Albin Szakola

Nusra's large Aleppo
deployment raises fears

"A huge convoy of approximately 200 vehicles, loaded with heavily armed Nusra fighters, roamed the streets and neighborhoods of Aleppo."

A huge Nusra convoy moves through Aleppo. (YouTube/Nusra)

BEIRUT – The Al-Nusra Front has made a major show of force in Aleppo, driving a large convoy through Syria’s second city before reinforcing its positions to ostensibly face a regime offensive, although activists have expressed their doubt over Islamist group’s intentions. 


The Al-Qaeda affiliate on Tuesday evening released a video showing dozens of vehicles transporting armed men along a major thoroughfare in the rebel-held part of the city that is split between regime forces and the opposition.


"A huge convoy of approximately 200 vehicles, loaded with heavily armed Nusra fighters, roamed the streets and neighborhoods of Aleppo," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.


The Islamist-friendly El Dorar news outlet reported that Nusra was deploying north of the city to confront a potential regime offensive, while the group itself merely said it was bolstering its fighting fronts.


Rumors have swirled that the regime intends to launch a campaign to relieve the sieges of Zahra and Nubl, two Shiite-populated villages north of Aleppo surrounded by Nusra and other rebels since mid-2012. However, no concrete reports have emerged on the matter. 


Majid Abdelnour, a journalist in the Aleppo countryside, told the pro-opposition outlet Enab Baladi that the Nusra fighters had deployed near the Castello Road, a highway spanning the northern edges of the city that serves as a vital lifeline of supplies to its rebel-held sectors.


Meanwhile, other reports indicated that the Nusra fighters had also spread through neighborhoods that are not under regime-control, predominantly in eastern Aleppo.


Activists fear Nusra will "swallow Aleppo"


Amid the massive Nusra deployment in Aleppo, concerns have risen among residents that the jihadist group wants to consolidate control over the city, and not merely prepare to fight regime troops.


Activists speaking to Enab Baladi—who chose to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety—said they were worried about Nusra's true goals.


One of them told the outlet that he believes the Al-Qaeda affiliate, which is one of the most powerful groups in northern Syria, intends to "swallow Aleppo."


He explained that he became worried after he heard that Nusra arrested five civilians in Aleppo's Ansari neighborhood on Tuesday evening for "smoking narghile and watching a TV series" in a shop.


Meanwhile, another pro-rebel outlet spoke with local activists who said the timing Nusra chose to strengthen its presence in the city was inappropriate, and cast doubt on the claims that these columns and massed troops were sent to support the fronts.


Relief activist R.H., who preferred not to reveal his full name for security reasons, told Zaman al-Wasl that the military situation in Aleppo did not require such reinforcements.


"All the city of Aleppo's inhabitants know that the battle fronts against regime forces are cold and have seen no change for over three years," he said in an interview with the outlet's correspondent.


"The only danger threatening the city is the [potential] closure of the Castello Road by the regime advancing from Bashkoy in North Aleppo countryside."


"If what Al-Nusra Front says is true, the best thing for the group would be to reinforce the fronts in the countryside and not in the city," he added.


Abu Khalid, a fighter in one of the Free Syrian Army factions in the city, also expressed concern about Nusra's intentions.


"After the large reinforcements sent by Al-Nusra Front to the city of Aleppo, we have begun to expect they will begin fighting us at any moment, with or without an excuse."


"Over the past few days Nusra has set up a number of checkpoints in residential areas and deployed large numbers of masked militants at them."


"This can only point to one thing and that is that Nusra's reinforcements will not be for us but against us."


Nusra: We will only fight the regime


Zaman al-Wasl's correspondent also spoke to one of Al-Nusra Front's field commanders in the Aleppo area, who vehemently denied accusations regarding his groups' deployment.


"The reinforcements and their deployment in Aleppo are part of Nusra's army, which was supposed to reinforce its presence on Aleppo's fronts and in its countryside over three months ago," Abu Musab al-Shami claimed.


"However, the military developments that took place in southern Aleppo countryside delayed this," he explained, in reference to the recent regime offensive there backed by Iraqi Shiite militiamen.


"All the talk about Al-Nusra Front intending to fight our brothers in the other mujahed factions emanates from people who have made premature judgements against the Front," Shami insisted.


"They start rumors and hope they will come true but we in Al-Nusra Front confirm to everyone that we care most deeply that not one shot shall be fired by us except against the forces of the Nusairi regime [Nusairi is pejorative term for members of the Alawite sect] and it's militias."


In response to a question from Zaman al-Wasl's correspondent about the reason checkpoints were erected in residential areas, al-Shami said the nature of the checkpoints meant that they were not a threat to anyone.


"We have not set up [stop-and]-search points. They are guarding checkpoints [that were erected] to keep watch over the security of our bases and members, [to prevent] any potential attack by ISIS or the regime." ​


NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Ullin Hope translated the Arabic-language source material.

A huge Nusra convoy moves through Aleppo. (YouTube/Nusra)

Over the past few days Nusra has set up a number of checkpoints in residential areas and deployed large numbers of masked militants at them.