After months of fighting, Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo say that in the past week they’ve captured several critical areas from government forces that may soon give them the upper hand in northern Syria. The new ground will allow opposition groups to strain or potentially cut off supplies to government troops fighting in Aleppo Province.
Most recently, members of the Free Syrian Army captured a base that belonged to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s 46th regiment. Control of the base, located to the west of Aleppo, will now allow FSA fighters to cut off a critical supply route and bring them closer to connecting with the adjacent Idlib Province. The capture was also a boon because the base contained much-needed munitions and tanks for ill-equipped opposition forces.
Several days before capturing the new base, rebels managed to bolster their own supply lines by taking control of the Kindi University Hospital in Aleppo. Perched atop a hill on the northern edge of the city, the Assad Army had been able to use the facility to close off a major road that connected Aleppo to the northern towns between the city and the Turkish border.
FSA fighters say the final step to closing off supply lines for the Syrian Army in Aleppo will mean taking control of the city’s airport, which the opposition group says it is now close to doing. As the group takes hold of an increasing share of ground and cuts off more government supply routes, however, it’s confronted with the realities of trying to advance farther with extremely limited supplies.
“We’re trying to cut the supply lines for the regime inside the city,” says Abu Tawfik, a commander of Liwa Tawheed, one of the largest FSA units now fighting inside Aleppo. “The airport is the most important part of the city now. If we can control the airport, we can cut their supplies and win the war here.”
The road connecting Aleppo and Damascus is already under rebel control, which means that the regime forces are now almost entirely dependent on resupplying their troops by air. According to FSA fighters, most of the regime forces' supplies for Aleppo Province are brought to the airport, where they are picked up by helicopter and delivered to the surrounding bases.
The airport is now surrounded on three sides by FSA fighters, but they have so far been unable to capture one area near the airport that is populated by Assad loyalists. Fighting is likely to drag on there for some time to come.
“There’s progress, but we don’t want to go inside the airport and hold it because there is a lot of open ground. We’re just trying to keep it under siege. If we take it, the regime will destroy it and we don’t want to destroy our infrastructure.” says Abu Hamdu, deputy commander of Al Khatab, an FSA unit now fighting at the airport.
Targeting the airport
Still, Mr. Hamdu says that the FSA is now in a position where it can begin shooting down supply planes landing at the airport. The group has long bemoaned its lack of anti-aircraft weapons, but it does possess heavy caliber machine guns that can be effectively used against slow moving cargo planes as they take off and land, if not fighter jets.
Until now, the group has hesitated to shoot at planes because it says the Army has been using civilian passenger planes to deliver supplies and the group does not want to inadvertently shoot down a plane full of civilians. They’ve now started to warn all civilians to avoid the airport at all costs.
“We don’t know when, but soon we will start targeting everything that moves inside the airport,” says Hamdu.
The FSA has been outgunned for the entirety of the conflict, depending predominantly on weapons and supplies either captured from regime forces or brought over by defectors. Without a clearly defined leadership structure or organization, the international community remains hesitant to arm the group.
Cutting off supply lines for the Assad Army could level the playing field for rebels here, but the FSA supply shortages create a number of problems for the group as it captures new ground.
Aside from offering a strategic military boost, the capture of Kindi hospital has given the FSA access to the largest hospital in the province. Doctors now working to restore the facility say they’ve found critical medical equipment and supplies that are in dire need here.
Situated on top a hill, however, the hospital remains an easy target for government artillery and jets that the FSA has no defense against. Within 48 hours of taking the hospital, it was attacked by jets.
“They attacked the hospital, but we can’t do anything. We need the hospital. We need the equipment,” says Abu Mohammad, a pharmacist who now works at a central hospital in Aleppo.
The threat of attack poses a serious concern for doctors trying to restore the hospital to working order. Already, most hospitals in Aleppo do not allow patients to stay after their initial treatment for fear that it could make them the victim of shelling or aerial bombing. Doctors in Aleppo, who are working in hospitals with severely depleted resources, say that Kindi hospital offers needed equipment and surgical facilities that make it worth the risk of working there.
There are still only about a dozen doctors working in Aleppo, leaving no extra personnel to staff the hospital, which is located about 30 minutes from the center of the city.
“We need more doctors, but not a lot of doctors want to come here because it’s dangerous,” says Baraa Saleh, a Syrian medical student studying in Belgium who returned to volunteer as a doctor for about a month in Aleppo. “When I return to Belgium, I will talk to everyone to see if they can help. The need is more than we imagined or realized.”