For more than three weeks now, opposition forces have besieged an infantry school in northern Aleppo that has in excess of 1,000 government forces inside. In recent days, they managed to breach the school and now say it is days away from falling.
“It’s the only spot in northern Aleppo that is not free. Once we have that all of northern Aleppo will be free,” says Haj Omar, the commander of the Free Syrian Army’s Bab al Salaam Battalion.
The fall of the school will be a significant stride forward for rebels, allowing them access to a more direct route to the Turkish border and capturing supplies critical for continuing their advance against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
Though pockets of government troops remain in the area, since late this summer the Syrian opposition has controlled a bloc of territory in northern Syria's Aleppo province roughly the size of Rhode Island, creating de facto courts, government councils, and police to administer the territory. The area, referred to by many locals as “Free Syria,” remains susceptible to airplane and artillery attacks, but those too have been decreasing in recent months.
Among the biggest gains that would come from capturing the infantry school, which is located just north of the city of Aleppo, is the Syrian opposition’s ability to increase pressure on the remaining fronts in the city.
“Aleppo is a very big front line. If we take the school it means that our backs will be safe and we can bring more troops here to finish the fight in Aleppo,” says Abu Fadi al Homsi, a senior commander for the FSA’s Abu Bakar Battalion.
Mr. Homsi estimates that the FSA has committed at least 2,000 fighters to besieging the school, which can be moved elsewhere once it falls into their hands.
Between 60 and 70 percent of the city is already under opposition control, say FSA leaders. Rebel forces have cut off the government’s supply routes to the north and now Assad’s forces can only resupply by air. But the main airport in Aleppo is under siege by the FSA, which says it will soon begin shooting down any plane that tries to land at the airport.
Limited supplies have long vexed opposition fighters in Syria, who are short on everything from bullets to bread. The group is able to get some supplies through donations or purchases, but the vast majority of the FSA’s equipment comes from what they’re able to capture from government forces.
The opposition fighters say that according to their intelligence sources, the school offers an arsenal of thousands of rifles and ammunition, along with two working tanks.
“The key to our advance has been captured ammunition. The more we can capture, the more we can advance,” says Abu Saleh, deputy commander of the FSA’s Dar al Shaba brigade.
Plagued by defections
Opposition groups already have control of several roads leading to the Turkish border. Although the capture of the infantry school means gaining control of the most direct route to the border and will make it more difficult for the Syrian government to cut off access to Turkey, it’s unlikely to be a game changer for rebels who can already move freely between the border and Aleppo.
Aside from weapons, the infantry school will also offer a boost to the FSA rank and file, providing them with newly defected soldiers. Already, more than 100 have managed to defect during the course of the siege and rebels say more are expected once they have complete control of the school. The regime forces often kill soldiers as they try to defect, leaving many feeling trapped.
“We could have invaded it from the first day, but we wanted to give soldiers a chance to defect first,” Abu Morad, an FSA fighter. “We have spies inside the military school who will tell us who wanted to defect but couldn’t during the siege.”
In the coming weeks, opposition forces are likely to target a small military airfield on the outskirts of the northern area they now control and an artillery base on the southern edge.
Though the string of recent gains has spread optimism through the ranks of the opposition, the group’s leaders say they must still focus on gaining control of the rest of Aleppo before they shift their gaze elsewhere.
The battle for the capital city, where there has already been sustained fighting, is likely to intensify if and when rebels are able to capture the area between Damascus and Aleppo, allowing them to send reinforcements to the FSA units fighting there.
"Damascus will be the main fight because that’s where everything is – government offices, embassies, everything – so this will be the most important," says Homsi.
Opposition fighters say they are also expecting heavy fighting in northwestern Syria's Latakia Province, Assad's homeland and where some analysts say he may eventually retreat if rebels continue making gains. Already, there are reports of fighting in at least 12 of Syria's 14 provinces.