The conflict in Syria has taken on many shapes as it mutated from a popular mass movement for political change into a proxy civil war with sectarian undertones. Each region of this land, a diverse tapestry with intricately interwoven social, ethnic and religious ties bound together with the strings of a shared history, has experienced the conflict in distinct ways.
Aleppo is perhaps unique in this respect, deviating from the standard Syrian model in that the conflict here follows the stratification of society along class and clan lines, rather than the general sectarian rift that delineates the conflict elsewhere. A large number of Sunnis from all backgrounds, including the working and rural classes, fight alongside the regime in militias or as willing conscripts. In other provinces, however, the split could be more or less described as halves of a once coherent social order split along purely confessional lines.
In Aleppo, the splits are more blurred. Needless to say, the entirety of the rebel forces — except for the foreigners fighting with the al-Qaeda affiliates — fighting under Islamist or mainstream groups are composed of poorer Sunnis from the countryside.
While state-controlled media in Syria are claiming that opposition forces are responsible for what may have been a chemical weapon attack Tuesday in the city of Aleppo, rebel spokesman Qassim Saadeddine is telling Reuters that the opposition was “not behind this attack.”
As often happens when news such as this breaks, it’s not possible at this point to confirm just what — if anything — has happened. Syrian state media are claiming that at least 15 people were killed in Aleppo by some sort of rocket. The watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is telling Reuters that as many as 26 people were killed.
The United States condemned a Syrian army Scud missile attack that killed dozens of people on Friday in the city of Aleppo, and invited the Syrian opposition for talks on finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
A State Department statement said the attack on a district of Aleppo and other assaults such as strikes on city blocks and a field hospital were “the latest demonstrations of the Syrian regime’s ruthlessness and its lack of compassion for the Syrian people it claims to represent.”
The statement, released on Saturday, could help placate the main Syrian opposition grouping, which turned down invitations to visit Washington and Moscow to protest what it described as international silence over the destruction of the historic city of Aleppo by government missile strikes.
Anti-regime activists say a Syrian missile strike has leveled a stretch of buildings and killed at least eight people in the city of Aleppo.
Videos posted online Tuesday showed scores of men searching the destroyed buildings in the Jabal Badro neighborhood for the dead and wounded. One man swung a sledgehammer to break through concrete while a bulldozer hauled off rubble
Syrian rebels are starting to choke off the government’s access to its own country, bringing hope that the war may be slipping away from Bashar al-Assad. But the gains have also come with disturbing new signs — video decapitations, al Qaeda links, and more — that the rebels may end up nearly as brutal in victory as the regime they’re hoping to replace.
NBC News reports that ever larger patches of the country have fallen under the control of the rebels, with only the military strongholds like bases and presidential compounds in Damascus still belonging to the regime. In the Northern part of the country, near the city of Aleppo, “the rebels control the countryside and open roads, and the Syrian army only controls the bases and the skies.” Of course, controlling the skies is an incredibly powerful advantage in any war, so the government is still able to inflict heavy damage on the rebels, even if moral among the troops is lower than ever.
Meanwhile in Damascus, fighting has come with one mile of Assad’s office. One Mideast professor tells Reuters that Assad “is no longer the president of Syria, he is the governor of Damascus.” No matter strong his ability to fight back remains, there seems to be no question that his influence over the nation is shrinking and there’s no telling how long he can successfully hold out.
To the other men in his Free Syrian Army unit, he’s simply known as the Sniper, a 21-year-old army-trained sharpshooter who defected on Feb. 21 and joined their ranks. Few of his colleagues know his first name let alone his surname — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.
He hails from a Sunni military family in a town on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. His uncle is a serving general in President Bashar Assad’s army, several of his other relatives are also high-ranking military officers. Apart from his parents and siblings, his relatives all think he’s dead — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.
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A trim young man with closely cropped black hair and beard, he looks intense but calm as he sits in complete silence for hours, finger on the trigger, peering through the telescopic sight of his Dragunov sniper rifle. He’s careful not to let its barrel protrude through the double-fist-size peephole he has punched through an apartment wall lest it give away his location to the regime’s sharpshooters, some of whom are only about 50 m away.
He may look calm, but he’s deeply troubled. After some nine months of fighting with several Free Syrian Army units, first on the outskirts of Aleppo and then in the city itself after the rebel push into it in late July, he has grown disillusioned with the fight, and angry with its conduct. “I did this when it was clean,” he says. “Now it’s dirty. Many aren’t fighting just to get rid of Bashar, they’re fighting to gain a reputation, to build up their name. I want it to go back to the way it was, when we were fighting for God and the people, not for some commander’s reputation.”
He refused an order in November to fight a pro-regime,ethnic Kurdish militia in a Kurdish neighborhood of Aleppo that the rebels had entered. “Why should I fight the Kurds?” he says. “It’s a distraction. This isn’t our fight.”
Syrian warplanes flattened a building next to a hospital in Aleppo, killing at least 15 people and damaging one of the last remaining sources of medical help for civilians in the northern city, activists said Thursday.
Once a private clinic owned by a businessman loyal to President Bashar Assad, the Dar al-Shifa hospital became a field hospital run by volunteer doctors, nurses and aides united by their opposition to the regime and the need to give medical care to both civilians and rebels.
The facility has taken at least six direct hits in recent months, mostly affecting the upper stories.
On Wednesday night, warplanes bombed a building adjacent to the hospital, turning it into a pile of rubble and spraying shrapnel and debris into Dar al-Shifa itself, activists said.
A landmark mosque in Aleppo was burned, scarred by bullets and trashed - the latest casualty of Syria’s civil war - and President Bashar Assad on Monday ordered immediate repairs to try to stem Muslim outrage at the desecration of the 12th century site.
The Umayyad Mosque suffered extensive damage, as has the nearby medieval covered market, or souk, which was gutted by a fire that was sparked by fighting two weeks ago. The market and the mosque are centerpieces of Aleppo’s walled Old City, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Government troops had been holed up in the mosque for months before rebels launched a push this week to drive them out. Activists and Syrian government officials blamed each other for the weekend fire at the mosque.
Rebel supporters also alleged that regime forces defaced the shrine with offensive graffiti and drank alcohol inside, charges bound to further raise religious tensions in Syria. Many of the rebels are Sunni Muslims, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“It’s all blackened now,” activist Mohammad al-Hassan said of the site, also known as the Great Mosque. One of Syria’s oldest and largest shrines, it was built around a vast courtyard and enclosed in a compound adjacent to the ancient citadel.
Al-Hassan said the army had been using the mosque as a base because of its strategic location in the Old City and he blamed Assad for the destruction.
“He burns down the country and its heritage, and then he says he will rebuild it. Why do you destroy it to begin with?” al-Hassan said in a telephone interview from Aleppo.
Fighting has destroyed large parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city with 3 million residents and its former business capital. Activists say more than 33,000 people have died in the conflict, which began in March 2011 and has turned into a civil war.
On a recent Monday, Khatab, a 28-year-old former factory worker, sipped bitter coffee, leaned against an unpainted wall of a small house in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, and explained that he was in no rush. His special order of two 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns was not slated to arrive until much later in the day.
A veritable arsenal of weapons surrounded him: heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs, and boxes upon boxes of ammunition. In the middle of the room sat the master of the operation, a silver-haired Syrian named Abu Sohaib, who had smuggled this shipment of weapons across the border from Iraq.
Men from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stalked about, deciding which firepower was worth their money. A young, bearded man with gelled hair examined several BKC machine guns but walked out empty-handed. Maybe it was their price tags (each ranged from $5,000 to $6,000); perhaps they were poor quality. He was too polite to say. But Abu Sohaib did not try to stop him, mainly because he did not need to: there were plenty of other buyers. “Demand has increased a lot,” Abu Sohaib said, “especially since Aleppo rose. It’s increased about 50 percent.” To his point, he sold his entire inventory in a matter of days.
Weapons traders are doing a brisk business in Syria. Desperate rebel groups are constantly on the hunt for matériel to keep up the battle against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yet as the war grinds on — some estimates list the death toll as high as 30,000, and the United Nations reports as many as 1.5 million displaced people — the booming weapons trade is aggravating rifts within the armed opposition. Rival FSA commanders are leveraging access to suppliers to exert influence and buy allegiances. And the patronage networks forged in the process could set Syria up for a bloody round of infighting, even after the battle for Damascus is settled.