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)
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.”
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 waiting.
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 Iran.”
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 group.”
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.”
But the 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.
In 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.
So the 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.
Shawi, 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 Islam.
Rather, the orientation he represents is that of Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism.
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.
The regime still controls most of the east of the city. The rebels have the west.
The skirmishing along the fault lines is continuing.
But in 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 rebels.
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 continuing.
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 areas.
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 bombing.
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 Assad’s aircraft.
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 forces.
These elements have international support and a set of coherent goals. But they are not (yet) the whole story of the rebellion.
Facing 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.