly of Sunni fighters from poor rural families, are the
backbone of the rebellion against Assad. They are determined and courageous. But
the revolt suffers from an absence of any clear political goal beyond the
bringing down of Assad.
The absence of strategic vision is not without
exception. And unsurprisingly it is the Islamist forces who have the clearest
vision and set of goals. Haji al-Bab, an intense, blueeyed commander of the
powerful Tawhid Brigade, was concise and clear when I asked him regarding the
goal of his unit’s struggle.
“An Islamic state,” he said, “with
protection for minorities.”
The Tawhid fighters, well equipped and with
high morale, were clearly receiving support from outside, though Bab would admit
to “relief materials only” in our conversation.
Like Ahmed, he also
wanted to stress the contrast between the paucity of support for the rebels, and
the staunch international coalition behind the dictator.
“We know that
the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards are here. Our forces have captured and killed
non-Arabic speakers. There are Russian advisers in Hamdaniyeh in the north of
the city,” he told me, before concluding: “As for us – we trust in ourselves and
in the help of God. But what we need are anti-aircraft weapons.”
Islamists are not limited to involvement in the military struggle. Rather, as
the regime civil structures collapse in the Aleppo countryside, there are
indications that it is the Islamists who are stepping into the breach.
Azaz, I spoke with Yusuf al-Shawi, a bright, energetic former FSA commander who
is now a senior member of the Shari’a Council in the town. Shawi, who was one of
the first men in Azaz to take up arms against the Assad regime, told me that the
town, after regime forces were forced to leave, was like “an empty ship.” The
old structures of policing and law enforcement had collapsed.
Shari’a Council was formed, bringing together FSA commanders with senior imams
in the town, to fill the vacuum.
“The new law,” Shawi tells me with a
smile, “is Shari’a.”
The council is in daily contact with similar
committees in Aleppo and Damascus. The intention is to create a Sharia council
to hold authority over all of Syria. In the meantime, in Azaz, Shawi tells me
that the council is the final arbiter in legal matters, and has the power also
to judge FSA men if they are considered to have committed crimes.
like the Tawhid Brigade fighters I met, was not a Salafi. Indeed, he stressed
his criticism of what he called “extreme” and “Takfiri” interpretations of
Rather, the orientation he represents is that of Muslim
With the absence of any coherent political
leadership or real military unity in the revolt, it is not surprising that Sunni
Islamists are moving in to fill the administrative vacuum. This is a rural,
conservative, Sunni Arab revolt. Its main backers are Qatar, Saudi Arabia,
Turkey and the Brotherhood. The West, which might be able to really build an
effective insurgency, has preferred to keep away.
One can also see the building
blocks that could help to coalesce an alternative to the Islamists. But the
secular commanders of battalions like the Storm of the North lack international
backing and the clear strategy of their rivals.
The military situation
has moved on a little since I was in Aleppo. A rebel offensive that began at the
end of September rapidly ran aground because of lack of ammunition.
regime still controls most of the east of the city. The rebels have the
The skirmishing along the fault lines is continuing.
an important development to the south, the rebels have taken Maaret al- Numan, a
strategically important town situated on the highway between Aleppo and
Damascus. If they can hold it, the regime will have difficulty supplying its
forces in the city. So the government army is desperately trying to dislodge the
But regardless of the outcome, the Syrian civil war looks like it
will have a long course to run, unless increased international support for the
rebels can shift the tide.
In the meantime, the killing is
The planes bring the worst of it. The rebels have no answer
to Assad’s employment of jet fighters against the population of the rebel-held
I witnessed an attack by one of these planes on the Dar al-Shifa
hospital, a facility that treats civilians and FSA fighters in the Sha’ar
neighbourhood of Aleppo. Civilians were helpless in the face of the
The aerial strikes have created a large refugee population that
is currently encamped on the northern border separating Aleppo governate and
Syria from Turkey.
The Turks are doing their best to control the flow of
refugees seeking to cross the border.
With winter coming, this has the
look of a potential humanitarian crisis. Families, with children and old people
are living in makeshift tent encampments near the border fence. There is little
or nothing by way of infrastructure, but at least they feel out of range of
All wars are cruel. Civil wars are the cruellest of
all. To witness the refugee families encamped along the border is to understand
the truth of this.
The Syrian revolt against Assad is being conducted by
people of immense courage and determination. But it remains hampered by lack of
unity, scarceness of supplies and lack of a unifying strategic vision. The
western “hands off” policy is leading to the growing strength of Sunni Islamist
These elements have international support and a set of coherent
goals. But they are not (yet) the whole story of the rebellion.
this disparate, under-supplied, brave insurgency, and the refugee population it
seeks to defend, is the army of a brutal regime that benefits from the
determined backing of powerful forces – above all Iran and Russia. Both sides,
to differing degrees and in different ways, have men, money and motivation to
continue. After 20 months, the Syrian civil war looks set to consume more lives
in the near future, with no end apparent on the horizon.