Dubbed the “mother of all battles” as regime forces launched a counter-offensive against the rebels in Aleppo at the end of July, the Battle of Aleppo has proven to be a much more protracted affair. Here are the main observations to be drawn from the situation thus far:
Rural-Periphery-to-Center: An assessment of the nature of the rebel fighters in Aleppo supports the general “rural-periphery-to-center” analysis of the development of the revolt against the Assad regime, highlighted by me and Oskar Svadkovsky back in February. That is, beginning from the outer rural areas of the country, the unrest has gradually crept inwards in tandem with rebel movements.
In Aleppo itself, therefore, the native rebels are mostly from the surrounding countryside. This was somewhat apparent early on with a report by Hadeel al-Shalchi in early August, where the Reuters correspondent followed a group of forty rebels, of whom none came from Aleppo, and who were unable to navigate properly through the streets of the city with a population of more than 2 million.
Other dispatches from Aleppo corroborate al-Shalchi’s findings, such as the work of the Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer, who — based on interviews with rebel fighters he met in Aleppo — recently wrote in a special report for the Weekly Standard: “Today in Aleppo, the rebel fighters hail overwhelmingly not from the city itself, but from the surrounding villages and towns of Aleppo governorate.”
Local Resentment: The fact that these rural fighters have brought the conflict to Aleppo has naturally stirred up much animosity among city residents towards the rebels, leaving aside pre-existing prejudices against the rebels as rural peasants. Of course the rebels have some supporters in Aleppo, but they’re most likely concentrated in the outer slums that have been populated by a large number of internally displaced migrants owing to climate change.
Before the conflict spread to Aleppo, the city was widely noted for having a Sunni business class (middle-class and wealthy) that supported the regime. Now, even many pro-revolution activists based in Aleppo — such as “Edward Dark” — have become disillusioned with the armed opposition to Assad on account of the rebels’ actions in Aleppo.
Take the case of the recent blazes that engulfed much of the Aleppo’s historic souk markets in the Old City that form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, amid reports of clashes between rebels and regime forces in the area as part of a major rebel offensive through the Old City. Some unspecified opposition activists quoted in media claimed that regime snipers started the fire by targeting electric generators in the souk market, and then prevented rebels and residents from trying to contain the blaze.
Other activists, however, expressed anger at the rebels for advancing on the souk markets. Edward Dark pinned responsibility on the rebels, condemning them also for allegedly destroying much of the Old City. It should also be noted that he complained that rebels had entered some of the souks as early as 20-22 September, which were then burnt down in that same period.
Further, the governor of Aleppo, Wahid Akkad, said that the rebels started the fire to cover up their looting of the souk markets, while traders in the souks — hardly likely to be sympathetic to the rebels — told Agence France-Presse that there was no Syrian army presence in the souk markets, and complained of rebel infiltration.
Whatever the true cause of the fires (in my view, it could have been a spontaneous electrical fire, a consequence of indiscriminate rebel mortar fire — something that has been a common complaint against the rebels in Aleppo — or deliberately started by rebels or opportunistic thieves to cover up looting), the incident is only likely to stir up further anti-rebel sentiment among residents.
Regime Airstrikes: It has been noted in various reports that the Assad regime has been increasingly resorting to airstrikes against rebel targets, including in Aleppo. At the same time, the majority of air-force pilots are reported to be Sunni. Given the elite status of serving in the air force, it is likely that many of these pilots have been drawn from the Sunni middle classes of Aleppo itself, and it is no coincidence that the regime’s air-force academy is located just outside Aleppo.
Islamists and Foreign Jihadists: Given the rural character of the rebel fighters in Aleppo, it is no surprise that there is a strong native Islamist component embodied foremost in the Tawheed Brigade that has spearheaded the offensive through the Old City. There were also the recent bombings by al-Nusra, a group that uses many of al Qaeda in Iraq’s tactics (e.g. coordinated suicide strikes and disguises in military uniform). Its members reportedly also have access to al Qaeda forums, even as al-Nusra does not openly declare allegiance.
Earlier on in the course of the conflict in Aleppo, Reuters reported on the emergence of Sharia courts in the south of the city. More recently, Edward Dark reported that rebels stopped a bus for Ebla University students and forced the women to cover their hair, besides segregating them from the men.
More controversial is the foreign jihadist presence in Aleppo. One French doctor of the organization Doctors Without Borders said that half of the anti-regime fighters he treated in Aleppo were foreign jihadists. Exactly what proportion of fighters in Aleppo are foreign jihadists is difficult to determine, but it is clear that Syria is witnessing a localization of this phenomenon.
To clarify, Iraq analysts like Michael Knights use the term to describe how violence in Iraq today is mostly concentrated in very specific areas. Thus, what I mean is that the foreign jihadist presence — even if only a small minority in the anti-Assad insurgency — is localized and primarily concentrated in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor.
In light of the existence of such hardline elements, we can appreciate better the reports of the formation of Christian defense militias to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches in Aleppo. In addition, there have been reports of Christian residents fleeing from areas like Midan in Aleppo to Beirut in Lebanon and Tartous on the Syrian coast.
As happened in Iraq post-2003, Christians in Aleppo have been very much caught in the middle of all the violence, facing attacks on churches (from mortar fire) and kidnappings. Of course, other civilians will have suffered the latter to a degree as well.
The overall picture, where the rebels still face difficulties in navigating through the city, growing local resentment, and possible reinforcements for regime forces, points to an ongoing battle that is unlikely to end soon, with perhaps slow gains on aggregate for the rebels in a similar manner to how the Libyan rebels’ fight against Gaddafi progressed over months during the Libyan civil war.
A further impediment exists if rebels clash with Kurdish militiamen (Popular Protection Units and the PKK) in Aleppo, who are still aiming to maintain a neutral position in the conflict and have apparently taken on rebels and regime forces when provoked. Pace the rebel propaganda, the Kurdish fighters are not assisting the regime but rather simply want the Tawheed Brigade et al. to leave the Kurdish areas of Aleppo alone.
In the event of the regime’s downfall, a significant tension may arise between native rebels and the foreign jihadists, perhaps spilling into all-out conflict between the two sides in Aleppo.
In this scenario, one could see the jihadists eventually entrenching themselves rather as al Qaeda has done in Mosul in Iraq today: that is, establishing an extensive extortion network to fund operations. A similar development could take place in Deir ez-Zor.