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Syria rebels moving ahead and apart

Los Angeles Times –

ALEPPO, Syria — On a city street where shops once stayed open late selling computers and electronics, children in flip-flops and dusty clothes clambered over the charred, twisted mass of a tank. The hatch hung open and a few kids peered inside, the soldiers’ bodies now gone.

The destroyed army tank, once a rarity in the uprising against President Bashar Assad, symbolizes a shift in the balance of the 17-month conflict in Syria, one that augurs gains for the rebels, but also raises the prospect of an increasingly bloody arms race.

For months, rebels with their Kalashnikov assault rifles and homemade explosives were little match for the government’s armored vehicles, and often fled after putting up a weak fight. But now, armed with new weapons, some funneled through Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they have started to tame the hulking beast of war.

“Six or seven months ago, we didn’t have anti-tank weapons; now we do, and it has changed things for us,” said Hamza Sawa, a defector from the Syrian army who destroyed the tank with a rocket-propelled grenade. “We already had the fighters ready, but now we have the weapons too.”

But even as the rebels make advances in their firepower and gain territory, serious divisions and suspicion among the fighters threaten to hold them back.

The civilians who launched the armed rebellion and the army defectors who have increasingly joined them both claim to be the true leadership of the offensive. The tension raises questions not only for the battle in Aleppo and elsewhere but for the chances of a smooth transition in any post-Assad period.

Perhaps just as ominous for the opposition, each time the rebels advance militarily, the Assad government uses another weapon in its arsenal, which increasingly includes attack helicopters and MiG fighter jets that rain down rockets on civilians and rebels alike, and the opposition has little ability to bring them down.

On Thursday, rebels, hampered by the barrage from the skies and an ammunition shortage, made a partial withdrawal from the strategic district of Salahuddin. But rebel commanders said they continued to seize more neighborhoods and now controlled more than half of Aleppo, a city once considered immune to the violence that has shattered much of the country.

In a large empty lot in an opposition-held part of the city sits another army tank that Assad’s men have lost, but this one is still functioning. The rebels keep it mostly hidden under a beige tarp to avoid detection by government helicopters.

On a recent day, Col. Abduljabbar Aqidi, an army defector who heads the newly formed Aleppo Military Council, drove into the city with a small convoy. It felt a bit like a political campaign as he grabbed a Kalashnikov rifle, thanked rebels for their duty and posed with them for photos. At one point, in the Bab al-Hadid neighborhood, Aqidi stood on top of a fallen poster of Assad as he shook hands with children.

Behind him, a wall that once formed part of the original city had been repeatedly spray-painted with the words “Al Tawheed Brigade.” The name of the group, which includes most of the militias fighting here, seems to cover most surfaces in rebel-controlled neighborhoods, as if a tagger were trying to make up for lost time.

Even Aqidi’s white truck had “Al Tawheed Brigade” written in black marker on the side, as both a provocation to the government and a show of unity.

Unlike Aqidi’s military council, the brigade consists of militias and opposition figures who were at the forefront of the revolution when it began last year. Military officers such as Aqidi didn’t begin defecting in significant numbers until almost a year into the uprising.

Abdulaziz “Abu Jumuah” Salameh, who heads the Al Tawheed Brigade, works from the basement of a shot-up police station in Tal Rifaat, a town north of the city. He is dismissive of the newcomers’ claims to leadership of the rebels, and most of the fighters here appear to belong to his brigade.

“The military council is an illusion,” he said. “Now that weapons are coming in through them, they are trying to parlay that into power on the ground. We have been on the ground for a year and a half; the military council has been here for less than a month.”

Aqidi was in the army for 29 years, and it shows in his ramrod posture. But he describes himself as more of a politician than a military man.

He defected this year and was in exile in Turkey until returning to Syria several weeks ago. Once he was on the front lines, money from the exile Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army that had been going to individual militias began flowing through him as a way to centralize the finances under one command.

That has created resentment.

A two-story elementary school in the Sakhour neighborhood has been transformed into a base of operations for the local militias here. As Aqidi walked in past murals recounting more peaceful times, a rebel was pushing a detainee into a hallway closet to “make him behave.”

In an office with worn green velvet chairs, Aqidi met with the leaders and other members of militias that have sent hundreds of fighters flooding into Aleppo. One man from Tal Rifaat made an angry and impassioned plea for more ammunition.

Then the man, Abdulsalaam, appeared to switch tactics, using a calmer tone.

“We are sending souls in the thousands here and they are our responsibility; I will show you now some young men who only have a few bullets,” he said. “We’re all working toward the same goal.”

“I swear I didn’t get any Russian bullets,” Aqidi told him, explaining that everyone was suffering from the same shortage.

The bitterness created by a lack of weapons, tinged with at least some suspicion, has spread throughout the contested Aleppo neighborhoods.

“Why are we not getting bullets form the military council? It’s as if it’s on purpose,” said a rebel leader named Sheik Tawfiq Shahab Deen, dressed not in a military uniform but in a gray robe and red-and-white scarf draped over his graying hair. “We are the ones who are on the ground.”

On the first day of fighting in the city late last month, Deen called the colonel and requested ammunition. He was told there was none.

“It’s as if they want to … increase their influence through the distribution of weapons since they came late,” he said.

Another rebel, Abu Saeed, gazed on a wall of rubble the fighters were creating to protect against government snipers and agreed with Deen. “The issue of weapons is a sensitive one,” he said.

Aqidi spends at least part of his days in a villa in Tal Jibeen, a village west of Aleppo, with rebel fighters, but also with unarmed activists. Inside on a recent day, a cellphone was charging in every available electrical socket. As shelling pounded less than two miles away, a large pool was being filled with a garden hose.

On one morning he woke a little before noon — much like the rest of the rebels, who go to sleep after dawn prayers — and there was no water, electricity or Internet. He was soon on his cellphone checking in with militia commanders.

“How are things?” he asked calmly. “Light shelling? May God be with you. … How many of those dogs did you kill?”

Aqidi said he speaks with the commanders daily and OKs big operations, giving them advice on military strategy and tactics.

“The unity is something very important,” he said, before adding, sounding very much the politician, “We don’t want the world to get a bad impression of us.”

Less than two miles from the colonel’s villa, clashes raged one night for hours between rebels using tanks won in a recent clash and government soldiers with armored vehicles. Above the tree line, flames could be seen as part of a government armory caught fire.

Although the rebels seemed to be making progress, activists watching from the villa roof knew the army’s last line of defense would quickly be called in.

“It’s coming,” a rebel leader called Abu Sufyan said, looking up at the black sky, where the light whirring of a helicopter’s propellers could be heard approaching.

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