Tug of War for Aleppo Neighborhoods

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Abu Mahmud, a 20-year-old technician, looks at a laptop at a news station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 7 October 2012. (Photo: AFP - Tauseef Mustafa)

By: Basel Dayoub

Published Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two months have passed since thousands of armed opposition fighters entered Syria’s second-largest city of Aleppo, declaring yet another zero hour in the battle to overthrow the regime.

“Turkey’s borders have moved to the gates of Aleppo” is a phrase often repeated by Aleppans as the Syrian-Turkish borders have opened to all kinds of armed elements, money and weapons.

Tension at the border reached its peak after the Turkish parliament authorized the government to conduct military operations outside its borders in regards to the Syrian situation.

On the ground, thousands of fighters – most of them from the Aleppo and Idlib countryside, as well as other Syrian provinces, in addition to a considerable percentage of Arab and foreign fighters – are trying to take on the Syrian army and other government forces.

Aleppo and its residents have managed to absorb the shock from the city’s transformation into a battlefield. Most Aleppans have distanced themselves from the protests fearing the worst.

Aleppo and its suburbs span an area of 800 square kilometers. Unlike other modern cities in the world, it spreads out horizontally and has a distinct architectural style – most of its buildings are only five stories high. The city has almost no tall buildings, except for the 30-story municipal building whose southern side became an easy target for the fighters’ machine guns and shells.

Weeks after gunmen started appearing at anti-regime protests, fighters decided to take the battle to Aleppo at the end of July.

They managed to seize control of several checkpoints leading into the city, especially in the northern and eastern sectors, which include a large part of the old city with its famous markets.

The government forces, however, regained control over the neighborhoods of Salaheddine, Azamiyah and most of Seif al-Dawla, al-Izaa al-Jadida, al-Sayed Ali, al-Midan, Suleiman al-Halabi, al-Arqoub and Bab Allah.

They also entered parts of al-Sakhour after taking control of al-Sakhour roundabout, which is a very important crossroad connecting the city center to the airport, and the north of the city to its east. It is a main supply route for the opposition fighters, many of whom hail from rural areas that lie to the east and north of the city such as al-Bab, Marei, Tal Refaat and Andan.

Currently, opposition fighters are deployed in Qaws al-Madina, which includes the neighborhoods of al-Sukkari, al-Firdaus, al-Salhin, al-Maghayer, al-Marjeh, Bustan al-Qasr, al-Kallasa, Qasila, the old city, Karm al-Katerji, Karm Homad, al-Myasser, al-Shaar, Tariq Bab, Madinat Hanano, al-Haidariya, al-Hilk, Bustan al-Basha and Bidin.

These are densely populated working-class neighborhoods, and include most of Aleppo’s 17 slums known for their narrow streets and illegally constructed buildings. The battles converge on the edge of these neighborhoods that lie across from the safer areas in the city.

Neighborhoods in the south and southeastern parts of the city are being used to attack army checkpoints deployed along the southern bypass highway that surrounds Aleppo. Their buildings – including governmental buildings that turned into centers for the fighters and their ammo – have been subject to disparate destruction due to tank and air bombardment from government forces. This has resulted in the death of many innocent people in addition to about 4,000 fighters since the battle to liberate Aleppo was announced.

Two weeks have passed since the beginning of the decisive military action that the opposition fighters announced. Security centers have been shelled by mortar and locally-made rockets that rarely hit their targets. All this has coincided with violent attacks along all the demarcation lines that separate the two sides, which led to the loss of some areas by the militias.

Lately, Aleppan voices have risen against the fighters who take citizens’ stores and homes as their bases. In al-Sakhour neighborhood, the dispute between residents and fighters from al-Farahida clan has led to mass displacements, after fighters insisted on setting up their headquarters on private property, which residents are sure will be subject to shelling.

Residents have been displaced from areas that are the site of military confrontations. But nearly two-thirds of the city still enjoy a sense of normal life except for an occasional mortar rounds. The neighborhoods of al-Midan, al-Suleimaniyeh and the surrounding areas are perhaps the most afflicted by the fighters’ shelling

The Fight for the City Gates

The opposition factions and the Syrian army are fighting for control of three main entrances to the city. The Syrian army currently controls Aleppo’s southern entrance, while the fighters control the northern entrance and the one leading to most of the northern and western towns and villages.

The al-Ramouseh-airport road that runs all the way to Deir Hafer and al-Raqa has been secured by the army. Fuel caravans on this road were previously targeted by opposition fighters in an attempt to take hold of them or destroy them. Fighters are able to set up flying checkpoints every now and then between Deir Hafer and Maskana to the east. Caravans coming from Salamieh through the desert take this road which has become a safe alternative to the Aleppo-Homs highway.

Nadim, a former civilian who is now a captain in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) points out that “the battle in Aleppo will be over faster than the revolutionaries expect because battalions and brigades from all the Syrian provinces have been deployed and supplies of weapons and men are arriving around the clock. In addition, the Turkish parliament decided to retaliate against the Syrian attack on Turkey.”

Ahmad, a young man who recently joined the FSA, admits: “We can not liberate all of Aleppo, and the regime can not occupy all of it.” He adds: “Our spirits are high despite the world’s abandonment of our cause and its conspiracy against the jihad and the revolution in Syria.”

Some of the leaders of the armed opposition groups admit that they are facing a crisis. They have lost the momentum with which they entered Aleppo especially after losing the Salaheddine neighborhood and their inability for over a month now to gain control over more neighborhoods. Having once controlled Bustan al-Basha, Suleiman al-Halabi and al-Midan, they have lost most of them and more areas in the ensuing battles.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Incidentally, the "news station" on the laptop is a favourite of the correspondent's.

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