Syria’s other war: Rebels plead for U.S. military help as Assad forces close on Aleppo

Syria's President Bashar Assad waves to his supporters upon his arrival to the presidential palace to take the oath of office for his third seven-year term in Damascus, Syria, July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/SANA, File)
Syria's President Bashar Assad waves to his supporters upon his arrival to the presidential palace to take the oath of office for his third seven-year term in Damascus, Syria, July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/SANA, File) AP

Rebels opposed to President Bashar Assad called Friday for help from the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, saying the Syrian military is close to encircling the city of Aleppo and cutting off rebel supply routes to Turkey.

In a statement, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, once hailed by the United States as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people, called for U.S. assistance, warning of dire results if Assad’s forces are able to seize the town of Handarat, just north of the Aleppo city limits. That would cut the Castello road, which is the only route in and out of the rebel-held eastern portion of Aleppo, essentially trapping the rebel forces.

Whether the U.S. would even consider assisting the rebels, however, is unclear. A senior military official in the United States said the U.S. military had received similar requests in the past but that he did not know if this specific one had been received. U.S. officials have said that the battle against the Islamic State and not the fight to topple Assad is their current priority.

On Friday, the U.S. Central Command announced that its aircraft had carried out six airstrikes in Syria, all against Islamic State targets near the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani, 70 miles northeast of Aleppo. The U.S. also conducted 12 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq.

The call for help from the anti-Assad rebels is a reminder, however, that there are two wars being fought in Syria, the one between the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, largely in the country’s east, of which Kobani has become the focus, and another that pits the rebels against the pro-Assad military. That conflict is being fought largely in the country’s west, often in areas that have been in rebel hands for two years or more.

Rebel activists say the anti-Assad forces are desperately summoning reinforcements to Handarat.

“This is the most important battle in Syria now, because if the regime succeeds he will be able to isolate Aleppo and take the whole north of Syria,” said Muhammad Badr Eddin, an activist based in Mare, a town about 20 miles north of Aleppo.

A spokeswoman for Legion 5, an umbrella group of rebel units that receive American support through a covert CIA program, said that rebels are using TOW anti-tank missiles in their battle to slow the government advance. The spokeswoman, who identified herself only by the nom de guerre Um Mahmoud, or Mahmoud’s mother, said combat was often hand to hand and that the rebels would “fight to the bitter end.”

Um Mahmoud also denounced a claim by another rebel figure, Gen. Abduljabbar al Akidi, the former head of the opposition Aleppo military council, that the rebels were sending 1,500 troops to Kobani to fight. Gen. al Akidi made the claim Thursday to Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite TV channel.

Um Mahmoud said the situation was far too dire in Aleppo for the rebels to spare that many fighters. Then, in a reminder of the rivalries that have fractured the rebel movement, she questioned al Akidi’s standing, saying he had “only 20 troops under his command” and “can’t speak in the name of different” rebel groups, who she said oppose diverting resources to Kobani.

The rebel desperation was heightened by the government’s capture Thursday of the strategic town of Morak, on the highway that links Aleppo with Damascus. The town, in the northern part of Hama province, had been besieged by government forces for 10 months. Both rebels and the state-owned Syrian Arab News Agency reported that government forces had captured the town.

Rebel strategists said the loss of Morak came after Syrian aircraft dropped more than 40 so-called “barrel bombs” on the town. Syrian infantry then captured a key hilltop and advanced into the city center.

With the town now in government hands, they said, pro-Assad forces are in a position to break the rebel siege of Wadi al Dief, the largest government military base in northern Syria.

Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.