Middle East

Rebels struggle to wrest ground in Aleppo

Lightly armed rebels are facing fierce resistance from a better equipped army.

BEIRUT: Rebel forces were struggling to seize ground in the face of regime artillery and air attacks in neighborhoods across Aleppo a day after launching a coordinated attempt to wrest control of the city after weeks of stalemate.

Disparate battalions launched a united offensive in an attempt to take the city in a “decisive battle” late Thursday. But divisions were beginning to emerge Friday, as resources began to wane and rivalries emerge, fighters and opposition activists reported.

Rebels armed with machine guns and homemade rockets said they were facing fierce resistance against a better-equipped army who launched sustained mortar and jet attacks against several neighborhoods overnight Thursday and Friday.

“We reached the middle of Suleiman al-Halabi and liberated some neighborhoods so I am still optimistic. But I’m worried about our organization. We can’t force the regime out. At best, I think we can advance some of our positions,” one fighter told Reuters, requesting anonymity.

Another fighter told The Daily Star the fighters, who mainly come from the Aleppo countryside, had “finally come together,” but said he feared allegiances were beginning to fray.

“They are fighting each other now, because they all need something and there is not enough to go around,” the rebel, who requested anonymity, said via telephone.

Protesters across the country demonstrated Friday under banners calling for the unification of the FSA.

Some anti-government demonstrators in Aleppo expressed frustration with the FSA, which they say has brought chaos to the city.

“We demonstrated today in the square ... some signs welcomed the FSA, but others were telling the FSA to ‘correct the path,’” said one youth activist who gave his name as “George.”

“People want to live [and they] do not want to lose their lives or their homes and businesses.”

Variously aligned battalions have made recent attempts to unite, seeking better strategic coordination and secure streamlined funding from sponsor states. Major General Mohammad Hussein al-Haj Ali, who earlier this month announced the formation of the Liwa Tawhid National Unity Brigade, is reportedly making little headway in bringing the disparate groups under his central command.

Speaking by telephone from his base in southern Turkey, deputy commander of the FSA, Malik al-Kurdi, told The Daily Star the initial attack was being commanded by individual ground commanders working together. Emphasizing the divisions, he said Hajj Ali’s attempts to unify “had not been successful.”

Kurdi reported that the FSA had encountered fierce artillery bombardment Friday and suffered heavy losses in violent clashes in the Bdama neighborhood, where the battalion’s first lieutenant was killed.

Rebels elsewhere claimed they had advanced on several fronts, but admitted they had failed to make any significant breakthrough.

“On the Salaheddin front, we took one of the regular army bases,” said Abu Furat, one of the leaders of the Al-Tawhid Brigade, the most important in the city.

But he admitted outgunned fighters had been forced to retreat. “To win a guerrilla street war, you have to have bombs and we don’t,” Abu Furat said.There was no immediate report on the number of rebel casualties. Syria’s state-run news agency SANA confirmed battles in several Aleppo districts, reporting that dozens of rebels were killed. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, put the day’s death toll in the city at 23.

In further complications, fighting erupted between rebel fighters and Kurdish militias. Rebel fighters entered the Kurdish area of Sheikh Maqsoud, amid conflicting reports about whether some of the local residents fought alongside regime troops or stayed out of the battle.

Syria’s state TV said regime forces had help Friday from local residents, a claim also made by the Tawhid Brigade, the largest unit of rebel fighters in the city.

However Kurdi told The Daily Star rebels had taken control of the neighborhood late Friday, where a number of government-aligned militia were killed and others and were taken captives. It was unclear if the victims were Kurds.

Violence also raged in Damascus Friday where troops attacked several rebel areas in both the north and the south of the capital, leaving three civilians dead, the Observatory said.

As the fighting continues the international community remains deadlocked over the crisis. At a meeting of the Friends of Syria group in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a total of $45 million in new funding for humanitarian aid and to help the civilian opposition.

Clinton said the U.S. would contribute an additional $15 million in non-lethal gear – mostly communications equipment – to the civilian opposition trying to oust Assad as well as $30 million in new humanitarian assistance to help those affected by the continuing violence.

She also delivered a new, stark warning to Iran that it must stop arming and supporting the Assad regime.

“It is no secret that our attempts to move forward at the U.N. Security Council have been blocked repeatedly, but the United States is not waiting,” Clinton said

In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed a renowned war crimes prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, to its independent panel probing alleged atrocities committed in Syria. The council also extended the panel’s mission, due to expire by the end of September, by another six months.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 1.




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