BEIRUT — Syrian aid workers said Friday that they have suspended their work inside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, in anticipation of a bruising battle between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in what would certainly be a climactic moment, if not the climax, in an increasingly complicated civil war.
Preparations for a major battle for Aleppo came as two Western journalists who’d been missing for a week reported that they’d been held by a group of foreigners who told them they planned to bring Islamic law to Syria. It was the first confirmation of long-held suspicions that Islamist extremists were operating inside the country.
With warring sides reportedly pouring men and material into Aleppo, a city that had once been Syria’s economic hub and which for the past 17 months has been a refuge for those fleeing violence elsewhere, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the country’s Red Cross, said it had become too dangerous for its workers to continue providing assistance to the thousands of displaced people who thought they’d found a relatively peaceful haven from the violence.
Rabab al Rifai, the Damascus spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, said in a telephone interview that the suspension came “because of the very tense and highly volatile situation” in the city and the surrounding countryside.
Other aid workers said they were busy converting schools into shelters for the tens of thousands of people who are expected to or have already fled their homes in the week since rebel forces took up positions in what had been calm neighborhoods. Residents said they believe a brutal government counterattack to retake control is all but certain.
Nael Hariri, a physician on the city’s north side who’s been assisting evacuees, said government shelling of some rebel-held areas already has caused massive casualties and destruction. “There are many buildings that have already been brought down,” he said in an interview conducted over Skype.
“The FSA is responsible in some ways, but the regime is not helping,” he said, using the initials for the rebel Free Syrian Army. “It’s not a solution to destroy what’s left of Syria.”
Just how much of Aleppo, a city of 2.1 million that covers 85 square miles, is under rebel control was an open question. On Friday, rebels posted a video on YouTube purportedly showing dozens of soldiers and pro-government militiamen captured by rebels in Furqan, a neighborhood on Aleppo’s west side. A rebel sympathizer, reached on Skype, compared the rebel presence in the city to Benghazi, the city in eastern Libya that fell under rebel control early in that country’s uprising against Moammar Gadhafi.
The comparison seemed optimistic at this point, however, with others reporting a far more chaotic and less certain rebel presence.
Hariri, the physician, described the rebels as acting “spontaneously, with no clear plan,” as they popped up in neighborhoods across the city.
Just who the rebels are and how they had managed to infiltrate a city that had been under tight government control until only a few days ago also were unanswered questions.
In describing themselves in a video posted on the Internet, the rebels used the term “tawhid” for their group, a word that in Arabic means “unity” or “monotheism” and is generally associated with conservative Islamists known as Salafis, who are active throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. That word has not generally been used in other videos posted by groups describing themselves as units of the Free Syrian Army.
But who the group is and what its relationship might be to other Salafi groups calling themselves “tawhid” was unknown.
Analysts in the United States who specialize in researching the rebels said they believe the “tawhid” now operating in Aleppo represent a previously unappreciated rebel organization that may influence the activities of as many as 36 individual components known to have fought elsewhere in Syria. But those analysts, too, say they are uncertain what ties, if any, the group might have to the general “tawhid” movement.
Meanwhile, for the first time since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, the presence of dozens of foreign Islamist fighters was confirmed Friday by two journalists who’d been held by a group of them near the border with Turkey for a week.
Jeroen Oerlemans, a Dutch freelance photographer, told the NRC Handelsblatt newspaper that he and British photographer John Cantlie were held for a week by the group, which they accidentally encountered after they’d crossed into Syria surreptitiously from Turkey.
Oerlemans said the group of about 20 included a Pakistani who spoke English and “a number of Africans” and “many Central Asians.” He described them as “foreign jihadists.”
"One of the black jihadists freaked out and shouted: ‘These are journalists and now they will see we are preparing an international jihad in this place,’" Oerlemans told the paper.
In the days they were held, Oerlemans said, they met other foreign combatants. “We met many combatants who spoke good English, some with Birmingham accents,” he said, referring to the British city that has a large immigrant population. “They see Syria as the last battlefield. But first Assad must be toppled. So they fight against the same opponent as the Free Syrian Army, only with a different purpose. As soon as Assad has fallen, these fighters want to introduce Islamic law, Sharia, in Syria.”
“I immediately felt sorry for the fighters of the Free Syrian Army,” Oerlemans said. “You get rid of Assad, and the first thing you have to deal with is these guys.”
Oerlemans said the photographers and their guide, who spoke no English, attempted to escape on the second day they were held. But they were quickly detected as they were running toward Turkey and shot, Oerlemans in the hip and Cantlie in the arm. What became of their guide in unknown.
The two photographers were held until Thursday, when four Free Syrian Army rebels showed up in camp and took them away. “Just like we never expected to be kidnapped by jihadists, being freed this way was even more surprising,” Oerlemans said. “Three hours later we were in Turkey.”
Concern about the involvement of foreign fighters in the anti-Assad rebellion is a question that has curtailed Western enthusiasm for providing weapons to the insurgents. Free Syrian Army rebels have denied any links to the jihadists and have openly criticized Western intelligence analysts who’ve blamed some of the most spectacular anti-Assad bombings on al Qaida or al Qaida-affiliated organizations.
But the same group that apparently held Oerlemans and Cantlie also claimed the capture 10 days ago of the Bab al Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey. The group, which calls itself Shura Al Taliban, posted a video of the capture of the crossing on YouTube before withdrawing.
Syrian rebels have said repeatedly that they would not allow foreign fighters with an Islamist agenda to get in the way of their goal of toppling Assad, but they have acknowledged the presence of Iraqi, Libyan and Palestinian fighters in their ranks previously, in small numbers.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter @davidjenders