Anatomy of a civil war

An eyewitness report from Aleppo where rebels battle the heavily armed forces of the Syrian regime.

Aleppo 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Aleppo 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
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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.
But 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 visible.
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.
Its 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 Bassel.
“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 helicopters.”
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