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Rebels unite in fight for Syria's largest city

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 12:25 p.m. MDT

The Syrian army, whose raison d'etre until recently was a full scale tank war with Israel, is also not accustomed to counterinsurgency tactics in urban environments — something the rebels, for all their flaws, appear to have adapted to quite quickly.

Already there have been some successes, including the overrunning of a military barracks in the northern Aleppo neighborhood of Thakanet Hanano on Sept. 10 that involved several battalions working together.

The barracks was a key government bastion and part of a string of regime strong points being targeted by the rebels, including the military intelligence headquarters as well as the medieval citadel in the center of the city.

The response, however, was swift. For three days, government artillery and plans unleashed a withering bombardment of rebel-controlled areas nearby.

Human rights groups have reported a spike in civilian casualties as the regime staves off rebel advances with heavy weapons.

"A pattern has emerged in recent weeks in areas where government forces, pushed into retreat by opposition forces, are now indiscriminately bombing and shelling lost territory — with disastrous consequences for the civilian population," said the London-based Amnesty International in a briefing paper Wednesday.

Just two days after taking over the barracks, nearby neighborhoods were constantly buzzed by helicopters and regime fighter jets that lazily circled the city, confident in their invulnerability before diving to bombard a target.

Residents report the use of "barrel bombs" that appear to be large drums packed with explosives that can take down whole buildings.

Despite occasionally shooting down helicopters, most recently over Damascus on Thursday, the rebels are still struggling to confront this airborne menace for civilians both inside the city and in the country.

Peter Harling, a Syria expert for the International Crisis Group, said the regime is conserving its manpower in Aleppo and meting out collective punishments through airstrikes on any neighborhoods under rebel control.

The lack of progress on the ground and civilian frustration has been part of the impetus for the rebels to put aside their differences and work together, he noted.

"They are increasingly faced with anger and frustration in places coming from people who don't see them making progress that is tangible," he said. "That's a driver behind these unification attempts — I think the opposition needs to show some results and break out of this impasse one way or another."

Yet the new council includes just 80 percent of the estimated 8,000-10,000 rebels fighting the regime in and around Aleppo. The commanders say that Jebha al-Nusra, or the Victory Front, which follows an extreme Islamist ideology and includes foreign fighters, remains outside the council.

The powerful smuggler-turned-rebel-leader Abu Ibrahim, who controls the border crossing with Turkey through his Northern Storm brigade, also declined to join with his 700 fighters.

He told AP he was invited to join but was withholding his support because the new outfit lacked organization.

"The rebels should be organized like an ordinary military, with the men totally under control of the leadership and each man knowing his role," he said, dismissing Aqidi and Salameh as weak leaders with little operational control of their men.

The problems over unity are also replicated on a broader level across the country. There have been talks under way to unite and reorganize the Free Syrian Army under the leadership of defected Gen. Mohammed al-Haj Ali, but it is not clear if any progress has been made.

When asked if he would be part of the effort to unite the rebels, Aqidi only smiled and declined to comment.

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