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Fidaa Itani

Aleppo syndrome

Fidaa Itani on the increasing desperation of a fractured Syrian rebellion

A Syrian man distributes bread in the Sheikh Maqsud neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo on April 14, 2013 (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

ALEPPO, Syria – It is 8 p.m., the time for Iftar in the village of Awram al-Sughra. An L-39 training aircraft roars through the air and dives. Then another sound comes – a barrel bomb has been dropped. A huge explosion shakes the ground. Less than a minute later, the sound of the plane diving again and another barrel falling is heard. Another explosion in the same location, targeting whoever rushed in to help those injured in the first explosion.

 

A voice on a walkie-talkie calls for ambulances to assist the injured in Awram. A nearby rescue station asks about the injuries and the voice answers, “women and children,” before adding, “a building occupied by refugees has collapsed.”

Minutes later, ambulances are on the road to Awram al-Sughra, but a red flare falls down from the black void and the plane’s machinegun rains bullets down on the bombing site, then on the road, hitting some of the cars heading there. Another minute later, the plane raids the site again with its heavy machinegun. The fighter’s radio springs to life with a voice calling for car headlights to be turned off.

 

Every time people forget the main issue in Syria, it comes back to the forefront with a vengeance. The regime refuses to die, fighting and dragging the country, its people, its buildings and everything else asunder in the pull of its slow fall into the grave.

 

Yet the various Syrian factions are busy fighting each other, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), and sometimes the Kurds and the Shiites besieged in Nebel and Zahra. They are also busy distributing aid to people and even promoting schools, operating bakeries, distributing fuel and, of course, levying funds from all potential sources.

 

Inheriting the failures of the regime

 

The failed projects of the foreign opposition’s temporary Syrian government gave local forces total control over all walks of life in Syria. Liberated regions are still waiting for someone to rescue them, so they can go on with a modicum of life, as the capacities of the foreign opposition and its intervention in the details of civil life recede, save for the televised visits of leaders who do not stay in Syria but return to Turkey before sunset. This receding role has transformed fighting factions into mini-states that control the rehabilitation of water, power and garbage collection networks. In some areas, they have even set up mobile networks with the assistance of Western players. They have also restarted education in public schools, based on curricula unrecognized anywhere else taught by semi-volunteer teachers. These forces distribute aid from supporting states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The management of public life keeps them too busy to fight.

 

Tens of thousands of tons of flour come in from donor states, but the portions distributed to the various factions do not account for the need. Constant waves of displacement have made it too difficult to determine the population count. The quantities of flour distributed to any given faction are determined according to loyalty. For instance, the Hazm Movement gets the greater share of Saudi aid, whereas Jaish al-Mujahideen is getting the greatest Qatari share due to its loyalty to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

According to a local officer providing weapons and ammunition to one of the most important factions in Aleppo today, the Tawhid Brigade had been getting the greatest share of aid from Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, but, he said, the Brigade has practically collapsed, its only remnant its name, while the regime’s army threatens its last position at the Infantry School. Meanwhile, he says, Jamal Maarouf, of the Syrian Martyr’s Brigade, is getting the greatest share of US and Saudi aid. Another officer, with the connections to the US, revealed that the CIA has warned Jamal Maarouf, whose unit seldom takes part in fighting, that it is not satisfied with his performance or his trade activities. At the same time, according to the officer, military and financial aid is now reaching a group of officers in Jamal Maarouf’s entourage in an attempt to undermine and disintegrate his brigade.

 

Supposedly-free aid is being leaked to the bakeries and mills run by Jabhat al-Nusra, a faction classified by many supporting states as a terrorist organization. The Nusra Front buys hundreds, sometimes thousands, of tons of flour, baking bread in its bakeries and reselling or redistributing some of it to the civilian population. ISIS is also getting aid from the black market and by confiscating cargo from trucks it stops at its roadblocks.

 

The simple conclusion is that Syrian factions have not managed to keep fighting outside the boundaries of their villages and have failed to properly administer civilian regions. But they have successfully inherited the already-failed Syrian state while the fate of these regions and those still living in them is yet to be determined.

 

Self-determination

 

Turkey’s southern border is a crossing point for foreign fighters and an observation point for the Turkish state to watch the incoming Islamic State fighters. The end result is the same: Arab and foreign Islamists can cross the border, whereas Syrians cannot.

 

A young Western intelligence officer, fluent in Arabic and Turkish and in contact with border intelligence officers from Raqqa to Lattakia, told me: “Turkey is quite aware of what is going on, whether on its own territory or within the first 10 kilometers into the border. Turkish intelligence officers believe their information extends more than that, but their information on the inside is misguided.”

 

The situation in Turkey is becoming more complicated. As a young Syrian liaison officer working as a coordinator between forces inside Syria and Turkish intelligence told me, the Turkish intelligence services, which oversee all border activities pertaining to the Syrian revolution, “are divided between those loyal to the Turkish prime minister and another lay faction, both of which are using us in their fight.” During a long interview with this young officer, he got a phone call from a fellow Turkish officer. The man seemed confused as he set down his phone, waving his hands in a helpless gesture: “He told me to coordinate with those I met with yesterday, i.e. the Saudi intelligence.”

 

According to several local commanders in Syria and dissident officers living in Turkey, Turkish intelligence is not favorably disposed toward any relations between Syrian factions and Saudi intelligence services or the CIA, even though both are operating on Turkish soil. Another factor exacerbating confusion among Syrian factions is that they are getting in-kind aid from the United States and even more from Saudi Arabia, whereas funds and some ammunition are provided by Qatar, yet all of this has to go through Turkish intelligence.

 

Established five months ago, the Military Operation Center (MOC) was supposed to run military operations and coordinate support under CIA supervision. But funds are still flowing in without any effective monitoring, and a great portion of these funds is finding its way into the hands of the Nusra Front and ISIS.

 

The MOC managed to control the military and in-kind aid sent to military factions, but fell short of intervening in other sectors, especially regarding financial and monetary issues. The inflowing cash may be eventually useful to all parties, whether donors or receivers, or may even play a transit role. Indeed, the foreign currency flowing into Turkey – even if in the shape of thousands of small transfers – will provide a healthy dose of vitamins to the local Turkish economy and currency, which is in constant devaluation compared with the US dollar.

 

At the same time that Ibrahim al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate and the Syrian army was advancing through Aleppo towards the industrial city, the MOC was introducing three TOW anti-tank missile launching ramps, one of which was given to the Hazm Movement while the other two went to the Noureddine al-Zanki Brigades. A few days ago, these brigades announced that they had launched a missile targeting a T-72 tank in the industrial area and posted a video of the attack on their YouTube channel. Both the Hazm Movement and the Noureddine al-Zanki Brigades were given a limited number of missiles and were told to use the ones they had before any new ones would be delivered. Moreover, the MOC sent around 60 civilian vehicles for military purposes and a small quantity of traditional weapons.

 

Still, I was present at a meeting between two faction commanders, one of them from Aleppo and the other from Raqqa, as they discussed the means to join fighting forces. One of them, a commander who took refuge in Turkey after ISIS took over his territory, killing some of his fighters, expelling others, and integrating still others into its ranks, said: “The only solution is to pay allegiance to a shura council. Everyone should be compelled to pay allegiance to a shura council before God. The only alternative is some ISIS-like behavior by liquidating the factions that refuse to do so.”

 

When asked why this idea failed in Raqqa, he said: “It has worked alright. We paid allegiance to a shura council and things were going ok, but God plagued us with ISIS.” It thus seems useless to ask the following: How can it be a success if a rogue organization like ISIS can liquidate a shura council? 

ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra benefit from poorly managed foreign aid, says the author. (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

The regime refuses to die, fighting and dragging the country, its people, its buildings and everything else asunder in the pull of its slow fall into the grave."