REYHANLI, Turkey — Moderate rebel forces are warning that they are in danger of losing their last foothold in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial center, and that government troops are pressing an offensive that is just three miles from completely cutting rebel supply lines.
Rebel commanders interviewed in recent days in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli said their forces’ position has deteriorated in the month since troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad forced them from the city’s primary industrial zone in the east. Rebel counterattacks have failed to dislodge the government troops, and government attacks from the air are taking a huge toll on rebel formations, the commanders said.
“We are in dangerous need for weapons, especially anti-aircraft missiles,” said Abdullah Rammah, the leader of the Atareb Martyrs Brigade, one of the fighting units in the city that adheres to the Free Syrian Army’s secular agenda.
Aleppo is both strategically and symbolically important to the effort to topple Assad, now well into its fourth year. Rebel forces moved into the city in July 2012 and quickly seized nearly half. Since then, the front line has remained mostly static, even as rebel forces have been pushed from redoubts around Damascus and in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. The loss of the foothold in Aleppo would leave the moderate rebels without a significant presence in any Syrian city, a crushing psychological blow.
“If the city of Aleppo falls, it will be a big loss because it is the only city in the hands of FSA; the rest is only rural area,’’ said Hussam Murai, the spokesman of the FSA’s northern front.
Currently, moderate rebels are defending two major fronts in Aleppo, Rammah said.
On the west, the rebels made a push last week to capture the city’s military academy, the major government-held installation in the city’s western quadrant. Rebels hoped that by capturing the installation they would force government troops to reposition fighters from the east to protect the areas in western Aleppo that the government already controls.
The attack, however, ended in catastrophe, exposing the rebels to repeated attacks from the air, even at night, that made it impossible to move men and weapons freely.
To the east, the rebels are battling to keep government forces from taking the area between two zones the government already controls, the industrial zone and the al Haidariah district in the city’s northeast.
Currently, rebels still control an area that stretches about three miles between the two zones. But if the rebels lose that area, government forces effectively would have cut supply lines that lead to Turkey and would be able to impose the kind of siege that led to the evacuation of rebel forces from Homs two months ago.
Defending the area presents a challenge for the rebels, Rammah said, because it is largely devoid of buildings, which deprives the rebels of the urban setting where their tactics are most effective. He said government forces have used heavy aerial bombardment and missiles, including SCUDs, on exposed rebel formations. Scores of rebels have been killed.
If the area is lost, there is almost no way moderate rebels in other part of Aleppo could hold out, Rammah said.
Umm Mahmoud, a rare rebel spokeswoman from Aleppo who was also in Reyhanli, told McClatchy that moderate rebels also face challenges from two Islamist groups it once considered allies.
The Islamic State, which has captured major swaths of Iraq and eastern Syria, continues to attack moderate rebel positions in the countryside, preventing those forces from being brought to the Aleppo fight. And the alliance with the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front is frayed over Nusra’s declaration a month ago of its own Islamic emirate in Aleppo.
“We have got front lines with Nusra Front,” she said. “We are worried about a clash.”
For now, that means keeping moderate rebel units on guard against any Nusra move __ again, limiting the rebels’ potential options to combat government forces.
The result, however, is the moderate rebels fear their grip on Aleppo is slipping.
“Our friends are not responding to the dangerous situation we find ourselves in. In the past they let us down in Homs and now they are doing nothing to help us escape the siege of Aleppo,” FSA spokesman Murai said.
Alhamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent.