By PAUL SCHEMM
ALEPPO, Syria — Rebels have taken a major stride in uniting their ranks in the battle for Syria’s largest city, giving them hope they could tip the balance after three months of bloody, stalemated combat in Aleppo, one of the biggest prizes of the civil war.
The question is how much more destruction the city can bear.
Government troops are retaliating against more effective rebel attacks with increasingly devastating bombardment, and civilians are bearing the brunt, with their neighborhoods left in ruins.
The new military council was announced Sept. 9. It brings together two of the biggest rebel players in Aleppo and the countryside, and should allow for better coordinated attacks against the 30 percent of the city still in regime hands.
The rebels have long been hampered by their division into dozens of competing groups, some with better links to funding and weapons, while others have more manpower. There has been little coherent strategy, and organizing a major assault can often involve negotiations among dozens of independent outfits.
“Before we made this council, the military aid used to come to just one man, and the people on the ground would get nothing. By forming this council, now aid comes to everyone, and everyone gets part of it,” said Abdel Aziz Salameh, a former honey trader, based in the town of Tel Rifaat. He runs the biggest network of fighters in the province and is part of the Tawhid Division.
He described how assaults often had to be called off when his men ran out of ammunition after days of hard fighting and had to regroup and scrounge for more.
No rebel group admits to getting weapons or ammunition from abroad. They say instead that they get funds from Syrians abroad and use it to buy weapons from smugglers.
The uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011, when protests calling for political change were met by a violent government crackdown by government troops. Many in the opposition took up arms, and activists say more than 23,000 people have been killed.
Salameh’s one-time rival is Col. Abdel Jabbar Aqidi, a recently defected officer from Assad’s military and the official representative of the Free Syrian Army. He received the lion’s share of the funding from Syrians abroad, but did not have the manpower to take advantage of it.
“There were differences among the organizations and now we are united in our structure to improve our fighting,” the blue-eyed officer in smartly ironed fatigues told The Associated Press from the basement of his villa set among olive groves in a village north of Aleppo. “Unity and coordination make us more effective in the revolution.”
The rebel assault on Aleppo, a city of about 3 million, began in July after the government crushed a similar attack on the capital of Damascus. In this case, however, the forces were more evenly matched and to the surprise of many, the outgunned rebels not only held on but expanded their hold on the city in fierce urban combat.
While the rebels are poorly equipped and lacking much organization, their successes have as much to do with their tenacity as the state of the Syrian army in Aleppo.
“Significant weaknesses among the Syrian armed forces have been the primary factor behind the deadlock in Aleppo,” said Torbjorn Soltvedlt, a senior analyst with the Britain-based Maplecroft risk analysis group, explaining that the bulk of the regime’s trusted troops were based around Damascus. Other units are constantly in danger of hemorrhaging men through defections to the rebel cause.
“The regime has been unable to use the main highway between Damascus in the south and Aleppo in the north to reinforce and supply its forces,” he said, because of rebel control of the city of Rastan, on the highway, and parts of the Idlib province countryside around it.
The Syrian army, whose raison d’etre until recently was a full scale tank war with Israel, is also not accustomed to counterinsurgency tactics in urban environments — something the rebels, for all their flaws, appear to have adapted to quite quickly.
Already there have been some successes, including the overrunning of a military barracks in the northern Aleppo neighborhood of Thakanet Hanano on Sept. 10 that involved several battalions working together.
The barracks was a key government bastion and part of a string of regime strong points being targeted by the rebels, including the military intelligence headquarters as well as the medieval citadel in the center of the city.
The response, however, was swift. For three days, government artillery and plans unleashed a withering bombardment of rebel-controlled areas nearby.
Human rights groups have reported a spike in civilian casualties as the regime staves off rebel advances with heavy weapons.
“A pattern has emerged in recent weeks in areas where government forces, pushed into retreat by opposition forces, are now indiscriminately bombing and shelling lost territory — with disastrous consequences for the civilian population,” said the London-based Amnesty International in a briefing paper Wednesday.
Just two days after taking over the barracks, nearby neighborhoods were constantly buzzed by helicopters and regime fighter jets that lazily circled the city, confident in their invulnerability before diving to bombard a target.
Residents report the use of “barrel bombs” that appear to be large drums packed with explosives that can take down whole buildings.
Despite occasionally shooting down helicopters, most recently over Damascus on Thursday, the rebels are still struggling to confront this airborne menace for civilians both inside the city and in the country.
Peter Harling, a Syria expert for the International Crisis Group, said the regime is conserving its manpower in Aleppo and meting out collective punishments through airstrikes on any neighborhoods under rebel control.
The lack of progress on the ground and civilian frustration has been part of the impetus for the rebels to put aside their differences and work together, he noted.
“They are increasingly faced with anger and frustration in places coming from people who don’t see them making progress that is tangible,” he said. “That’s a driver behind these unification attempts — I think the opposition needs to show some results and break out of this impasse one way or another.”
Yet the new council includes just 80 percent of the estimated 8,000-10,000 rebels fighting the regime in and around Aleppo. The commanders say that Jebha al-Nusra, or the Victory Front, which follows an extreme Islamist ideology and includes foreign fighters, remains outside the council.
The powerful smuggler-turned-rebel-leader Abu Ibrahim, who controls the border crossing with Turkey through his Northern Storm brigade, also declined to join with his 700 fighters.
He told AP he was invited to join but was withholding his support because the new outfit lacked organization.
“The rebels should be organized like an ordinary military, with the men totally under control of the leadership and each man knowing his role,” he said, dismissing Aqidi and Salameh as weak leaders with little operational control of their men.
The problems over unity are also replicated on a broader level across the country. There have been talks under way to unite and reorganize the Free Syrian Army under the leadership of defected Gen. Mohammed al-Haj Ali, but it is not clear if any progress has been made.
When asked if he would be part of the effort to unite the rebels, Aqidi only smiled and declined to comment.