Editor’s Note: Abdul Jabbar al Aqidi was commander of and spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo until November 2013. Before the war broke out in Syria, he was a colonel in the Syrian army.The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
Abdul Jabbar al Aqidi: The involvement of Russia in Syria played an integral role in tipping the balance back to the regime
On top of trying to maintain our gains in Aleppo from the regime, we had fierce battles with ISIS in the outskirts
In the summer of 2012, with fewer than 500 fighters and in under a week, the Free Syrian Army took control of 70 neighbourhoods of the city of Aleppo. It happened during the month of Ramadan – the residents of the city gave us food and drink to break our fast.
We liberated the city from Assad’s government forces to protect the residents from his brutal crackdown. We were not interested in money, power or control. We simply wanted to fight for the dignity and freedom of the people.
It was an Odyssey. We had been coordinating with sleeper cells inside the city for four months in advance. That’s why when the revolutionaries entered Aleppo from the suburbs it practically fell from the regime’s control right away.
For the next year, people enjoyed the freedom that they had always longed for. Protests against the regime were taking place every day. Coordination committees, a provincial council, and municipal bodies had sprung up to manage the city.
But since the end of 2013, the situation began to change and we began to lose Aleppo for various reasons.
First, there was ISIS. This group initially fought on our side, but then stabbed us in the back and began fighting us. The revolutionaries who initially came to the city of Aleppo from the suburbs of Maree, Atareb, Azaz, Tal Rifaat, al-Bab and Jarablus had to return to their villages and towns to defend them from ISIS.
On top of trying to maintain our gains in Aleppo from the regime, we had fierce battles with ISIS in the outskirts. In those battles, many of the fighters who led the Aleppo battles were kidnapped or assassinated. Others had to flee to Turkey in fear of assassination. Our battle with ISIS continues to this very day. They left behind booby traps that continue to kill people in the suburbs of Aleppo on a daily basis.
Simultaneously, we found ourselves fighting against the YPG – the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdish militant group PKK – who wanted to take over areas liberated from ISIS [that were essential to connecting the western and eastern semi-autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria.
The involvement of Russia in Syria played an integral role in tipping the balance back to the regime. Russia adopted a scorched earth policy, burning everything in eastern Aleppo to prevent the fighters from hiding anywhere. The Russians used all kinds of heavy weaponry, including those that are internationally prohibited.
With the help of Russia, the regime was able to advance significantly. On the ground, it had the full backing of Hezbollah and other Shia militias. Assad had solid backing from his allies.
Meanwhile, the financial and military support the opposition fighters received actually divided us. The US and its allies in the region supported different groups with different types of support, causing disunity and infighting among the rebels. There was an effort to sideline the senior officers who defected from Assad’s army at the beginning.
Last year, I myself tried to return to Aleppo to help in the battle, but I found no place. I was given no tools nor the authority to achieve anything. Those who were supported – while dedicated to the cause – had no military experience whatsoever. If we look at the fighters in Aleppo now, there is not a single qualified military officer.
In my opinion, it seems that the US and its allies were not really interested in us defeating Assad. They were interested in keeping the battles going as. I can’t think of any other reason as to why experienced officers would be sidelined.
Beside the solid support Assad is getting from his loyal allies, it’s worth mentioning that since last year, the regime began to enter into reconciliation initiatives with opposition groups in other parts of the country, including Deraa and the suburbs of Damascus. With those frontlines being cold, the regime was able to focus its full manpower on Aleppo.
These are the factors which I believe have led to we are today. But I am not regretful. In fact, I am proud of my work and my leadership of the Aleppo battles. There was no other way to do this.
The fight is not over, but the tree of freedom can only be nurtured with blood.