The Battle for Aleppo
A report from the front lines of the Syrian civil war
Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By JONATHAN SPYER
“We’re short of weapons,” he continued. “Everything we get we take from the regime army. The world doesn’t back us because they think the revolution is Salafi [extreme Islamist].”
This impression of tense stalemate was reinforced as we traveled into areas held by other rebel battalions. Saumar, the big, slow-talking commander of the Afhad al-Rasul battalion in the Mashad district of the city, acknowledged the rebels’ shortage of weaponry and ammunition. “In general, we’re on the attack,” he said. “We control the Salah al-Din neighborhood now. We’re near the Ramous highway. But the problem is equipment and bullets.”
News reports suggest that the rebels now control between 60 to 70 percent of Aleppo. I had no opportunity to meet the government troops, of course, but they are reportedly tired, demoralized, and afraid. The rebels that I met are not in that frame of mind. They are tired, too, after the bloody two-month slogging match in the city. But morale is high. They believe they are on the road to victory.
The rebel forces in Aleppo consist of a large number of independently constituted battalions, each gathered around a particular neighborhood and a particular commander. Saumar notes that commanders of all battalions meet daily to coordinate operations. He and Abu Ahmed are both Sunni, neither of them Islamist. Both describe themselves as loyal to the Free Syrian Army.
Neither commander professed loyalty to the notional overall leadership of the FSA, at the time still based in Turkey. “I’m a field commander,” Saumar said, “and I’m part of the Aleppo military council. But I’m not part of any external group, and I don’t see them as authoritative.”
Both men stressed an underlying unity among rebel units deriving from the simple goal of defeating and destroying the Assad regime. In Aleppo, I found no reason to doubt this claim, but it raised as many questions as it answered. The FSA is almost exclusively Sunni Arab. But it is not, as one Assad propaganda campaign with some success in Western capitals has it, motivated solely or mainly by Islamist ardor, either of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist variety. But if the FSA’s only basis for unity is military-tactical, what does this mean for the future political direction of Syria, in the event of the regime’s defeat?
My attempts to bring up the subject of the Syrian National Council or any of the other supposed umbrella groupings of the opposition were immediately dismissed.
The two most noticeable rebel units in Aleppo, and the only two who appear to transcend the general arrangement of local FSA-affiliated battalions, are the Tawhid Brigade and the Ahrar al-Sham group, both of which are tied to the Islamist current. Checkpoints affiliated with these groups have been established at the most prominent entrance points to the city, testifying to a sort of hierarchy of units, in which these feature close to the top.
Ahrar al-Sham fighters, in their mode of dress and their slogans, clearly identify themselves as Salafist Islamists. Their checkpoints and positions fly white, black, and green flags with slogans from the Koran written on them. They are rumored to be supported by Saudi Arabia and to be affiliated with al Qaeda. My own contacts did not extend to this organization.
Tawhid fighters, by contrast, do not markedly differ in their appearance from the FSA groupings. But the brigade, doubtless the largest single rebel group operating in the Aleppo area, maintains a separate leadership structure from the Aleppo military council and the FSA. I met with one of Tawhid’s leaders, in the Saif al-Dawli section of the city. The man, middle-aged, ginger-bearded, from the Al-Bab area northeast of Aleppo, described himself as one of the five commanders of the brigade. He was frank regarding Tawhid’s differences with the FSA and the Aleppo Military Council. “At the moment the Military Council has cut support from us. But we believe it will be restored in the near future.”
What was the reason for the cut in support, I asked. “Fear,” he said. “Fear of the Islamic states.” (Tawhid is rumored to be a major beneficiary of aid from Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.) And was this fear justified? Was Tawhid receiving aid from Islamic countries and movements? I didn’t expect a straight answer and was not disappointed. “Relief materials only,” he replied.
In contrast to the FSA fighters and field commanders that I met, the Tawhid commander had no hesitation in describing his political ambitions for Syria. “All the forces want one thing, one thought—an Islamic state, but with protection for minority rights.”
He was predictably dismissive of the Syrian National Council, describing it as a “spokesman” for the Syrian people, rather than a political authority. “The real leadership is inside Syria, in the field—not in Turkey.”