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Haid Haid

Syrians establish 'no-fly zone' over Aleppo

Tired of waiting for foreign assistance, Syrians unilaterally came up with a creative solution to hamper the regime’s deadly air power

Smoke billows following a reported strike by pro-Syrian government forces in a rebel-held neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo on July 12, 2016. (AFP/Karam al-Masri)

A no-fly zone was reportedly established in Aleppo on Sunday, July 31, according to Syrian activists. However, this no-fly zone is unconventional as it was not set up via a UN Security Council resolution nor enforced by foreign superpowers. Syrians in Aleppo province created the no-fly zone to support a major offensive launched by Jaysh al-Fatah, a coalition of rebel groups, to break the siege imposed by the Syrian regime on the opposition-held parts of the city. This counter attack came days after pro-Syrian government forces were able to cut off the Castello Road, the only route in and out of rebel-held areas of Aleppo. An estimated 300,000 citizens in Aleppo are currently under siege, which has led to a spiralling rise in food prices due to shortages in opposition neighbourhoods. The use of air power has been Assad’s trump card in the Syrian conflict, which only increased in significance after Russia intervened in support of the Syrian regime in September 2015. To combat this advantage, the rebels’ offensive was also coupled with calls for civilians to create their own no-fly zone by burning tires, which created a big cloud of black smoke to obstruct the view of the planes and limit their influence on the battle.

 

Aleppo is currently the second-largest city in Syria and the country’s former economic powerhouse. Its countryside is a rebel stronghold and one of their main supply lines. The city was divided into government and rebel zones — west and east, respectively — since mid-2012. The front lines remained fairly static since then; however, this recently changed when the regime was able to encircle opposition groups by advancing around the city. No food, medical aid or humanitarian assistance has been able to reach the population of Aleppo’s rebel-held territory for several weeks now, due to the intensity of the fighting in the area. The capture of Aleppo could prove a decisive turning point in the conflict as it would allow Assad to project power beyond his strongholds and destroy whatever diplomatic hopes remain for a negotiated political solution to the conflict.

 

Pictures and videos of burning tires have been widely circulated on social media by Syrian activists since the beginning of the offensive to break the siege of Aleppo. Civilians were reportedly burning tires to create smoke and obstruct the view of the fighter jets, which are used to support regime ground troops in the area. “The international community has ignored our calls for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from barrel bombs and other types of indiscriminate aerial attacks. Therefore, we Syrians have decided to protect ourselves by establishing our own no-fly zone,” said Maher al-Ahmed, a Syrian activist in Aleppo. Although people on the ground are not sure about how useful the smoke from burning tires has been in limiting planes’ visibility, they continue to do it as an act of resistance. “We do not really know how useful burning tires could be to stop the airstrikes and barrel bombs. We noticed that when there are storms or fog the number of airstrikes reduces significantly, therefore we thought that creating enough smoke could create the same results. But whether it helps or not, this is the only way left to mitigate the risk of the airstrikes,” said Mohammed Rasheed, a local resident in besieged eastern Aleppo. 

 

Local and international activists have been supportive of such acts of resistance, despite its questionable effectiveness in protecting civilians. Some activists expressed astonishment at how creative Syrians have been in continuing their peaceful resistance against the regime. “Despite the war and atrocities, people in Syria did not lose hope in themselves and their ability to change their circumstances. They are collectively working on creating a giant cloud of smoke and creating their own no-fly zone. They keep surprising me by how strong their will is and how brilliant they are,” said Nohad Ryad, a Syrian activist based in Turkey. International activists have also been supportive of such tactics to protect civilians. “These burning tires are saving lives that the billions of dollars spent on the 'war in Syria' refuse to. Residents are now burning tires to create smoke so the fighter jets cannot see the hospitals, schools and homes they like to target. Yet again, Syrians are left to save themselves,” wrote activist Anna Nolan, a member of The Syria Campaign activist group.

 

This resistance tactic has not only been popular inside the city of Aleppo but also in its countryside, especially in the areas that have recently witnessed an increase in the number of airstrikes against them. It was reported by Syrian activists that burning tires has become popular as a way to either protect civilians or to show solidarity with Aleppo. My city Attarib has recently witnessed a spike in the number of the airstrikes against the city, which killed at least 80 people. On July 24 alone, the city was hit by more than 30 airstrikes in less than one hour and all of the attacks were targeting civilians and civilian facilities. The media center in Attarib published on Sunday, July 31, a picture of the sky above the city filled with smoke after the area was hit with three airstrikes that day. “We know that people elsewhere do not really care about our protection, therefore we have to do everything in our power to survive and to protect our loved ones. We hope that burning tires will stop Assad’s attacks against us,” said Abdulla Brahim, a local activist in Attarib. Tires were also burned in other towns and cities to show solidarity with Aleppo. “We feel hopeless towards what’s happening in Aleppo and towards the besieged people there. Burning tires made us feel that we could contribute to the protection of civilians in Aleppo. Hopefully what we are doing will be able to help them,” said Rami al-Ahmed, a media activist in northern Syria.

 

Such a no-fly zone is more symbolic in meaning, rather than possessing an actual ability to stop Syrian regime air power, let alone Russian capabilities. However, it shows how resilient and creative Syrians are in changing their own circumstances. It also shows how important such a no-fly zone is for the protection of civilians. Additionally, it highlights the size of the humanitarian catastrophe that will take place in Aleppo if Assad is left free to besiege and starve thousands of civilians to death. 

 

Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22 

Smoke billows following a reported strike by pro-Syrian government forces in a rebel-held neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo on July 12, 2016. (AFP/Karam al-Masri)

‘The international community has ignored our calls for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from barrel bombs and other types of indiscriminate aerial attacks. Therefore, we Syrians have decided to protect ourselves by establishing our own no-fly zone.’