Turkey Attempting to Thwart Syrian Army Operation in the Aleppo Countryside

An armed fighter is seen before he attacks Syrian government forces in Melah region, on the north side of Aleppo, Syria on February 17, 2015. Anadolu Agency/Salih Mahmud Leyla
Published Thursday, February 19, 2015
Turkey has now involved itself in the battle raging in Aleppo’s northern countryside. Further, Turkey is said to be attempting to thwart the Syrian army’s attempts to cut off the road between the city of Aleppo and Turkish territories and break the siege around the towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa. Ankara opened the border to fighters and supplied them with what they need to preempt a new military reality in the area, where the Turkish state wants to establish a buffer zone.
Aleppo — Upon seizing control of the towns of Bashkoy, Ratyan and Hardetneen in Aleppo’s northern countryside, the Syrian army retreated in Ratyan. Government sources say that this retreat came in response to opposition groups mobilizing forces from the Aleppo countryside and, indeed, from within Turkish territory. The army began to reinforce its positions in Bashkoy, Hardetneen and the neighborhood it still controls in Ratyan. The same sources said that improvement in the weather conditions would allow them to resume the attack and encircle the neighborhoods under opposition control in the city of Aleppo, and so lift the siege imposed on Nubl and al-Zahraa (Aleppo’s northern countryside) since July 2012.

Regime sources say that the defining characteristic of yesterday’s “ferocious” battle was Turkish support for the armed groups, as evidenced by the transfer of fighters and military supplies from inside Turkey to Aleppo’s northern countryside.

Syrian army forces managed to infiltrate the two towns yesterday at dawn, but the battle intensified in Ratyan. Opposition groups (al-Nusra Front, al-Shamia Front, Hazm Movement and their allies) mobilized hundred of fighters to prevent the army from controlling it. Further, regime forces attacked the neighboring town of Bianoon in preparation for breaking the siege around Nubl and al-Zahraa, and cutting off the international road connecting Aleppo with Turkey through Azaz. This road is as good as blocked, even if the army does not reach it, because of the fighting going on there, which subsided yesterday night due to unstable weather conditions. But cutting off the international road near al-Zahraa does not prevent heavy reinforcements from reaching the battleground via Turkey. The border between Aleppo’s northern countryside and Turkey is still wide open, allowing the transfer yesterday of military and human reinforcements to the fighters in the vicinity of Nubl and al-Zahraa, and evacuating al-Nusra and its allies’ wounded to Turkish hospitals through the Bab al-Salam border crossing.
Regime sources say that the defining characteristic of yesterday’s “ferocious” battle was Turkish support for the armed groups, as evidenced by the transfer of fighters and military supplies from inside Turkey to Aleppo’s northern countryside, including Caucasian fighters who answer directly to Turkish intelligence.
According to information from the border city of Azaz, Turkish authorities opened up the Bab al-Salam border crossing near the city to fighters in an unprecedented way. Turkish involvement comes amid disagreements between armed groups, and the withdrawal of the Hazm Movement from the battlefronts, in addition to al-Nusra’s public message to al-Shamia Front asking it to withdraw support for Hazm. The Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo accused al-Nusra and al-Shamia of harassing Hazm and leaking information to the Syrian army, which allowed the latter’s forces to advance along three fronts in Aleppo’s northern countryside. The Council announced in a statement its objection to al-Shamia’s military plans.
Army forces holed up in the eastern side of Ratyan, after withdrawing from other parts of the town. To the east of it, armed groups tried to infiltrate the towns of Hardetneen and Bashkoy to reassert control over them, after they fell into the hands of the army on Tuesday. But their attempts failed as they suffered many casualties at the hands of the Syrian army.
In the first action taken in this battle by the Popular Committees in the two besieged towns, they targeted two opposition transport vehicles near the entrance of Bianoon killing everyone on board. Syrian warplanes bombed a convoy of fighters on the international road, on the Turkish side, while another army unit consisting of 25 soldiers infiltrated Nubl and al-Zahraa yesterday at dawn, after 43 soldiers had reached the two towns the day before yesterday.
Flanked by al-Quds Brigade (consisting of Palestinian fighters from the Handarat refugee camp and fighters from Aleppo’s southern countryside), the Syrian army managed to advance in Mazare al-Mallah (al-Mallah Farms) and al-Maamel area towards the Castello Crossing to which the Aleppo-Haritan-Azaz-Turkey road is connected. Opposition groups tried to storm the southern farms but the army repelled the attack.
Inside the city of Aleppo, the Syrian army clashed with fighters in the area of Bani Zeid, while other fronts remained quiet, as the army withdrew from the buildings it entered in the vicinity of the Air Force Intelligence at Jamiat al-Zahraa front, after it booby trapped these buildings to prevent fighters from entering them. In addition, a number of civilians died when armed groups hit neighborhoods with mortar bombs.
How did the recent operation by the army affect access to Aleppan neighborhoods under opposition control? Which ways are open to get to these neighborhoods, as the army advances further?
Although the army has not closed the ring around Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods, it has now become a lot more difficult to access the town by car. The last road through al-Jandoul Roundabout-Castello-Mazare-Haritan and Ratyan all the way to Azaz is no longer safe for fighters after army units advanced, and will not be open to civilians either as battles in the area rage.

Although the army has not closed the ring around Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods, it has now become a lot more difficult to access the town by car.

 With the army’s control of Aleppo’s Central Prison last May, Muslimieh road (the northern countryside’s main entryway) is no longer under opposition control. In addition, army control of the Handarat Hill last October put al-Jandoul Roundabout within the army’s range of fire, denying access to fighters. It remained open to civilians who, on their way to the Azaz highway, have to take a right before reaching al-Lirmon Roundabout — the site of constant clashes between the army and fighters — and to take agricultural roads through Castello and al-Mazare all the way to Haritan. The latter became an alternative roundabout to al-Lirmon Roundabout, where those coming from Aleppo’s western countryside and Idlib cross paths with those coming from Aleppo’s northern and eastern countrysides.
After recent operations, and as the army approaches the Northern Highway, fighters’ defenses retreated to buildings located to its south. This will deny people, who are going to and from the eastern neighborhoods, the ability to use the highway through al-Jandoul Roundabout. Instead, they have to disembark from their cars and cross Quwaik River at Bustan al-Sheikh Ruz — because the makeshift bridge built over the river is no longer safe for cars — to get to Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood and from there to al-Sakan al-Shababi north of Ashrafieh, then use dirt roads all the way to Castello and cross the Northern Highway through agricultural and dirt roads towards Haritan.
This is the only path to and from eastern Aleppo that is currently open. It’s the only geographical area left before the Syrian army closes the ring around the city.
In addition, large-load trucks cannot enter the city via the dirt roads, which get muddy in the winter. Food stuff and goods are often brought in on tiny trucks, commonly referred to as “Suzuki,” or slightly larger trucks.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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