Shortly after Al Nusrah Front announced on July 28 that it was relaunching its operations under the name Jabhat Fath Al Sham (“Conquest of the Levant Front”), jihadists, Islamists and other Sunni rebel groups began an offensive to break the siege of Aleppo.
Bashar al Assad’s forces and their Iranian allies, backed by Russia, had been squeezing the rebel held part of the city since earlier this year. The Syrian regime and its partners cut off a key supply road in the north during fighting in June and July, thereby encircling their opponents.
The insurgents orchestrated an offensive to break the blockade focusing on areas in the southern part of Aleppo, including the Ramousa district, which houses key military installations. The insurgents’ offensive is one of their largest undertakings since the beginning of the Syrian war, drawing together the resources of more than 20 factions and organizations. It obviously required extensive planning to coordinate the actions of so many groups.
On Aug. 6, just over one week after the battle began, the opposition to Assad claimed to have broken through the defensive positions manned by the Syrian regime and allied paramilitary forces. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), however, the fighting continues and Russia is bombing the area in an attempt to prevent the insurgents from consolidating their gains.
The effort to break the siege has been led by two coalitions: Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”) and Fatah Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”). Many of the constituent groups in each alliance streamed videos and released photos from the fighting on their social media pages.
Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”) and allied jihadist groups
Jaysh al Fath was formed by Al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham, and other organizations in early 2015. The coalition quickly swept through the city of Idlib and the surrounding areas in a matter of weeks. Jaysh al Fath has led multiple other battles throughout Syria, with Al Nusrah (now Jabhat Fath Al Sham, or “JFS”) and Ahrar al Sham always leading the charge. Ahrar al Sham models itself after the Taliban and has its own links to al Qaeda.
Suicide bombers dispatched by JFS played a key role in the fight for southern Aleppo. Early on in the battle, JFS launched two “martyrdom” operations using vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) at a location identified as Al Hikmah school. The official Twitter feed for JFS reported on July 31 that the VBIEDs targeted Assad’s loyalists. The jihadists quickly swarmed the area, claiming to have captured it.
JFS continued to launch suicide operations in the days that followed. On Aug. 5, a “martyr” identified as Abu al Baraa struck another location. JFS released a short of video of Abu al Baraa discussing his dedication to the cause, followed by footage of him driving his vehicle to the scene of the attack. On Aug. 6, JFS Twitter feeds advertised still another “martyr,” Abu Yaqub al Shami, who drove his VBIED into a Shiite-held location in Ramousa.
Jaysh al Fath’s member organizations, including JFS and Ahrar al Sham, celebrated their capture of a series of Syrian military colleges that were used as fortified bases in Ramousa. Jaysh al Fath’s battle plan was divided into several phases, with the phase focusing on the military academies known as the “Battle of Ibrahim al Youssef.” On June 16, 1979, Youssef massacred Alawite cadets at the artillery school in Ramousa. The slayings were blamed on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, or an offshoot of the Islamist organization.
Other groups belonging to Jaysh al Fath include Jaysh al Sunna, Ajnad al Sham and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), all of which participated in the offensive. Jaysh al Sunna and Ajnad al Sham announced the end of the strike on Aug. 6, with Ajnad al Sham thanking Allah for freeing “our brothers trapped in Aleppo.” The KTJ is a predominately Uzbek group that formally pledged allegiance to Al Nusrah last September.
Jihadists closely allied with Jaysh al Fath took part in the fighting. The Syrian arm of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is comprised mainly of Uighurs and is part of al Qaeda’s international network, produced a video trumpeting the beginning of campaign. It is not clear if the TIP is a named member of Jaysh al Fath, but in practice it does not matter. The TIP’s men have been integrated into Jaysh al Fath’s battle plans for more than one year.
Other jihadist organizations tied to the al Qaeda network, such as Ansar al Din and Ansar al Islam, sent fighters to the battlefields in the southern part of Aleppo city as well.
Fatah Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”)
The Fatah Halab coalition in Aleppo was formed in 2015. It was established by more than two dozen rebel organizations, including the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement, the Levant Front, other Islamist groups and Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades. Faylaq al Sham (“Sham Legion”), which is an Islamist organization, fought alongside Fatah Halab, but also joined Jaysh al Fath’s operations in both Idlib and Aleppo.
At its founding, Fatah Halab explicitly excluded Al Nusrah. But some of Fatah Halab’s constituent groups, including Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement, have long worked with Nusrah.
Many of Fatah Halab’s constituent groups have posted propaganda from the fighting in Aleppo.
The 1st Regiment, which is a FSA unit, seemingly played a important role. On Aug. 2, the group’s fighters detonated a massive bomb in a tunnel underneath a facility controlled by Assad’s forces. The tunnel bomb paved the way for allied forces to rush into the district. Other photos show the 1st Regiment using guided missiles to destroy a vehicle belonging to Hezbollah and attack positions held by the Syrian regime.
On its official Twitter feed, the Fastaqem Union (FKO Union) describes itself as “one of the most effective factions in Syria,” aiming “to topple Al-Assad Regime and build free and democratic state for all Syrians.” A FKO Union video tweeted on Aug. 3 purportedly shows a “whole group of Hezbollah” members being killed in a TOW missile strike. Two days later, on Aug. 5, the FKO Union claimed to repel an attack by Iranian troops and allied militias that were trying to relieve the front lines.
The FKO Union isn’t the only group to fire TOW missiles during the battle. On Aug. 2, Jaysh al Nasr (“Army of Victory”) released a video of one of its fighters launching a TOW at enemies perched atop a building in Aleppo.
Other units, such as the Central Division, the Authenticity and Development Front, the Northern Division, Division 13, Sokoor al Jabal Brigade and the “101st Infantry” all posted images from the battle. The 101st Infantry tweeted a photo of its men manufacturing mortars and grenades to be used in the offensive.
Still another powerful rebel group, Jaysh al Islam, sent forces into the battle for Aleppo as well.
The coming days will prove whether the offensive was as successful as the parties responsible claim.