Can the Rebels Hold On in Aleppo?

From my dispatch today for VOA:

“The huge Assad assault — regime reinforcements were sent to the city this weekend in what Damascus calls a ‘decisive final battle’ — is testing not only the endurance of an estimated quarter-of-a-million civilians trapped, bombed on and starving in the eastern pocket.

It is testing the rebel forces — to the breaking point, fear diplomats, analysts and some rebel leaders.

‘Can they hold out? No, sadly no, from a military point of view, of course, they can’t,’ says Gen. Salim Idris, a former commander-in-chief of the Free Syrian Army.”

You can read the full report here.

Assad Says It Enough; Maybe The West Should Believe Him

Bashar al-Assad sent sent a telegram Thursday to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to thank Moscow for its military support and vowed to accept nothing less than outright victory. Assad said the army was set on “attaining final victory.”

He noted in his cable that Aleppo has become like Stalingrad, promising that “despite the brutality and cruelty of the enemy, and the great sacrifices and pains, our cities, towns, people and army will not be satisfied until they defeat the enemy and achieve victory.

Now Assad has said this before — namely, that he is aiming for complete victory. So why does the West still persist trying to negotiate a political transition?

Assad sent the telegram hours before government warplanes fired four missiles at a refugee camp 10km from the the border with Turkey, killing at least 30 and wounding dozens.

You can read my full news report on this at VOA here.

An Improbable Week

As the cliche has it — truth is the first casualty of war.

And this week officials in Moscow, Ankara and Washington DC appeared determined to prove the saying true.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman claimed Tuesday a remarkable victory over Islamic State militants — despite the fact that 90 percent of Russia’s airstrikes have been targeting anti-Assad rebels of the Free Syrian Army or the Islamist Army of Conquest. IS had lost “most” of its ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment in Russian airstrikes, the Defense Ministry baldly bragged Tuesday. So 86 claimed Russian airstrikes on IS the previous 48 hours — plus a few the previous two weeks — managed to achieve what 7000 US-led coalition airstrikes had failed to do!

Just putting aside how improbable that sounds, it doesn’t square with field actions of ISIS to the north-east of Aleppo, where Russian airstrikes have assisted the terror group to capture from Syrian rebels a chunk of important real estate. Nor does it square with what anti-IS activists inside Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor tell me. Yes, damage is being done to ISIS by coalition and Russia airstrikes but the group is hardly on the ropes yet and won’t be until they are challenged on the ground by a serious force.

And that leads into the second great improbable of the week — this time coming from Washington. Namely that a US air-drop this week of 45 tonnes of ammunition in northern Syria did not go to the Kurds’ YPG forces. A Pentagon spokesman insisted Thursday that the US military was confident the supplies got to the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition. Earlier, another Pentagon official, Peter Cook, had admitted to reporters that some of the ammunition might have ended up with other groups, including the Kurds.

The Pentagon’s “correction” neither squares what the YPG/PYD is saying — including their leader Salih Muslim — nor does it make any sense, if, as US officials have said, they are pushing the YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition to march towards Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, encircle and isolate it. The YPG is the dominant force in that grouping, able to field 25,000 or so fighters. The Syrian Arab Coalition can field according to Washington 5000 fighters and is basically a YPG catspaw.

And if you want to know what a dubious group the Syrian Arab Coalition is, read my report here.

The last great improbable of the week came from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who offered one of the most unlikely pairings ever when he suggested on Thursday that ISIS and the PKK, Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatists, may have both had a hand in last weekend’s suicide bombing in Ankara, the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history.

Among those detained, he said on TRT television, are “people linked to the PKK and linked to ISIS,” he said.

ISIS Threatens Syrian Rebel Supply Lines From Turkey

Islamic extremists overran three towns in northern Syria this weekend, capturing them from Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and Islamist brigades as Syrian warplanes struck widely across the north of the country, dropping barrel bombs on towns controlled by both competing insurgent groups.

Despite FSA claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, were coordinating their attacks, two of the biggest barrel bombs were dropped on the town of Al Bab, controlled by Islamic State.

Read my full VOA dispatch here

And Aleppo?

From my Daily Beast dispatch this weekend:

“A battle is taking shape that could decide the fate of the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating ISIS, and it’s not around the Kurdish town of Kobani. It’s for the future of the second biggest city in Syria, ancient Aleppo, besieged on three sides by the forces of the tyrant Bashar Assad and the murderous zealots of the so-called Islamic State holding part of the other side.

For the relatively moderate Syrian militias to whom the Obama administration already is funneling arms, the neighborhoods of Aleppo where they still hold ground are a last redoubt inside the country. And in the next few hours or days their last supply line to the outside very likely will be cut.”

You can read the full report here.

Syria Pictures

Here are some photographs from my December trip into the rebel enclave of Aleppo province in northern Syria. The first picture is the room I slept in. The stove was being fed by crude oil and as a result stopped functioning: so we had some pretty cold nights.

The Stove Failed To Work

 

In the rebel-controlled town of Tal Rifat locals resorted to chopping up mature olive trees for firewood.

Chopping Up Mature Olive Trees For Firewood

No gas stations, of course. The only way to fill up was from dealers using small tanks. Fuel is rationed by FSA rebels.

No Gas Stations: This Is The Way To Fill Up

 

In December rebels — with Jihadists in the vanguard — managed after several days of fighting to capture a sprawling army base and infantry school just to the north of Aleppo city. The rebels wasted no time in defacing murals of the Assads, spraying new colors at the entrance and hauling away seized ammunition and weapons.

Rebel Celebrates The Capturing Of Army Weapons Near Aleppo

 

Rebel Spray Paints New Syrian Colors At Entrance Of Captured Army Base Near Aleppo

 

Rebel truck laden with ammunition seized from a captured Syrian army base near Aleppo

 

Defacing Assad

In Aleppo city and in rebel towns around medical facilities are in short supply. They are targeted by Assad’s warplanes. This building housed before it was destroyed by an air strike an emergency medical clinic.

Aleppo: An Emergency Clinic Had Been Housed Here

Syrian Rebels Trying To Buy Black Market Missiles

ALEPPO, Syria

“Syrian rebels are redoubling their efforts to acquire portable anti-aircraft missiles following government airstrikes on cities and towns in the north of the country.

In the latest such strike, a Syrian Air Force jet bombed the rebel-held town of Azaz near the Turkish border, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100.

Rebel commanders and activists say their buyers are now scouring the arms black markets in the region to get the shoulder-fired missiles that can counter the government airstrikes.”

Read more from my recent VOA dispatch here.

Syrian Rebels Ignore Human Rights Pledge and Torture

Syria

From my Daily Beast piece today:

“During a disturbing and at times surreal visit to a detention center in Al Bab in northeastern Syria on August 10, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel-fighter force, still appeared to be involved in torture and abuse.

Their instruments of pain were on clear display: in the small dusty yard in front of the facility, not far from where guards lounged and smoked cigarettes, wooden sticks and iron bars were scattered in the shade, still coated with blood.”