Aleppo short on weapons, medical supplies as Syria's next big battle looms

The expected Syrian government offensive hasn't begun in earnest, but Aleppo's rebel-held neighborhoods are being pounded by shelling and gunfire and clinics are filling up with wounded.

By , Staff writer

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    Rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army control districts of Aleppo, Syria, on July 27. Aleppo has become a critical battleground in the 16-month uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has claimed an estimated 17,000 lives.
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Shouting men rushed the wounded rebel fighter, prone on a stretcher, into a makeshift emergency ward tonight at dusk after shrapnel from a Syrian government mortar shell tore through his leg. 

“You see?” asked Abu Hassan, another rebel from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). “Tell your country to do something, anything!”

Shortly afterwards, another man – a plumber shot in the leg by a Syrian government sniper – was brought in. 

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Tensions are high in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, where rebel commanders are expecting at any moment a powerful government offensive to reverse the past week's rebel gains, as happened in Damascus, where regime forces reclaimed the capital from the rebels with firepower and lethal street battles.

The battle for control of Syria’s northern economic hub and largest city will likely shape the fate of the 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has so far consumed 17,000 lives, according to some of the highest estimates. Losing Aleppo to the rebels would demonstrate severe government weakness.

Eighty Syrian government tanks are believed to have arrived at the Aleppo battlefront on the western flanks of the city. Today helicopters circling overhead fired repeated bursts into rebel-held districts for most of the day, causing six deaths. Government snipers claimed two more lives today, according to rebels in Aleppo. 

“The FSA is ready – we have many explosives and roadside bombs,” says Abu Mhio, an FSA officer in one Aleppo district. Tanks already deployed in Aleppo have not been used, he says – only artillery, from a distance – but their use is "only a matter of time, we don't know when." 

“The regime can’t enter here. The FSA is very strong and everyone supports the FSA,” says Abu Mhio about rebel-held districts east and west/southwest of the city center. “People open their houses to us.”

It is not possible to verify rebel claims of broad support in Aleppo. Yet one woman cradling a baby on her shoulder stepped into an FSA office today, specifically to ask for an FSA flag – to use as a backdrop for a portrait of the child, she said, and to hang at home.

Today and all week, families raced to fill trucks with belongings, hoisting refrigerators, televisions and anything that would fit before fleeing to safer villages in northern Syria or across the border to Turkey. Looks of fear marked their faces as they continually scanned the sky to check the location of the shooting helicopters. 

Aleppo has been a challenge for rebel forces. It was late to join the uprising, has long supported the regime, and its neighborhoods are split between opposition and government supporters. But the expected showdown between rebel and regime forces has also brought a fresh influx of rebels into the city. 

“Every day some more fighters come from the villages… we just want to defend these places [in Aleppo], so let God bless us,” says a fighter and former government special forces soldier, who asked to be called Abu Omar. “The regime does a lot of shelling at night to make people afraid, to destroy buildings and kill more people – to make people curse the FSA... they say: ‘You come here, and now the bombs come’ – so we try to protect people. But we need weapons, more weapons, from any country.”

Another fighter, Abu Hamza, brandishes his AK-47 assault rifle to make the point: “This gun costs $2,000, and every bullet is $2,” he says. “It’s so expensive.”

What should the world do?

Syrians in this city expressed anger today that so little had been done to help them, citing United Nations Security Council vetoes from Russia and China and declarations from the US and Europeans ruling out military intervention.

American and Turkish intelligence agencies reportedly channel light weapons, communication gear and intelligence data to them, and Gulf countries like Qatar have provided cash and more. One rebel fighter carried a fresh-out-of-the-box 12-gauge shotgun; another wore new fragmentation grenades on his belt.

The shortages have also been felt by a medical system overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Evidence of need is everywhere. On one street, the tail fins of a 120mm mortar shell have buried themselves in the asphalt. Shrapnel smashed the windows of a car nearby and struck at least one person, who left a trail of blood splashes on the sidewalk for a full city block.

“We can’t do anything but sometimes only watch them die,” says Umm Huda, the female doctor who runs this makeshift emergency ward. “There are children, ten or three years old, they have done nothing and you see them die. They are angels.”

She says the lack of international help has been a mixed blessing.

The US “can do a lot of things; they know how to end it,” she says in between treating casualties. At the same time, the Russian and Chinese vetoes of intervention “is a good thing... we want to win, but we want it ourselves, with no help from anybody.”

France yesterday demanded that the UN take action to stop the “bloodbath” in Syria. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking at the site of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, warned bickering world powers against repeating the mistakes that allowed Srebrenica to happen.

“I don’t want any of my successors after 20 years visiting Syria and apologizing for what we could have done now to protect civilians in Syria, which we are not doing,” he said.

A leaflet held up at a recent demonstration in Aleppo read: “Hey world, how many kids should be killed before you DO something?”

Turning on the regime

Although Syria’s civil war has dragged on longer and generated a far greater death toll than any other “Arab Spring” revolt, an increasing number of Syrians are joining the rebels – due to the actions of the regime itself.

Abu Omar, for example, says he left his special forces unit while deployed to a rebel-held area of northwest Syria.

“They gave us orders to kill the people who don’t have a gun, but who just went out of their homes and shouted ‘freedom,’” says Abu Omar. “There were girls and little boys killed. I was just shooting in the sky. If we don’t shoot, they take us to jail, or kill us there.”

Likewise, Abu Hamza left the Syrian police after being ordered to shoot people as they left Friday prayers in the coastal town of Latakia after they began shouting “God is great.”

“My moral sense wouldn’t let me do it,” Abu Hamza recalls. He still carries his police ID card. “My father and brother go to mosque and shout in Aleppo every Friday. How could I shoot such people in Latakia? These people are family.”

And how did his father react, when he told him the story?

“He said, ‘Bravo, bravo!’” Abu Hamza recalls. “He hates the government for killing people.”

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