Relief Mission

Heroes? Jihadis With al Qaeda Links Break Assad Siege of Aleppo

While Western politicians and bureaucrats wring their hands, hardline jihadis and Salafists have seized the initiative in northern Syria.

08.08.16 6:00 PM ET

Syrian rebel forces, spearheaded by jihadists and Salafists, broke the Assad regime’s siege of Aleppo on Saturday after nearly a month encircled in the opposition-held eastern sector of the city. The regime noose had prevented any food or humanitarian aid from reaching the 300,000 men, women and children trapped inside, but that state of affairs is now ended, with the first convoy of produce sent from rebel affiliates in Idlib province reaching east Aleppo on Sunday.

The breakthrough, easily the single biggest tactical victory for the opposition in a year, lifted the apocalyptic gloom that had descended upon anti-regime actors, beginning with Moscow’s aerial intervention last September. Russian airstrikes ostensibly were against the putative Islamic State, but in reality were focused on mainstream rebel groups, including those supported by the CIA and Pentagon.

Cheers went up across all ideological segments of the opposition, renewing hope that the Assad regime, in spite of its continued support from Iran, Russia and assorted foreign sectarian militias, might still be bled, if not quite defeated.

According to the opposition-friendly news site El-Dorar al-Shamia, more than 400 combatants from the Syrian Arab Army and Lebanese Hezbollah were killed in nine days of fighting, a figure that may well be exaggerated but, given other rebel assessments, not by a great deal.

A spokesman for the Fateh Army, the umbrella organization leading the operation, said that the territory seized is about 40 square kilometers, which is larger than city of Idlib. The main prize was the Syrian Army Artillery Academy, a crucial installation that anti-Assad forces had not been able to take in four years of warfare.

Symbolically, the academy has long represented a fortified outpost of repression, dating back to the early days of unarmed protests against Assad, and continuing through the insurgency, when its howitzers were used to pound the Salah ad-Din and Hamadaniyah neighborhoods, which became miniature Stalingrads suffering the most intense urban combat of the war.

Assad’s Air Force Technical Academy, the last regime base in southern Aleppo, fell to the rebels on Sunday. Rebel sources said that they killed a Hezbollah commander in this battle, seized a great deal of weapons and ammunition, including tanks, and arrested many Syrian Army soldiers, one of them allegedly a general.

Meanwhile, Russian warplanes blasted rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, in addition to the new rebel positions. Six people reportedly were killed in these airstrikes, although they failed to dislodge the enemy from its new turf.

Within the Syrian opposition, however, uplift was tempered by the grim awareness that hardline forces utilizing suicide bombers played the decisive role in the linkup between militias that captured the Artillery Academy and their counterparts approaching from the south along the Al-Ramouseh Road.

The entire battle, originally named “Aleppo’s Greatest Epic,” enjoined by two dozen different factions, was in fact led by jihadists and Salafists, principally Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, a formidable super-brigade. Together, these two groups control the Fateh Army.

The role of suicide bombings, according to Abu Yusef al-Muhajer, the military spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, was “to open the road for the regime’s militias to run away because these operations create the greatest terror. The explosion of a [vehicle] which carries six tons of explosives has a great effect in making the other side collapse.”

“Apart from Fateh Army,” al-Muhajer said, “the participation of other groups from Aleppo in this battle was between 0 percent and 5 percent.” A local consortium of rebels based in Aleppo, known as Fateh Halab, which included Ahrar al-Sham but also FSA factions, fielded fighters who almost certainly exceed that meager percentage estimate, into which local power politics and influence-peddling has no doubt factored.

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Syrian media activist Hadi al-Abdullah recently survived an assassination attempt -- allegedly by Jabhat al-Nusra -- but was back at the Aleppo front in a wheelchair to conduct interviews with fighters at the weekend. He told Business Insider, "There have been many different players all playing a critical role — the forces fighting the regime from inside Aleppo have been almost exclusively FSA. When it comes to operations in southwest Aleppo, Ahrar al-Sham probably played a bigger role than Jabhat Fatah al-Sham."

Other moderate FSA factions from Hama and Idlib also contributed to the campaign, including Sukour al-Jabal, al-Nasr Army and the Central Division. Al-Muhajer was more complimentary of their efforts than of his confederates in Fateh Halab: “We do thank them for their contribution, especially with the anti-vehicles missiles.” Some FSA units within the Fateh Army, he added, such as Al Sham Legion and Ajnad Al Sham, are recipients of TOW anti-tank missiles—the telltale dispensation of “vetted” rebels armed by the CIA.

“The FSA [from Hama and Idlib] worked hard and offered a lot,” said al-Muhajer. “But they are not part of the operations room even though they were with us everywhere in the battlefield.” (The New York Times has reported that the resupply of TOWs to these groups has dried up in recent weeks.)

Despite its name change and PR-savvy avowal to have “no relationship to any external ­entity”—an organizational pivot that was blessed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of global al-Qaeda—Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is still on the U.S. terrorism hit-lit and will continue to be targeted by American warplanes.

Al-Muhajer also claimed that Turkey did not assist in the breaking of the siege, although many Syria analysts have suggested it did, as have eyewitnesses at the Syrian-Turkish border who told the Financial Times that truckloads of heavy firepower have been pouring in for "weeks."

Depending upon how discussions between Washington and Moscow proceed for coordinating airstrikes and intelligence sharing against mutually agreed upon jihadist targets, U.S. F-18s and Russian Sukhois could soon be flying parallel missions to drop bombs on the very insurgents who many Syrians now see as having delivered them from starvation and annihilation.

And herein lies a major problem for the Obama administration, still nominally committed to brokering a compromise in Syria even as it loses any and all leverage to do so:

“The breaking of the siege on opposition-held Aleppo illustrates how marginal the United States has become to major developments in the war,” said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. “Jihadists and hardline Islamists received a major reputational boost, highlighting to Syrians that they need not and should not rely on America for support or rescue. The insurgency will continue with or without the United States. The only question is whether the United States is even relevant to the course of events.”

Already, as The Daily Beast reported on Aug. 5, Russia may be trying to poach Pentagon-trained anti-ISIS rebels who feel that they were never adequately supported by Washington.

BuzzFeed reported months ago that the Kremlin has made similar overtures to the CIA-backed FSA groups commissioned to battle the regime.

As ever, amid geopolitical gamesmanship and bureaucratic wrangling, the extremists have shown that they can dispense with red tape and get things done—to the greater glory of their domestic “brands.” Ahrar al-Sham, for instance, made a point of importing 10 to 15 trucks full of food into Aleppo not just to cultivate goodwill among the population but also as a military training exercise.

“We used military vehicles to hand the food over. It was an exercise for our fighters to learn how to use the road and avoid the regime’s fire," al-Muhajer said. "We will work now to keep the Al-Ramouseh Road. We haven’t announced the road open for civilians yet. We still need two days to take some points that could pose fire control over the road.”

In his estimation, despite fielding paramilitaries from Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, and even Iranian-conscripted Afghan Hazaras, the Assad regime’s defensive lines remain anemic, whatever the David-versus-Goliath options may seem from afar: “The intelligence we get from there says that the regime is in a state of panic and in a chaotic situation. So the battle must continue."