For four days now, fierce fighting has besieged Syria’s largest city and commercial capital Aleppo in what the regime has called “the mother of all battles”.
The city, which had been relatively quiet for most of the 17-month uprising, became the latest bloody front in the conflict as opposition forces, organised under the banner of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), launched a major offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s army.
Both the FSA and al-Assad’s army have deemed the outcome of the battle for Aleppo crucial for their long-term strategic goals.
As fighting rages, uncertainty has become rife, with both sides claiming victory to be within reach.
On Monday, the Syrian army said it had overrun rebel-held Salaheddin district, an FSA stronghold, a claim which was refuted by an FSA commander.
According to Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the rebel military council in Aleppo, government troops, who have been using heavy artillery and helicopters against FSA fighters, had “not progressed one metre”.
Outside of Syria, many have condemned the bloody events that have forced thousands to flee the densely-populated city and sparked fears of a humanitarian crisis.
Leon Panetta, the US secretary of defence, called for efforts Monday to “bring the Assad regime down” in response to the events in Aleppo.
Meanwhile during a visit to Iran, Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Muallem blamed Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia for aiding the rebels in their fight, under the direction of the US.
Al-Muallem added that rebel forces “will definitely be defeated” in a joint press conference in Tehran on Sunday with Ali Akbar Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister.
Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught has been reporting from the Aleppo region in Syria and recently spoke to Sophie Sportiche about the situation on the ground.
Sophie Sportiche: There have been major concerns voiced about Aleppo becoming a humanitarian catastrophe. How bad is the destruction you have seen?
Anita McNaught: In terms of a humanitarian disaster, I think it’s premature to say anything like that is happening right now in Aleppo. The best model for what’s happening in Aleppo in the moment is what happened in Homs, because the two are very similar in terms of how the regime is handling the uprising in Aleppo city.
What the rebels have done is they have moved into two areas of the city – the southwest and northeast – which are largely Sunni poor neighbours where they have been welcomed with open arms. But there are other districts of Aleppo where the Free Syrian Army has not gone. They have not gone into northern Aleppo, which is Kurdish, and they have not gone into the centre of the city – although they are going in and out of the centre of the city, where the community is mixed – and I would imagine they are not going into the Christian areas because although many Christians are discretely supportive of political change in Syria, they have certainly not in any shape or form allied themselves with the uprising.
The regime is handling this in the same way it handled Homs. It has based its own artillery in areas of Aleppo further out to the southwest, where it doesn’t have to worry about its own security. And they’re just lobbing massive quantities of shells into the southwest districts. And those are the areas for the moment where the regime forces are fighting most heavily.
The same disadvantages that they had in Homs are the same disadvantages that they have in Aleppo. The regime forces do not want to engage in hand-to-hand or close combat. They prefer to use distance snippers and shelling to deal with that.
They, of course, have no qualms about communal punishment. As far as they are concerned, where the opposition fighters are is where they’re being hosted by communities, and therefore they’re all equally culpable, and therefore they’re all targets. So you’re seeing massive bombardments of civilian regions for the simple reason that the Free Syrian Army has based itself there. Therefore, in the eyes of the regime, they’re all complicit.
This situation has gone on for months in Homs, and yes, ultimately a humanitarian disaster did ensue. The battle in Aleppo is only a few days old. Also, Aleppo is a richer city than Homs and they would have had time to prepare for this.
[Only] a very silly family in Aleppo [wouldn’t] have stockpiled food in [the] last few weeks. There will be all the catastrophic damage of massive shelling, massive artillery fire, tank fire as well, all of which we saw in Idlib too. But from the people I’ve spoken to who have been inside Salaheddin, the shelling and bombardment is extraordinary – very, very heavy – and relentless. That will create its own disaster – its own humanitarian disaster – but it’s not one of starvation; it’s one of people under constant bombardment, who can’t get to hospitals quickly enough.
SS: Opposition forces are said to have been factious and split in the past. What kind of level of unity have you perceived, if any?
AM: What we’ve seen here is a remarkable degree of unity and coordination. Whatever problems the Free Army fighters might have had getting their act together in the early days, whatever arguments there may have been about seniority and areas of operation, that kind of thing, seem to have been dealt with.
There are a lot of brigades in the province of Aleppo, and these brigades all have separate commanders, some of them have separate ideologies, some of them are more religious than others. But they are all absolutely clear about what they need to do: Take this fight to the next stage. They are all absolutely clear that the province of Aleppo needs to be cleared of the remaining presence of Assad’s forces. And that all assistance needs to be given to the fight in Aleppo city. There is no split about that – there is absolute unanimity of understanding and purpose. And from what we’ve seen, they recognise that disunity is a handicap and they resolve disputes really quickly.
SS: What kind of presence do foreign and “jihadi” fighters have in the opposition forces, and what kind of influence do they seem to be exerting?
AM: We have seen no foreign fighters in the areas of Aleppo province that we have worked in. What was true for us in Idlib province is also true for us so far in Aleppo: The vast majority of the FSA are the sons of local and regional families who have been obliged in desperation and enthusiasm to take up arms because they cannot see any other way to protect their regions and their families. The people we speak to, [say] there are some – a few – foreign fighters in the northern province of Idlib, [but] their estimates currently are not more than 100. On the whole, they view them with dismay.
They know these fighters make them look bad. They give an image and a tint to the revolution that is not Syrian. And they are also very possessive of their own revolution. They don’t want Assad to be defeated by anyone else except the Syrians. On the one hand, they appreciate the support, in the theoretical sense, but most of [the people] we deal with would rather they weren’t here at all.
The people here feel there is a disproportionate and unhealthy interest by the Western media in presence of jihadis in Syria. “It makes us”, to quote one of them, “look bad”. The feeling is, it will be used by the West, or governments like Qatar and Syria, as one more excuse not to help the legitimate uprising in Syria.