Albin Szakola & Ullin Hope

Aleppo rebels rally around
former Ahrar leader

The newly formed Jaysh Halab coalition battled Jaysh al-Thuwar, an ally of the Syrian Kurdish YPG, in the city of Aleppo on Tuesday.

Ahar al-Sham fighters in Aleppo. (AFP/Baraa al-Halabi)

BEIRUT – A number of insurgent factions operating in Aleppo have moved to close ranks under the command of Ahrar al-Sham's former leader, following protests in opposition-held districts of Syria's second city calling for united rebel action against regime advances.


A media official in Ahrar al-Sham announced Monday that his group had joined eight other rebel factions in "pledging allegiance" to Hashem al-Sheikh, who served as Ahrar's general commander from September 2014 to September 2015, when he voluntarily stepped down to make way for new leadership.


The new Jaysh Halab coalition includes five Free Syrian Army-affiliated factions—the 101st Division, the 16thDivision, the First Regiment, the Mountain Falcons Brigade and the Sultan Murad Division, a Turkmen unit close to Ankara—as well as the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a powerful independent group that once received funds and arms from the Turkey-based Military Operation Center that the US Central Intelligence Agency supervises.


Two other insurgent groups, Tajammua Faistaqam Kama Umirta—an Islamist coalition formed by pro-FSA factions in late 2012—as well as  the small Muntasar Billah Brigade, which has its origins in Raqqa, also joined Jaysh Halab.


Former Ahrar al-Sham leader Hashem al-Sheikh—also known as Abu Jaber—hailed the step toward rebel unity, writing Monday on Twitter that the move was "none other than a response to the God's order and an answer to the wish of the downtrodden sons of our grief-stricken people for unity and oneness."


"The magnitude of the onslaught that the Syrian revolution is being subjected to and which aims to abort it can only be fended off with unity and fortitude in honor of the blood of the martyrs," he also said.


Rebels in Aleppo face an increasingly dire situation after pro-Syrian regime forces lifted the siege of Nubl and Zahraa north of the city on February 3, cutting of a vital opposition supply line leading southward from Turkey.


Aleppo insurgents still maintain one open route from rebel-held quarters of Aleppo leading westward toward Turkey's border with Syria, however the current territory held regime forces means they are now threatening to completely encircle the city.


Protests demand rebel unity


Aleppo protest

Protesters rally on February 7 in Aleppo, calling on rebels to unify. (image via Enabbaladi.org)


Jaysh Halab's formation comes on the heels of protests in Aleppo that called for rebel unity in the face of the regime's threat to completely besiege the war-torn city.


Aleppo activists issued an appeal on the evening of February 6, which they described as "mandatory," calling on military factions operating in the province to unite within a single entity under the name Jaysh Halab.


The activists gave 15 factions 72-hours "to issue a unified statement and name a commander for the army and [its] staff."


They added that they would consider any rebel commander who did not accept the merger "a traitor to the revolution and the blood of the Martyr's."


The following day, dozens of civilians and fighters took part in demonstrations that moved through opposition controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo, demanding that the province's factions unite under the new moniker.


The demonstrations set off from the Jisr al-Hajj roundabout and passed through the neighborhoods of Al-Kallasa and Bustan al-Qasr, according a correspondent reporting for the pro-opposition outlet Enab Baladi.


The correspondent added that a number of commanders and members of the rebel groups Thuwar al-Sharqiya and the Shamiya Front had taken part in the demonstrations, which emphasized the necessity of forming a single military body for all the factions in the province.​


Jaysh Halab fights Syria Kurds' allies 


Rebels move through a building in Aleppo's Halak on Tuesday after fights with Jaysh al-Thuwar. (YouTube/Halab News Network)


The newly formed Jaysh Halab swung into action late Monday, engaging in clashes with Jaysh al-Thuwar, a group composed of ethnic Arab combatants who fight alongside the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).


Contradictory reports emerged regarding clashes in Aleppo city between Jaysh Halab factions and Jaysh al-Thuwar, with both groups exchanging recriminations against each other.


Tensions have ratcheted up between Jaysh al-Thuwar and rebel groups in Aleppo after the former—alongside Kurdish troops—rolled back anti-Syrian regime rebels from a number of their positions in a now besieged corridor of territory north of Aleppo near the Turkish border.


Syrian rebel groups have accused the YPG and Jaysh al-Thuwar of coordinating their offensive with Damascus and Russia at the expense of the "revolution," while the Kurds and their allies insist they are "rescuing" villages from the Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Tuesday that fierce clashes were raging in Aleppo's Halak Quarter, a rebel-held neighborhood that lies next to the YPG-controlled Sheikh Maqsood district, which has a majority of Kurdish inhabitants.


The monitoring NGO said that the 16th Division—one of the groups in Jaysh Halab—had captured two Jaysh al-Thuwar members, while claims circulating on pro-rebel social media accounts indicated that more fighters from the YPG-affiliated force had been taken prisoner.


Meanwhile, Islamist factions and Al-Nusra Front shelled the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsood area, causing injuries, according to the SOHR.


Pro-rebel media outlets on Tuesday accused the YPG and its allies of instigating the violence, with a media activist telling Orient News that "Jaysh al-Thuwar attempted to reach the Castillo Road [on the northern edges of Aleppo] and enforce a siege on liberated areas of Aleppo."


However, an outlet affiliated with the YPG accused "mercenaries" in the Jaysh Halab coalition—as well as the Nusra Front—of attacking the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsood district late Monday night.​

Ahar al-Sham fighters in Aleppo. (AFP/Baraa al-Halabi)

Aleppo activists issued an appeal on the evening of February 6, which they described as "mandatory," calling on military factions operating in the province to unite within a single entity under the name Jaysh Halab.