|What is left of Aleppo.|
Welcome to Hell
(The Guardian) - The last road into rebel-held east Aleppo carves though a mile-wide paddock between an abandoned village and a looming ridgeline. Behind each of them Syrian troops advance slowly, hidden from view.
Trucks, cars and motorbikes bump through the green field, gouging deep muddy holes that are starting to resemble trenches, before joining a gravel path along a sand berm that shelters the final passage into what is left of the city.
After two-and-a-half years of war, the Aleppo at the end of the makeshift road is a wasteland where only gunmen, soldiers and a few desperate civilians now tread. Those who dare do so tentatively, knowing that the defining fight for one of the cradles of civilisation is now imminent.
Whoever wins the coming battle for northern Syria will go a long way towards victory in the war that has levelled much of the country and set the neighbourhood ablaze, threatening borders drawn a century ago and shattering several millennia of co-existence from the Mediterranean coast to Iraq’s Ninevah plains.
At the foot of the ridge just over a mile from where Syrian forces and militias have now massed, dogs chew through piled rubbish. A short distance away, rebel fighters have also dug in, using nearby towns and villages as vital supply lines while the city itself is slowly being strangled.
Ghosts of Aleppo
VICE NEWS is on the front lines in house to house fighting.
Black acrid smoke shrouds an industrial area on the northeastern outskirts of Aleppo, once a bustling hub of the Syrian economy. All that is left now is a ruined and desolate landscape of factories and office blocks, where exhausted fighters from both sides hide.
“The regime thinks they are going to do this easily,” said a rebel leader from the Islamic Front, the largest remaining opposition group in northern Syria, as his clapped-out car slipped through the mud. “But their army hasn’t done it so far and we’re not going to let them now.”
Rebel reinforcements are steadily making their way – through the same gouged field – to secure the last route in and out of Aleppo. Since February this year, the regime has remained strong in the north-east and north-west of the city, but has been unable to close the circle – a move that would besiege Aleppo, condemning it the same fate as a second rebel bastion, Homs, most of which was seized by loyalist troops this year.
Directly to the north, the opposition has opened a fight for the Shia town of Zahraa, where up to 15,000 locals have remained unharmed throughout the war, protected mainly by Shia militias led by Hezbollah forces from Lebanon.
On both sides, what started as a battle for control of a sovereign state has now been eclipsed by regional agendas. The almost exclusively Sunni opposition believes it is battling a Shia Islamic hegemony led by Iran and abetted by regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, insist the Islamic Front and other rebel groups are no different from the ruthless Islamic State (Isis), which is trying to carve a self-governed caliphate from the ruins of both nation states.
The fight for Zahraa, one of the few Shia enclaves in northern Syria, is being led by the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, with whom the Islamic Front have an understanding but no formal alliance. After barely holding ground for much of the past year, al-Nusra recently seized large chunks of territory near the Turkish border, reasserting itself as a power player at the expense of non-jihadist groups. The fast-changing dynamic is forcing a new reckoning with the Islamic Front, which says it has waited fruitlessly for help from Arab states that was promised but never delivered.
“There is a military reason for this fight on Zahraa,” said an Islamic Front leader, sitting in a frigid empty villa that his forces use as a command post. “We know that the regime fights with large numbers of militias – all of their victories have come from their proxies, not from their own soldiers. Those militias will run to Zahraa to defend the Shias. The regime won’t be able to move around Aleppo without them.”
In the past month, Islamic Front fighters say they have captured three Shia militiamen from Afghanistan, whom they say were brought to Syria by Iran to fight for Bashar al-Assad. They showed videos and photographs to support the claim and said others had been killed in battle.
“One of them told us that he was in prison in Afghanistan and was told that he would be freed if he learned how to fight,” the leader said. “He was taken to Iran for a 30-day course and brought here. We eventually found one of our guys who speaks basic Farsi and he could talk to him.”
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