Fighting for Aleppo, Abandoned by the World
My Syrian rebel group is desperately waging war against the Islamic State and Bashar al-Assad. But America is letting the Russians bomb us.
Ideologies cannot be destroyed with military force. President Barack Obama said as much when speaking about America’s fight against the Islamic State (IS), warning, “Ideologies are not defeated with guns. They are defeated by better ideas.” Unfortunately, the United States has been loath to apply this principle to its treatment of the Syrian opposition. As a consequence, the menace of IS has spread across the world, and worse may yet come if U.S. policy is not changed.
The hour is very late. The deadline for the so-called “ceasefire” agreed upon by the United States and Russia in Munich last Thursday is fast approaching, but pro-regime forces continue their attacks on civilians, most recently with the capture of the northern Syrian town of Tal Rifaat on Monday by Kurdish PYD forces, backed by fierce Russian airstrikes. This town was one of the first in the country to protest against IS and expel them, only to be thoroughly destroyed and depopulated in a Russian-PYD offensive. This is not a recipe for achieving peace or fighting terrorism in Syria.
Before IS slaughtered over 100 innocents in Paris, before they besieged the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, and before they shocked the world by sweeping through Mosul, its main short-term goal was to eliminate the group to which I belong: the Levant Front, a coalition of moderate rebels in northern Syria.
The rebel groups within the Levant Front were the first in the world to sound the alarm on the unique danger posed by the Islamic State. Our component groups began operations against IS in September 2013, almost a year before the international community. In early 2014, we formed a broad rebel coalition against IS and routed them from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its pre-war commercial capital.
The expulsion of the Islamic State from Aleppo also constitutes the group’s worst-ever defeat in Syria until today. IS has not returned to the city of Aleppo since that time, because roughly 2,000 of our fighters have sacrificed their lives to keep it out.
Why was the Levant Front able to deliver IS fierce blows that the combined might of the United States and its allies has not matched? We lacked the firepower and resources of the anti-IS coalition. The odds were against us, as we were fighting a multi-front war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, IS, and Iran-backed foreign militias. But we had a key ingredient necessary to defeat IS: a viable rival ideology, consisting of just governance and rule of law for every Syrian, that was embraced by the local population. This served as a force-multiplier for our very limited supplies and basic weapons.
The Levant Front is a product of the Syrian revolution. Like our compatriots across Syria, we protested peacefully for democracy in 2011, then took up arms with our personal weapons to defend protesters from a vicious regime crackdown. As the conflict developed, the Levant Front emerged as the leading rebel coalition in the Aleppo area. We are currently deployed on over 80 percent of the front lines in Aleppo and its suburbs, where we regularly battle both Assad and IS.
We will continue to do so, not to please the international community, but because Syrians who have cast off the yoke of Assad do not wish to kneel before a new criminal dictator who pretends to follow Islam. The Russian air force, Iranian sectarian mercenaries, and the Kurdish PYD have also now joined the assault against us to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s decrepit mafia system. The Levant Front has been Russia’s main target in Syria for at least a month, but for the sake of the Syrian people, we will not kneel before any of these enemies.
The Levant Front poses a unique threat to both Assad and his allies on the one hand, and to IS on the other hand. Unlike either group, we represent the aspirations of the people of Aleppo. We are local fighters who wish to attain democracy and defend our hometowns from slaughter. We do not wish to fight; the criminal actions of Assad and his allies against Syrian civilians have forced us to do so. As such, we have been fully supportive of the political process, and we have attended most of the diplomatic talks to which we have been invited.
Most recently, we joined other Syrian revolutionary armed groups in a statement praising the opposition delegation to Geneva and calling for humanitarian access for all Syrians, as required by U.N. Security Council resolutions. Like the High Negotiating Committee — the official opposition delegation — we believe that productive diplomatic talks can only occur once starvation sieges are lifted, bombardments on civilians are halted, and women and children are released from detention.
We raised this issue with U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura before the current round of talks began, but he rebuffed us on the grounds that the criminal Assad regime would object.
Due to the silence and complicity of the international community, the recent diplomatic talks in Geneva have backfired. We have been left to face the grim consequences, as Russia used the negotiations in Geneva as political cover to unleash an unprecedented scorched-earth campaign against the Aleppo area. Over 500 air raids struck Aleppo on Feb. 1, the first day of this offensive. Schools, bakeries, markets, and aid convoys were targeted by Russian airstrikes, as they have been for months.
Suspiciously, regime and Iran-backed ground forces attacked along a route adjacent to IS territory. This is only the latest piece of evidence to suggest that Assad, Russia, and IS are coordinating their military offensives.
Conditions in Aleppo are now worse than ever before. Some 50,000 people have been displaced in just the past week, most of them the elderly, women, and children, who sleep on the ground with no shelter near the border with Turkey. The city of Aleppo has been severed from its countryside, which effectively cuts the Levant Front into two pieces. The regime and Iran-backed forces have even managed to cut the main humanitarian supply road from Aleppo to Turkey. If they advance further, they threaten to besiege Aleppo City entirely, placing 500,000 people at risk of imminent death by starvation and disease.
The United States is not defending us, even though we are one of the main Syrian groups fighting the Islamic State. The Levant Front desires a Syria that is free and pluralistic, with respect for human rights, peaceful elections, and the rule of law. Syrians in 2011 marched by the millions for this idea, and we will continue to fight for it until the Syrian people realize their aspirations for freedom.
But we have not received meaningful lethal support from the United States, and we were barely receiving any support at all until two months ago. It is not possible for even the most dedicated army to face swarms of Russian warplanes if they are armed with only basic weapons. Unless the United States drastically increases its support to the moderate Syrian opposition, the field will remain open for IS and for extremist ideologies to flourish. If America wants to win the battle of ideas, it must support its partners who are bravely fighting to beat back the Islamic State.
THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images