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Abdul Rahman Mawlawi

High stakes for Syrian rebels

Rebels fighters ride a vehicle after they took control of Dahiyet al-Assad, west Aleppo city (Image via Reuters)

When the Syrian rebels announced the launching of the “Great Epic Battle of Aleppo” on the morning of the 28th of October, scenes of jubilation took place on the streets of the besieged eastern part of the city. A wind of optimism blew across men, women and children alike. Their terrible suffering now lessened somewhat by belief and hope. The weeks and months they have endured under heavy aerial bombardment have highlighted not only the merciless nature of the Assad regime and its allies, but also the failure of the international community to provide any meaningful aid or assistance. Although UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, added to their fears when he suggested in early October that the city of Aleppo could potentially be destroyed within two months, the citizens remaining in Aleppo nevertheless completely disregarded a plan, brokered by the Assad regime and the Russians, for the residents to leave the area through safe exit corridors. Surrender deals like this only underline for the besieged residents their inability to rely on the international community to relieve them of their misery without displacement; hence, they have now pinned all their hopes on the possibility that the rebels can break the siege.

The beginning of the battle has been highly predictable, proceeding exactly as the regime and its allies anticipated. Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of Harakat al-Nujabah (an Iraqi militia fighting for Assad), came in person to Aleppo to serve not only as a morale booster for the regime’s soldiers, but also to assist in military operations during the eventual decisive battle against the rebels. Around the same time, commanders from various rebel factions, including Tawfik Shihabuddin from the Noor al-Din-Zinki movement, indicated that the battle was close to launching. The weeks preceding “D-day” have also seen a number of speeches being made in mosques as military and religious leaders rally the besieged people to do whatever is necessary to survive and support the campaign.

After the siege of eastern Aleppo was reinstated in early September, many Syrian citizens hoped — and, to a certain extent, expected —that the Syrian rebels would be able to break the siege. The first “break the siege” campaign in early August, led by Jaish al-Fath (alienated Islamist factions) and Fatah Halab (Free Syrian Army Units) had been fast, effective, and successful, and had left the overwhelmed people of Eastern Aleppo buzzing with excitement. The expected victory of the rebels was seen to both stem from and contribute to a newfound unity between the factions. However, even positive inter-factional cooperation could not bring this wish of salvation to fruition. Significant clashes, resulting in deaths, occurred between two of the factions after Ahrar al-Sham accused Jund al-Aqsa of harboring individuals linked to ISIS. Subsequently, the newly rebranded Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS) brokered a deal that resolved the dispute and resulted in the defection of the Jund's membership to JFS. This episode, combined with the departure of some factions from Aleppo to join the Turkish-lead Euphrates Shield Operation, has only increased the pressure on the Syrian rebels.

The growing pressure for the Syrian rebels to succeed also stems from problems encountered along the “frozen” Southern front. The opposition military front in Southern Syria had been effectively asleep at the wheel for some time now: unable to mount any effective military campaign against the regime, nor to contest territories. As a matter of fact, the opposition has been forced to surrender some of its areas close to Damascus, most notably the town of Darraya. The last couple of years have seen the rebels in defensive mode, with many areas such as Madaya and Eastern Ghouta threatened with starvation and destruction. Particularly grim reports have come from cities like Eastern Ghouta, where the two prominent rebel factions, Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, have been busy fighting and targeting each other rather than working together against the regime. There have even been reports of armed men shooting at demonstrators requesting the factions to work together. In completely disregarding the revolutionary principles of unity and solidarity, these rebel factions only increased local frustration towards them.

Recently, the Northern Front has seen the most victories by the rebel leaders, including most significantly the capture of Idlib in 2015. In an interview with Al Jazeera, JFS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani clarified that the situation in Aleppo was different than in Darraya, in the sense that the Northern Front (were Aleppo is located) is not isolated and has better rebel military surroundings. Jolani also stressed that the rebel factions would not allow the Aleppo siege to continue, but would do whatever was necessary to break the siege by capitalizing on the different rebel brigades with strong military capabilities in the region. On the other hand, given the coldness and isolation of the Southern Front, a failure in Aleppo would be seen as a disastrous outcome. Indeed, the fall of Aleppo might even signal the beginning of the end for this front, since it would demonstrate that the rebels cannot succeed even in the area where they are most powerful.

The Aleppo battle offers yet another chance for the insurgents to be perceived as “saviours,” despite the disunity that they have demonstrated, which has angered many pro-revolutionary Syrians. Breaking the Aleppo siege once again might do their popularity a world of good. Although the rebels appear to have chosen a slower (potentially harder) route to break the siege this time around, positive early signs include the capture of strategic points (close to regime-controlled areas and the besieged Eastern part of the city), including Minyan and Dhahiyat al-Assad, in the first phase of the battle. But once again, as time has shown us before, the most difficult part for the insurgents will not be to conquer territory, but to maintain what was gained, especially after rumours of heavy Iranian/regime reinforcements. With the launch of the second phase of the operation, things have been moving more slowly — perhaps an expected outcome, given the importance of Aleppo to everyone involved. This battle will, without any doubt, change the whole landscape of the conflict. But in the midst of all this, there is a local population on the brink. Winter is coming and the lack of proper food, medicine and shelter will soon catch up to them. Simply put, they are in desperate need of help. The rebels have vowed to provide this help; revolutionary commanders have been emphasizing since the siege began that this campaign is not a regular clash, but a battle for Syria's very existence. The rebels’ survival and the survival of the besieged people is on the line. It is a do-or-die situation and there is no turning back.

Rebels fighters ride a vehicle after they took control of Dahiyet al-Assad, west Aleppo city (Image via Reuters)

Syrian rebels pushing onto regime controlled areas in a “do or die battle”