Syrian Rebellion Enters new Stage with Aleppo, Border operations

On Saturday and Sunday, the Free Syrian Army launched attacks on government facilities and personnel in Aleppo, with fighting raging in several districts of the country’s largest city. Fighting raged near a large government intelligence facility. If the rebels can take Aleppo, they would benefit from Turkish aid and trade, and could hope to build it up into a stronghold. They also have asserted control over two checkpoints on the border with Iraq that could help them supply the north. They have several checkpoints with Turkey, as well.

In Damascus, The Baath government is alleged to have used helicopter gunships in a push to retake districts of the capital from bands of Free Syrian Army irregulars.

In a further sign of military demoralization, Three more brigadier generals (a lower rank of general in Syria) defected to Turkey this weekend, joining two dozen others who had left before.

Agence France Presse reports that the Free Syrian Army has taken the second of three major border crossings from Iraq to Syria, at al-Ya`ribiya/ Qa’im. The Iraqi authorities in Ninevah Province promptly closed the crossing from their side except for Iraqi refugees who want to return home from Syria. (Several hundred thousand Iraqi refugees had been in Syria, fleeing sectarian and political violence at home).

Thousands of Iraqis are now fleeing Syria. I’ve seen it alleged on twitter that Iraqi Shiites in the Sitt Zainab district of Damascus have been threatened by Sunni rebels. Sunni clerics and activists have for some years complained of missionary work by Iraqi Shiite refugees in Syria, aimed at converting local populations to orthodox Twelver Shiism from Sunnism or the Alawite folk religion. I don’t know whether the allegation has any truth to it, but it is widely believed by Sunnis and may be one reason the more hard line Sunni rebels are eager to see the Iraqi Shiites leave. The rebels may also suspect the Iraqi Shiites of favoring the Alawite Shiite elite in the Baath Party, though I think any such fear must be overblown.

If the FSA can take the third crossing from Iraq, at Walid, they can control truck traffic into Syria from Iraq, starving the regime. The border is long and porous, but big trucks need metalled roads, which are few and go through the checkpoints. Some 70% of goods coming into Syria were coming from Iraq, because Europe cut off trade with the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. The rebels are increasingly in a position to block that trade or direct it to their strongholds.


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14 Responses

  1. “If the FSA can take the third crossing from Iraq, at Walid, they can control truck traffic into Syria from Iraq, starving the regime. The border is long and porous, but big trucks need metalled roads, which are few and go through the checkpoints.”

    There’s no evidence that the FSA have been able to hold on to even one crossing. Abu Kamal was retaken, as far as I know.

    Also, you’d be surprised how used truck drivers there are to driving across flat desert.

    • Just to correct myself:

      “Syrian rebels now control one of the three main border crossings between the two countries, with the other two in the hands of the Syrian army.

      Despite heavy shelling by the Syrian army at Albu Kamal, that border point remains in rebel hands.”

      link to

    • Should Israel come to the aid of the Syrian rebells? If there is a risk that prolonged fighting in Syria will spillover into Lebanon and Israel, by way of the of the Golan Heights, and if Israel is deeply concerned that a post-revolutionary gov’t in Damascus might be more actively hostile to its interests than Assad, perhaps Netanyahu should officially encourage the anti-Assad forces and even contribute a token gesture of aid to the rebells. Fat chance, I know–rebells have already courted the Likud gov’t for suport and have been rebuffed, apparently. But an Israeli-Sunni alliance against Assad (and Iran and Hezbollah, by extension), with cooperation laundered through Turkey perhaps, could result in a game-changing re-alignment of interests in the Middle East, and for the better.

      • Better being an Arab world completely controlled by Israel and Saudi Arabia via their corrupt, murderous, oligarchic puppets? You must have voted for Bush.

  2. If this is the way the Sunni insurgency, so called, is working , then well, they have burned the concept of Sunni Orthodoxy to hell. Again. Threats, and terror attacks? Ali Waly Allah………I cant ever recall be threatened by Shias, whether in Iraq, Sayada Zaynab, or Lebanon. If I am converted, as it were? The choice is always mine. Maybe its time for Islamic history to introduce the concept of Islam……..without borders? Islam san fronteieres anyone. This is becoming a revolting repeat of history that people choose to forget.

    Enough said.

    • For the sake of the Iraqi Shi’ites, I hope they face better treatment than what the Iraqi Shi’ites gave the Palestinians in Iraq.

  3. Dear Professor Cole

    BBC news at 1pm uk time reports that Damascus is being Systematically cleared of rebels. The Tet model seems to hold up, and it is clear that a competent military mind is running the show

    A holding action in Halab (Aleppo) will allow it to be cleared later in the week.

    Smaller forces will be required to open the roads for truck traffic.

  4. Prof Joshua Landis is a Syria specialist who gave an excellent background talk on Syria last week. You might catch on C-SPAN TV or watch online:
    link to

    Landis has been criticized for a strongly anti-interventionist position on Syria, with some claiming his marriage to an Alliwite colors his perspective. Landis claims his earlier personal experience in the Middle East already set his view, claiming that Lebannon, Syria and Iraq are inherently too sectarian to be receptive to well-meaning democratization projects.

    His blog yesterday had a very helpful map of the ethnic distribution in and around Syria:
    link to

    Landis argues there that an independent Allawite state is an unlikely outcome. Well, he’s the expert. But I can’t help noticing that the Russian naval basis would fall within a rump Allawite State. Why wouldn’t Russia support an Allawite State to keep their toe-hold in the Middle East? The Allawites are well-armed, including chemical weapons, why couldn’t they defend an enclave, especially with Russia’s enthusiastic backing? Such an outcome might explain Russia’s puzzlingly willingness to alienate the future powers of Syria proper.

    • You glanced at Landis’ map, but didn’t read his comments. An Allawite state will not and cannot emerge. The Allawite’s do not have chemical weapons, the Syrian state does. As Landis makes clear, there have been no efforts to make independent Allawite institutions and the entire effort of the Baath party has been to form a non-sectarian state. Lots of Syrians, of many different sects, appreciate that, and so find the prospect of a future in which the FSA–funded and armed by Saudis, Qataris, et alia–becomes a dominant social force deeply unsettling. Syrians know the history of Lebanon, and many if not most hope not to go down that road. This is not to defend the Assad regime or their tactics. But to imagine Syria as a state breaking up into smaller sectarian states is to imagine a future neither I nor most Syrians would choose. The human suffering would be immense. Nor would it last.

      • Nobody said Syria would fracture into many ethnic states. The question is whether the Alawites could defend and enclave and form one small state. The Alawites are uniquely position to do so, especially with Russia as a patron.

        The Alawites ARE the Syrian State, so yes, a rump Alawite state would have chemical weapons.

        A little odd that you would accuse me of not reading Landis’s blog. He presents a convincing argument, as I noted. Lots of experts on the Middle East present convincing arguments that blow up. I am entitled to think for myself.

    • Prof. Landis nails it. That talk on C-Span by Prof. Landis has some clear thinking with deep historical context. Must see for anyone wishing to learn about the conflict.

  5. “Sunni clerics and activists have for some years complained of missionary work by Iraqi Shiite refugees in Syria, aimed at converting local populations … I don’t know whether the allegation has any truth to it …”

    No, the allegation does not have any truth to it. It is not true that the Shias have been acting as missionaries (they are very much in poverty, and tend to want to keep all their charities, and piligramage sites, and resources, for themselves. They don’t seem to want a whole lot of Syrian Sunnis to come and join them.) It is also not true that this is the basis for the FSA’s determination to drive them out.

    Think for a moment about why these Iraqi Shias are in Syria, in the first place. It is because they were driven out of Iraq, by militants of the same forces and ideology which are now active in Syria. This is not about allegations of missionary activity, but rather a very strong Islamic ideology which cannot tolerate the Shias because they are believed to be pagans and apostates. For that, they are under sentence of death.

    When the Free Syrian Army overran the border posts and killed the Syrian troops, they raised the Al-Qaida flag. This affiliation presupposes a view of Shias which is based on a long history.

  6. I’d like to think that the US is taking the lead in helping the Iraqi refugees, since we are responsible for their flight into Syria in the first place.

    • I wish the US would do more for the Iraqi refugees, but they do scarcely anything – they are shunned, while billions gets poured into war efforts. The refugees in Syria are helped by the UN (until recently, when the staff and mission were withdrawn with the sanctions on Syria) and also, a great deal is done by religious charities – Catholic charities and Shia charities, who both have an existing presence in Damascus. The staff who work for these charities are real heroes – patient, generous, idealistic and paid very little.

      It is a hard life for the Iraqi refugees. And it is not safe to return, because the tide of violence is rising again in Iraqi, and some of these Salafist militias are now operating on both sides of the Iraqi/Syrian border.

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