Syria: The Battle for Aleppo Begins as Rebels Retreat

The Baath government’s attack on East Aleppo, a rebel stronghold in the past couple of weeks, began Tuesday night, with an assault by advanced Russian-made tanks. It began with a drive to cut the district in two, and the heavy shelling is said to have left large numbers of rebel fighters dead. Some 20,000 residents of Salahuddin are said to have fled in recent days, some of them living in schools and other temporary shelter elsewhere in the city, some of them fleeing to Turkey or stuck with scorpions and sand in a Jordan refugee camp. In the past 24 hours, some 2400 Syrians crossed to Turkey, including regime officers and troops who were defecting. The Baath regime’s official television station said it had captured Saudi, Afghan and Yemeni volunteers fighting alongside the rebels (I’m suspicious of this allegation because the mix of nationalities mentioned seems intended to support regime propaganda).

Wednesday morning Reuters journalists on the scene, including Hadeel al-Shalchi, were reporting that the rebels had for the most part been pushed out of the Salahuddin neighborhood and were trying to hold Saif al-Dawlah and Sukari. Reuters had people on the ground, so it is sad and embarrassing that the Arabic headline at Aljazeera at 9 am ET was ‘rebels halt regime advance.’ This Iranian source says that the regime successfully encircled Aleppo recently, cutting off ammunition supplies, which is an element in the success of the assault on Salahuddin. The rebels apparently ran out of ammo. While Iran reporting is generally biased toward the regime, this report seems plausible.

Satellite photos show some 600 craters in Aleppo, the result of regime artillery barrages aimed at rebel positions but inevitably destroying family residences and endangering the lives of civilian non-combatants (a form of severe human rights abuse, as Amnesty Interntional noted).


The regime has to hope against hope that Aleppines will blame the Free Syria Army for the military operations in their city, rather than blaming Damascus for responding heavy-handedly. So far, from what we can tell, that hasn’t been the case, and more and more of the country has turned against the government as it has become more and more brutal. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister defected to Jordan. If you are a dictatorial regime, you never want to hear the phrase “the prime minister defected.”

Likewise, the rebels were able to capture 48 Iranians, likely intelligence advisers masquerading as “pilgrims” to Shiite holy sites in Damascus. Iran has now confirmed that they included ‘retired’ members of the Revolutionary Guards.

The assault on Aleppo shows that the regime’s armored division, commanded by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the president, is still intact, loyal and capable. It remains to be seen if a regime facing crumbling internal support can hope to lift itself by its bootstraps, depending almost entirely on its tank and artillery capabilities.

On Tuesday, the regime had renewed its assaults on rebel-held neighborhoods in Damascus, Homs and Rastan, bastions of the largely Sunni resistance, killing, according to dissident sources, over 100 persons. Near Homs, a rebel group attacked an apartment building and killed 16 persons, including Alawites and Christians, in what appears to have been a sectarian massacre. Some fear such atrocities are the future of the country if the civil war grinds on.

Max Weber distinguished between power and authority. Power derives from force or the threat of force. Authority is the likelihood that a command, once given, will be obeyed. Bashar al-Assad still has plenty of force. What seems apparent is that his authority throughout the country is declining daily.

Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Responses | Print |

28 Responses

  1. I was wondering where informed people are getting their information on the Syrian opposition. I found this, although its surely out of date by now.

    link to

    80 page report on the Syrian opposition from May by the Olaf Palm Center.

  2. I don’t understand why the rebels concentrate forces in particular neighborhoods, making themselves vulnerable to artillary and air strikes. Having Sunni neighborhoods get destroyed is not an efficient way to win-over Assad’s supporters in wealthier areas.

    I suppose they are trying to goad the army into urban warfare, where they have a chance to inflict casualties. The Army is not biting.

    I get the point of guerrilla wars is to draw the government into brutal responses that turn public opinion against them. But you can do that with small, dispersed units that keep moving.

    • I am also puzzled. But, well, maybe guerrilla warfare is changing since the US Iraq War, where guerrillas did fairly well hiding out in Baghdad and Mosul.

      • The point is to concentrate government forces on Aleppo, leaving provincial towns to be liberated without contest.

        By the way, I hear that A’zaz, one of the “liberated” towns north of Aleppo, has imposed shari’a. Another great victory for democracy.

        • Why come here and do propaganda like that sharia remark?

          When Solidarity won in Poland, they gave prerogatives to the Catholic Church.

    • I don’t understand why the rebels concentrate forces in particular neighborhoods, making themselves vulnerable to artillary and air strikes.

      Because they are in a friendly area full of supporters, making it possible for them to engage in urban insurgency. They would be vulnerable to close-quarters urban combat in areas where the locals were helping the regime.

      Having Sunni neighborhoods get destroyed is not an efficient way to win-over Assad’s supporters in wealthier areas. They already have the support of the Sunnis in those areas; that’s why they go there. They avoid neighborhoods that are less open in their support, such as Christian areas, specifically to avoid turning them against the rebels.

      I get the point of guerrilla wars is to draw the government into brutal responses that turn public opinion against them.

      Not all guerilla warfare is based around provoking crackdowns. Think about Mao in the 40s, or various Central American movements in the 70s and 80s. Harassing actions are often used to make large areas no-go zones, or at least prohibitively expensive in terms of force protection, for the government.

      • Joe, while I agree that guerrilla strategies are more compex and diverse than just provoking retaliation, I think Mao knew pretty well that Chiang would do awful things while chasing him around China. For instance, an intentional famine that Chiang’s troops caused in one region by wrecking irrigation systems that I believe was credited with 30 million deaths – comparable to any of Mao’s crimes and fuckups. A book called “Armies in Revolt” described Mao’s strategy as exposing the KMT as an army pretending to be a state, with no point to its existence except to chase enemies and no benefits to those civilians under its control.

  3. The Amnesty report is confused. As often happens with people who don’t know the Middle East, the province of Aleppo is being muddled with the city. They are talking about the province – not the city.

    And just look at the photos published by Amnesty – only one is of shell-holes, and they are of holes identified in farmland, not in areas of human habitation.

    I don’t think the Amnesty people concerned knew what they were doing.

    • And just look at the photos published by Amnesty – only one is of shell-holes, and they are of holes identified in farmland, not in areas of human habitation.

      They are using satellite photography, which can show the recognizable, circular craters in open land quite well, but which does not do a good job “seeing” the exterior damage to a large building caused by an artillery strike. Look at the close-in shot at the top of the Amnesty report: if one of those buildings had been hit by an artillery shell on one of its faces, it wouldn’t look any different than a building that hadn’t been hit.

      This is pretty obvious from looking at the big photo Professor Cole included in his post. Look at all of those shell holes just to the left of that main road on the left-center of the photo, that divides the built-up area from the farmland. There is no artillery crew in the world that could line them up that accurately – and why would they? We also have plenty of on-the-ground reporting of extensive damage from shelling in Aleppo.

      I’m pretty sure that “Amnesty International doesn’t know what it is doing” is a bad assumption to make.

  4. Dear Professor Cole

    The half million Christians in Aleppo are sitting on the fence and would like the armed men to go away.

    link to

    Fr Nawras Sammour of the Jesuit Refugee Service, who co-ordinates three refugee centres, said that most Syrians have not been drawn into supporting either one side or the other. He added: “All Syrians are suffering, without any discrimination.”

    link to

    Christian religious leaders have recommended the faithful not to accept weapons and not to draw up in the civil conflict is what local sources report to Fides Agency from Aleppo. “We do not want to become another rival group,” say our sources, expressing deep concern for the community dimension which the civil war is taking in Syria, fuelled even from abroad.

  5. This is bad for all Syrian people. Once again, the innocent are used as pawns in someone else’s game.

  6. There’s power, and there’s authority, and then there’s legitimacy, which seems to me to be a mass judgment, enforced via everything from disrespect and indifference to what seems to be going on in Syria, on the virtue and ability and “right” to rule of any given set of ‘crats, whether auto-, demo-, theo-, klepto-, or what have you.

    It’s all complicated, of course — especially when the Great Gamers stick their protuberances into things, carrying forward all the miseries occasioned by their thugs and functionaries, paving the way for one elite or another, or several, to feather their personal nests.

    How much wealth resides in Swiss and Cayman and even “US” banks who service the kleptocracies, stolen from the needs and produce of ordinary people? You wonder where El Bashar keeps his hoard — did he trade tidbits on good places to stash “ill-gotten gains” with Yasser Arafat and the Gaddafi family? Maybe Idi Amin? link to

  7. Obviously, it’s going to be a protracted struggle. Even if it gets pushed out of its strongholds within Aleppo, the resistance can still melt into the general population. Assad’s mukhabarrat will find it harder this time to root out the opposition.

    • I agree, I don’t see any possibility of Assad controlling the country again, or restablishing a peace time economy. Yet he has a well-armed and motivated core. It’s going to be a long slog that will extend beyond Assad’s departure.

      I was watched a Charlie Rose interview with the King of Jordan today, he seemed to think that the formation of some sort of Alawite enclave was a real possibility, and an unhappy outcome. King Abdullah also opined that Assad’s greatest vulnerability was financial reserves. He estimated that Assad could fund the war machine for rest of this year, and would subsequently be dependent on Iran.
      link to

      King Abdullah is a very puzzling figure. He seems honest and intelligent. Perhaps I am not savy enough to discern any artifices. It is a little uncomfortable listening to a guy philosophize about the meaning of the Arab Spring, when he himself could be next in the crosshairs! Well, His Highness has me impressed.

      • Abdullah is in a precarious position. If he doesn’t change the status quo he risks being toppled. But if he transforms Jordan into a true constitutional monarchy, the parliament and government will most likely be dominated by palestinian arabs. Jordan then becomes what it really is in all but name: “Palestine”. This will inexorably lead to a split of the West Bank between Israel and Jordan rather than creation of a new tiny landlocked state.

      • I have a low opinion of Abdullah because circa 2006, when the Bush gang was screaming at the Arab monarchs about the “Shiite threat”, Abdullah was one of the first to drink the Kool-Aid. The ordinary citizens of the Arab states did not drink it; opinion surveys showed they did not want a war with Iran and many admired it for standing up to you-know-who. I think this disconnect helped to create the environment for Arab Spring.

  8. 15.00 9 August. The Aleppo Front has collapsed.

    The Guardian

    Martin Chulov confirms the rebel’s withdrawal Salahedin. His latest report begins:

    The Free Syrian Army has withdrawn all its main fighting units from its stronghold in the war-ravaged suburb of Salahedin in southern Aleppo.

    The withdrawal was ordered just after sunrise on Thursday after a night of intensive shelling from planes and tanks on all three rebel frontlines. Commanders in Aleppo claimed the pullout was tactical and said a small force had remained behind to oppose any advance by regime forces.

    However, the rebel move seems to mark a significant moment in the fight for control of southern Aleppo – which has raged for more than two weeks, claiming several hundred casualties – and laid the rest of the city to siege.

  9. Now we will have the pitiful scenes of terrified boys without food water and ammunition trying to find a way out ofthe trap. I wonder if there is a neutral body who can negotiate a surrender so they don’t have to die.

    • I’m sensing crocodile tears. Would you be pleased if the rebels had succeeded in holding more territory across the city?

      The rebels are lightly armed, untrained, led by fragmented leadership. They will improve tactics and logistics in coming months and years. We are at chapter 1 of a long and miserable book.

      • Not crocodile tears. Just pity for so much wasted young life, seduced by dreams of glory toan exercise in futility.

        Wilf Owen says it better

        What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
        Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
        Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
        Can patter out their hasty orisons.
        No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
        Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
        The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
        And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

        What candles may be held to speed them all?
        Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
        Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
        The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
        Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
        And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

        link to

        The futile slaughter of Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg evokes a similar emotion.

        • The Vietnamese took far worse damage, again and again, in wars against occupiers from France, the USA and China. You do what you have to do when life becomes intolerable. That is why many sovereign states were founded by revolutionaries; Italy, Ireland, and of course the United States of America.

  10. BBC News at 10pm reports the rebels in Aleppo saying they are running out of ammunition.

    This isn’t going to be pretty, if someone can’t negotiate a surrender.

    • A journalist who was in Aleppo last week told me he saw signs of organized ammunition and weapons resupply. The regime may have interrupted that capacity temporarily, but your assumption that the interruption is long term isn’t borne out by what I hear of the situation.

      The same groups were tossed out of Baba Amr in Homs last winter, but that was hardly the end of them, and at that time it was being said that Aleppo was uninvolved.

      • Kim Sen Gupta’s report from Aleppo indicates a breakdown of organised resistance.

        Notable are the reports of people leaving for their villages.

        link to

        BBC News at 6 am 10 August reports FCO giving £5 million in communications and medical supplies to the FSA to prevent the rebellion being hijackedby Al Qaida. BBC reports this as a major change of policy.

  11. link to

    But he says the risk of not working with Syrians who want a democratic and open Syria is that the conflict will be hijacked by al-Qaeda and other extremists.

    And the foreign secretary acknowledges that the risk of total disorder and a power vacuum in Syria is now so great that British contacts with what he calls “political elements” of the Syrian opposition need to be stepped up.

    BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says it is a significant shift in policy, after months of British frustration about deep divisions within Syria’s opposition, and complaints that it has failed to set out a clear programme for good government .

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