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Middle East Amp North Africa
Syrian rebels unite in ‘battle of destiny’ for Aleppo
From the Financial Times of Tue, 18 Nov 2014 09:47:59 GMT
Rebel fighters fire an anti-aircraft weapon towards what activists said was a helicopter belonging to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and dropping a barrel bomb in the old city of Aleppo November 12, 2014. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)©Reuters

Rebels fire an anti-aircraft gun in Aleppo

On a 10km stretch of road north of Aleppo, Syria’s rebel forces are engulfed in a “battle of destiny” for control of a besieged city that has become their last and most symbolic stronghold.

Putting aside the rivalries that have eaten away at their revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, factions ranging from hardline Islamist battalions to US-backed moderates have joined forces in a last-ditch attempt to hold this strip of territory, setting up joint operations rooms and rotating battlefield shifts in the struggle for a city that is a gateway to northern Syria – a region they have spent years wresting from Assad forces.

“The dividing line between us and the regime is about 1km to 2km. Either the regime cuts the road, or we do,” says Abu Hozeifa, leader of the 5,000 force known as Jaish al-Mujahideen. “For us, Aleppo is Syria’s battle of destiny . . . If [the regime] succeeds, it will annihilate the revolution.”

But after four years of war, the rebels are not only drained, they are losing their way.

Fighters once complained of the government’s overwhelming air power or their own internal divisions. Now, they say, the biggest problem is navigating an internationalised civil war that has drawn in proxy Shia militias, foreign Sunni jihadis and the US and other nations’ air forces.

To Syrians in the opposition, Aleppo’s fate is a barometer of how a US-led intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, will affect their struggle to end four decades of Assad family rule.

Aleppo is also a reminder of what their war used to be. More than two years ago, commanders such as Abu Hozeifa gathered impoverished young men from the countryside and stormed the city, hoping that taking Syria’s economic hub would bring down the regime.

They seized nearly half of their target before a barrage of government air strikes and rockets halted them and levelled entire neighbourhoods. Terrified residents have flooded out of the city – in the Marjeh neighbourhood, refugees say only 2,000 of its 40,000 residents remain.

The commanders still fighting for Aleppo are greyer now, their beards streaked with white. Any hope of capturing the city is a distant dream.

From an office in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, Jaish al-Mujahideen leaders speak wearily of the democratic ideals they had hoped would draw western leaders to their cause.

“For years, we tried communicating with the language of emotion. We told them ‘we want freedom, our sons are dying’ . . . No one did anything. OK, let’s talk now in the language of shared interests with the west,” said a political official with the group who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Amin.

But the US has so far intervened only to strike Isis, which has seized land in Iraq and Syria, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

Groups that have received aid from the US-led coalition conducting the air strikes say they want support in their battle against Mr Assad in exchange for helping it fight the jihadis. They say the strikes on Isis have freed up the regime to focus on attacking the rebels and that their links with the US have discredited them among the population.

“We’ve been converted into collaborators in the eyes of our people,” said Abu Amin “We look like mercenaries.”

Even the Hazm Movement, which is not fighting for any specific religious ideology and has the most direct coalition backing, is frustrated with its US patrons. Western and opposition officials regularly met to discuss how to move forward, said Ahmed Abu-Emad, a Hazm spokesman. But there is still no clear plan.

“We’re ready to accept any idea. But if we fought Isis or Nusra and then Aleppo fell, the regime would advance – we’d be exterminating ourselves,” he said.

Rebel leaders are struggling to stave off further infighting. Jabhat al-Nusra, widely admired in Syria for its military prowess and willingness to work with rival rebel factions against Mr Assad, gained even more local sympathy when it became a target of US strikes. It is now attacking US-supplied forces.

Hazm and another western-backed group retreated from a Nusra offensive in northern Idlib this month, losing US-supplied weaponry in the process.

But Aleppo is the one area relatively free of infighting. Aware of how critical their hold on the city is to the revolt’s survival, the rebel fighters have called a truce. So far the strategy is working – for months they have held their lines against the regime onslaught.

The rebels point out that they forced Isis out of Aleppo and Idlib in January without US backing, helped by popular support. But this has evaporated – local people see air strikes by Mr Assad’s army and the coalition as one and the same and are now sceptical of US-backed factions.

It was up to moderate groups to regain their support, said Mr Abu-Emad. But western backing remained “shy” and was insufficient to help groups such as Hazm show local people they were worth backing, he said.

Meanwhile, Isis is trying to come back in northern Syria, inching along the frontier with Turkey. But with rising wariness of the US-led coalition’s willingness to help their cause, some rebels are holding off on fighting the Islamists.

“Being consumed by the battle against Isis and not be allowed to fight the regime – I can’t accept that,” says Abu Amin. “For that reason, to be honest, we have frozen our battle with Isis . . . We refuse to just be fuel for a regional war.”



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