The Battle of Aleppo: The History of the Ongoing Siege at the Center of the Syrian Civil War (2016)
Chapter 7: The Early Fighting in Aleppo
In September 2016, U.S. presidential candidate Gary Johnson was interviewed on MSNBC about his various stances on several important political issues. At one point, the news anchor asked Mr. Johnson what he would do if he were president about Aleppo, to which Johnson responded, “What is Aleppo?” The internet immediately responded with mockery, sadness, and disbelief, questioning how a person attempting to push his way into the tight presidential race could possibly not know what was happening in a city that has been a daily news fixture for quite awhile.
Of course, even though Mr. Johnson responded later that he was aware of the battle in Aleppo and had a momentary lapse in memory, he was reflecting what most people believe is the general American understanding of what is going on inside the country: people have no clue about the reality on the ground. If anything, the world has only recently really started to pay attention to the fighting in and around Aleppo primarily because its intensity has increased significantly since Russia entered the war to support the Syrian regime in late 2015. In fact, the battle for Aleppo has been ongoing for over 4 years.
Originally, the conflict within Aleppo began when violence broke out between protesters and Syrian forces in May 2012, more than a year after protests started in the country. The rebel groups, made up of Free Syrian Army, Jabhat Al-Nusra and other smaller jihadist groups at the time, were quickly labeled by the regime as terrorists, a term the international community understood well. According to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, "It is out of question that we would allow a terrorist organization to be based in northern Syria and become a threat to our country.” Even at this point, the Turkish government understood the risk, especially as it witnessed the region devolving into chaos during the Arab Spring. This was a general response by more conservative regimes and dictatorships around the region: how could they support rebels when that might lead to their own citizens starting a civil war?
The regime began shelling neighborhoods and carrying out helicopter attacks in Aleppo, and as the fighting continued in late 2012, there were reports that the rebel groups were stealing supplies from locals and forcing them to allow them to stay inside of their homes. "It is extremely sad. There is not one government institution or warehouse left standing in Aleppo. Everything has been looted. Everything is gone." Some claimed that the looting and violence among rebels and residents of Aleppo were also a result of longstanding grudges that people in these militant forces harbored (those of rural and generally less wealthy families) against more wealthy people of Aleppo. The grievances emerged in a big way even early on in the battle.
This level of guerrilla warfare and chaos was the excuse used by the Syrian government to intensify attacks, and when this happened, the looting intensified primarily because the leaders of the rebel groups were not able to easily feed and pay their soldiers. In many cases, fighters would move to other rebel groups that were better funded at that time (and this has continued to be an issue for the rebel groups over the years). Not only do the rebel groups compete for fighters and resources, they also compete for external support from international sponsors and over the claim that their group is the one carrying the true revolution forward against the Assad regime.
The entrance of the jihadist groups into the fray drastically changed the battle for Aleppo, and the war in Syria in general. Like in many cases, jihadist groups enter a battle when they note a vacuum and chaos in order to fill the void. Al-Qaeda seized on this opportunity and encouraged the development of Jabhat Al-Nusra, as did others. Many foreign fighters from other Muslim and non-Muslim countries also made their way to Syria in order to fight for a jihadist cause, hoping to take down Assad and install an Islamic caliphate. These rebels hailed from Tunisia all the way to Chechnya, and thousands of fighters have traveled from Western Europe as well.
Throughout the summer of 2012, the various rebel groups rapidly took control of different parts of the city and various neighborhoods. Aleppo’s population at this time was about 2.5 million people and was still considered an economically important city for the country, so losing such a city to rebels was non-negotiable to the Syrian government. The rebel groups most likely felt emboldened by the fact that a large portion of the population was Sunni. “Of Aleppo’s 2.5 million people, a majority are Sunni Muslims, many of whom feel alienated from Assad’s Alawite-led government. The city’s proximity to the Turkish border allows rebel forces to ferry in men and matériel with relative ease.”
The Syrian government clearly understood the importance of the proximity to Turkey and the Turkish government’s propensity for a more conservative view of Islam (ála the AKP’s political background) and was sure to respond. The Syrian army attacked different rebel-held neighborhoods in attempts to force the rebels out which in turn prompted large waves of refugees fleeing the city, mostly toward Turkey. The neighborhood mainly affected during this battle was that of Salahuddin, a poor area in western Aleppo. During the battle there in the summer of 2012, the rebel groups were able to beat back the Syrian army and push toward the city center for some time until the Syrian forces retaliated. During this long summer battle, the rebels and the Syrian army moved back and forth around the city like pieces on a chessboard. Before the government entered certain areas, they sometimes sent text messages to cell phone owners in the area telling them “the game is over” and that rebels should surrender immediately or be killed.
Throughout the battle, the government and the rebels would use tactics to push the other out into the open or to expel them from the city. The Syrian army, for example, targeted locations like bakeries, hospitals and other popular locations, cutting off access to food and aid. Thus, the siege-like warfare that has been a hallmark of the battle has been taking place from the beginning.
A FSA fighter walking among the rubble in Aleppo in 2012
FSA fighters in the ancient part of the city in 2012
The wreckage of a tank in Aleppo
Such actions had unintended consequences, however. Jabhat Al-Nusra (now called Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham) introduced itself to neighborhoods full of civilians in need of food and aid. Al-Nusra began providing different services to residents and advertised themselves as protectors of the average Syrian from the harsh Assad regime. In late 2012, the group took control of the airport in eastern Aleppo and declared it would shoot down any planes flying in the airspace. Al-Nusra claimed it was trying to prevent Assad from flying in fighters in secret on regular passenger planes and carrying in supplies for the Syrian army. Later during the year, Al-Nusra officially split from ISIS, its Al-Qaeda affiliated sister group. Al-Nusra continued on its own to develop relationships within its controlled territory around Syria in order to bolster their legitimacy, especially in light of ISIS’ increasing brutality. Al-Nusra operated as an “Al-Qaeda lite,” a jihadist group that was strict in its application of religion, but supposedly less violent than ISIS. This angle is an important one, and one that Al-Nusra has continued using in 2016 as it tries to create more distance with Al-Qaeda and present itself as a more legitimate option to the Assad regime when the international community and Syrian population look toward power transitions.
Slowly but surely, Al-Nusra and other such groups worked to turn people against the regime. In some areas, this has appeared to work, but in others, the groups are skeptical. The Christians of Aleppo, for example, have been targeted and accused of supporting the Syrian regime--and many do--because they do not want to take part in the activities of rebel groups, particularly those that are religious in nature, for fear that Salafism would subsequently control their way of living. Moreover, with the huge push of ISIS into Syria and Iraq in 2014, Syrian Christians saw their Iraqi counterparts beheaded and forced out of cities. Thus, the Syrian regime still holds fairly strong support from the country’s Christian population.
The Kurdish neighborhoods around Aleppo also experienced a tough predicament when they came into contact with the Syrian army and the rebel groups attempting to take over their areas. While some Kurdish leaders claimed they wanted to stay out of the battle, others felt like they were being pulled into the conflict. When clashes occurred, the rebels blamed the government. “Our Kurdish brothers are comrades in our nation,” the Free Syrians Brigade said in a statement. “The problem... was the result of a misunderstanding that was created by a regime plot.” To the rebel groups, the Kurds were a group to be swayed, but if they did not work in collaboration with the rebels, then they must be guilty of being manipulated by the government.
A picture of destruction caused by suicide bombings in Aleppo in late 2012
The Kurds of Aleppo also were pulled more heavily into the battle during 2013. Various attacks against their neighborhoods such as Sheikh Al-Maqsud were blamed on the rebels and the government, which blamed each other in turn. In November 2013, the PYD declared its own independently ruled area for Kurds in northern Syria, a huge shock to both the Syrian government and Turkey, which had both tried to avoid such an occurrence from ever happening. The rebels again criticized the Kurds for not engaging the Syrian army directly but rather defending their own interests. “The Kurds say they support the rebellion against Assad but they have not been engaged in battles with the Syrian President’s forces since the army withdrew from Kurdish areas in the early months of the civil war.”
The Kurds’ involvement in the battle has been characterized by their unique position. They do not outright support the Assad government due to years of oppression, they also do not necessarily support the rebels who have taken the lead in the civil war, namely Jabhat Al-Nusra and its affiliated jihadist groups. The jihadist groups’ ties to the Turkish government leaders, led by the conservative, Muslim Brotherhood offshoot of the AKP, very much opposes Kurdish independence and civil rights within their own borders, primarily due to their ongoing conflict with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group. When the PYD declared its independence, Turkey was worried this would embolden its own Kurds to join the cause.
Another faction to fully join the fray during this time was the Lebanese Shi’a militant group Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been a long-time ally of the Syrian regime since its inception in the early 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War. Syria’s position as a conduit for weapons and aid to Hezbollah in their fights against Israel and their internal political issues in Lebanon ensured they took up arms when called upon by Iran.
Hezbollah used a similar tactic as the Sunni rebels by positioning themselves initially in Shi’ite towns and neighborhoods around Aleppo from which to launch attacks. Hassan Nasrallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, claimed they entered the battle at Assad’s request to remove the “terrorist” infiltrators around the country. Part of Assad’s strategy for utilizing Hezbollah forces as reinforcement was to strategically place them in these Shi’ite towns and clear out any rebellious forces. These towns would then become launch sites for attacks against rebel forces in Aleppo, and the towns also happened to be very close to major highways.
The entrance of Hezbollah into Aleppo and the implications that Iran was beginning to insert itself in the civil war alarmed Western countries. The internal fears that shook Western countries during the Arab Spring were coming true, and it became more apparent that the power vacuums created by these conflicts were creating avenues for enemies of the West to gain power and influence in the region. And even though past efforts to arm rebels during the Cold War against Russia eventually backfired (as with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden), the U.S. and its allies began to consider doing this once more in Syria. During the summer of 2013, it was reported that the United Kingdom sent about 8 million British pounds in “non-lethal” aid to rebels in Syria, which, “according to official papers seen by The Independent, [comprised] five 4x4 vehicles with ballistic protection; 20 sets of body armour; four trucks (three 25 tonne, one 20 tonne); six 4x4 SUVs; five non-armoured pick-ups; one recovery vehicle; four fork-lifts; three advanced ‘resilience kits’ for region hubs, designed to rescue people in emergencies; 130 solar powered batteries; around 400 radios; water purification and rubbish collection kits; laptops; VSATs (small satellite systems for data communications) and printers.”
In turn, the U.S. sent additional “lethal” aid to Syrian rebels such as weapons, vehicles and other equipment.  Within the U.S., this move was controversial on both sides of the political aisle. Some criticized the Obama administration for taking so long to aid the rebels, and others criticized the administration for not learning from past actions during the Cold War that led to disastrous effects for American interests and foreign policy in the long-term. This difficult political issue has been a conundrum for an administration that has tried to support rebels in the dictatorships around the Middle East during the Arab Spring but also worked to support allies in the region and keep the political balance as much as possible. Though the U.S. has not been an ally of Syria by any means, their own allies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been outright supporting Al-Nusra and their religio-political objectives in the new Syria post-Assad.
Eventually, Russia also found a prime moment to enter the conflict. In response to the U.S. condemnation of the Syrian regime’s chemical attacks against civilians in Ghouta, Russia released reports at the United Nations concerning the rebels’ use of sarin gas against civilians in March 2013. While the U.S. dismissed the report, Russia used this as an opportunity to point out Western selectivity over what it considered to be legitimate attacks and illegitimate attacks. A war of over words between the U.S. and Russia has characterized much of this relationship throughout the war.
The fighting in Aleppo in 2013 was also characterized by the Syrian government's increased use of barrel bombs around the city. This increased usage is thought to have been due at least in part to the fact that the regime avoided potential American airstrikes by handing over their declared chemical weapons for transport and disposal in compliance with a controversial agreement made between the U.S. and Russia after a regime chemical attack seemed to defy Obama’s explicit redline. According to the Washington Post, “The barrel bombs are oil drums packed with explosives, nails and other shrapnel. They are dropped by helicopters and are far simpler than the chemical weapons that the United States and other Western powers are trying to ferry out of the country. But they are also imprecise, killing rebel forces and civilians alike, and the fear they provoke is almost as intense, activists and rebel fighters say.”
By the end of 2013, hundreds of people--rebels and civilians--were killed by the barrel bombs around Aleppo. This amount increased significantly in 2014 as the Syrian Civil War entered its third year. During December 2013, the Syrian army began its Operation Canopus Star, an offensive to gain control over supply routes around Aleppo by intense air raid bombings as well as maintaining direct lines to central Syria.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also stepped up its involvement in the battle for Aleppo in 2013. Iran initially claimed that their forces were inside Syria to advise the Syrian armed forces, but evidence indicated the IRGC was actually involved in the fighting. Iran reported their first soldier’s death in Syria in late 2013. Many of the IRGC members are actually veterans of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, though they maintained for some time that they were there for training and advising. Also during this time, a video appeared of an Iranian commander discussing Iranian actions inside Syria with a filmmaker. The commander, Ismail Haydari, was killed in Aleppo.
As Iran and Hezbollah intervention make clear, 2013 was the year Syrian regime began increasingly relying upon its allies to help fight. In addition to lacking the manpower to fight all the rebels by itself, the regime has had to deal with the fact that urban warfare against these very well-organized and well-supported rebel groups is challenging, since they refuse to fight in the typical way armies fight. Instead, the rebels have embedded themselves in the community, and as long as they stay, the more they are able to garner support for their presence, thus creating an entrenchment situation. Civilians in some neighborhoods in Aleppo and other cities around Syria came to see rebels as liberators, or at least more reliable than the Syrian government in terms of providing services.