Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods face acts of retaliation for rebelling against Syrian regime 

Civilians from Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods who were forcibly displaced from their properties after the Syrian regime regained control of the region - December 2016 (edited by Enab Baladi)

Civilians from Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods who were forcibly displaced from their properties after the Syrian regime regained control of the region - December 2016 (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Aleppo – Saber al-Halabi

During the first years of the Syrian revolution, the neighborhoods of Aleppo city in northwestern Syria were divided under the control of the opposition factions and the Syrian regime. The eastern neighborhoods that were a former rebel enclave suffered a siege and a military campaign that ended with building destruction and displacement of residents. 

Four years and three months have passed since the regime and its militias regained control of the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo governorate at the end of 2016. During these years, the siege that involved closing roads took other forms, while arrests, intimidations, and service neglect continued to prevail.

Outcomes of settlement with Syrian regime

The early days of the regime and its militias’ control over the eastern and southern neighborhoods of Aleppo governorate were a “nightmare” to those who chose to remain in their neighborhoods and refused to be displaced. Arbitrary arrests were carried out on a daily basis, even against women and children, by the security branches in charge of the area, alongside Iran-affiliated militias, including Imam Reza Battalions, the Lebanese Hezbollah, al-Baqir Brigade, Liwa al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigade), and many others.

The regime’s security forces launched arrest campaigns targeting the remaining civilians who could not leave the eastern neighborhoods for various reasons, including financial constraints or belief of not being wanted by the regime for interrogation or repeated arrest.

Nizar, a resident of the Hanano neighborhood, was one of the people who remained in the area for fear of displacement’s severity and lack of financial resources. “The money I had at that time was barely enough to cover my family’s needs for five days,” he told Enab Baladi.

Nizar thought that his alienation from any military action, and non-involvement with the factions during the opposition’s control, would exempt him from arrest, but he was wrong as he was repeatedly arrested. He told Enab Baladi that he was “harassed” by elements from the regime’s affiliated popular committees, locally known as (shabiha) and security branches.

In the early days after the regime’s control, the Syrian regime forces looted the houses that owners did not burn before leaving, a choice that many people bitterly opted for back then only to not allow regime personnel the chance to steal or destroy their houses in retaliation. “They ordered us to remain indoors and not to leave our houses, while they robbed the unpopulated houses under the sight and hearing of those ordered to stay in their properties, who stood helpless against what was happening,” Nizar said, noting the elimination threats the civilians were faced with by the regime’s forces.

In early 2017, the regime forces arrested everyone they saw in the streets during the daylight hours permitted for movement. The civilians feared arrest and elimination the most.

“There have been many human rights violations, and lots of people were eliminated because of their connection to the opposition. There were lists of wanted persons who were executed when captured in front of their families. The regime forces were trying to intimidate the residents, and they succeeded in doing so,” Nizar said.

Obliterating the revolution traces

In 2012, two-thirds of Aleppo governorate was held by the opposition. The Syrian regime launched successive military campaigns that destroyed the infrastructure and caused tens of thousands of deaths and injuries before imposing a siege in July 2016. Under the siege, the regime forces denied 250,000 civilians access to food and medicine and used internationally banned cluster and incendiary weapons, an Amnesty International report mentioned on 13 November 2017.

The regime forces began their last military operation on 15 November 2016, which ended on 22 December of the same year, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of families from their houses.

The regime forces not only obliterated slogans of the revolution and burned down the remaining banners, but some shabiha (regime-affiliated thugs) and security branch personnel also exhumed graves and smashed headstones in several random cemeteries in the neighborhoods of Salaheddine, al-Ferdous, and al-Saliheen.

The regime made use of some of the opposition’s headquarters for propaganda purposes. The regime’s media outlets filmed the headquarters and described them as the remains of what it called “terrorist groups.” 

Mutasim, one of the opposition fighters who “settled” their situation with the regime, told Enab Baladi that the regime “did not immediately destroy the opposition’s headquarters.”

“They filmed everything from prisons and headquarters. Traces of fires were visible in the filmed sites, and after they finished filming, they burned down all the headquarters and took the documents and papers left behind by the opposition,” Mutasim added.

The armed opposition factions did not have clear planning programs during their control of the eastern and southern neighborhoods of Aleppo governorate. They did not establish local councils, and their administrative work was limited to the city council in the al-Sukkari neighborhood, which managed affairs through representatives of other neighborhoods.    

The greatest role of the factions was to control security and fight, according to Mutasim. Each faction had headquarters and a prison, while political and social matters were “irrelevant to them. The factions were at odds and frequently clashed among each other,” Mutasim added, noting that the region did not have any administrative departments, while the opposition did not initiate any programs, administrative or service-related.  

Power and wealth conflict by regime’s security branches

The regime’s security branches shared control over the southern and eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo. They divided the area into sectors, granting the Air Force Intelligence and the Liwa al-Quds militia the greatest part of the eastern neighborhoods. In the meantime, the discord between the branches and the shabiha elements of the National Defence Forces (NDF) and the popular committees increased.

“Our areas were caught in the middle of a conflict between security branches’ elements on the one hand and popular committees’ members on the second hand. Both parties were seeking to impose their control and were involved in multiple clashes during 2017 and 2018. The security branches’ elements won each conflict and arrested some shabiha members,” a resident of al-Bab Road neighborhood named Nidal told Enab Baladi.

After several clashes, the security branches expelled the popular committees’ members from many neighborhoods, including al-Haydariyah, al-Sakhour, al-Bab Road, al-Shaar, and al-Qatirji. Still, the hostilities of the shabiha, including house and shops looting, did not stop and continued to date in Aleppo governorate. 

The presence of Iran-affiliated militias has decreased in some of Aleppo’s neighborhoods, with much of them being transferred to eastern Aleppo countryside and the environs of Kuweires Military Airport and Aleppo International Airport.

The Air Force Intelligence branch continues to control most of Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods. It took the police stations in these neighborhoods and made them its own, where its forces detained wanted people before transferring them to the main branch.

The Air Force Intelligence branch recruited hundreds of civilians to work for it in the eastern neighborhoods. “Fear and intimidation are back again. No one dares to speak or express his/her opinion because many civilians became undercover informers for the Air Intelligence branch,” said Nidal, who asked Enab Baladi not to reveal his full name for security reasons.

The recruitment of civilians was not limited to security branches. Prominent political parties resumed their recruiting activity after the regime regained control over eastern neighborhoods. The People’s Will Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Youth Party for Development and Alteration all worked to attract young men and women in parallel with the al-Baath Party’s reactivation in the region.

The recruitment of youth through political parties was manifested by the al-Baath Brigade fighters affiliated to the al-Baath Party and the fighters of the Eagles of Whirlwind, the armed wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Dozens of these fighters were killed in Aleppo by the Islamic State cells in the Syrian Desert and Deir Ezzor governorate.

Unfulfilled promises

Wandering around in Aleppo, one can easily distinguish between the neighborhoods that used to be under opposition control from other regime-held neighborhoods. The rubble and destruction caused by the bombing on the eastern and southern neighborhoods and their countryside still exist to this day, and even the still-standing buildings remained unrestored, threatening their inhabitants’ lives at any time.

The regime-promised services to these neighborhoods’ residents were never fulfilled. The communication and electricity lines are still cut, despite the many appeals. Besides, the power stations and sanitation networks are left without rehabilitation and maintenance, causing water outages in most parts of the region.

Residents of eastern and southern neighborhoods of Aleppo believe that the regime government’s negligence to their areas is “deliberate.”

“We were repeatedly promised by the chief of the neighborhood or sector of rubble removal, electricity network repair, and many other empty promises. We have not received fuel oil allocations for four years now, and our complaints were unanswered,” Saqr, one of the area’s residents, told Enab Baladi.

Power and water outages forced residents of Aleppo’s eastern and southern neighborhoods to resort to electric generators (amperes) to pump water to their houses from water tanks. “We use candles, if available, and sometimes kerosene. We hope power would come back on to the Karam al-Tarab neighborhood, which is close to the al-Nayrab Military Airport where power is available,” Saqr added.

The regime government rehabilitated some health centers in Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods; nevertheless, it canceled free medical services and treatment fees exemption for civilians, despite their poverty and financial hardship. Zaki, a resident of the al-Sakhour neighborhood, told Enab Baladi that health centers that used to offer free medical services to civilians are now requiring charges, while treatment is provided free of charge to regime elements.

The regime government has restored and rehabilitated its facilities and some schools in the neighborhoods of al-Jazmati, al-Ferdous, and al-Saliheen without carrying out restoration works to civilians’ damaged residential buildings and houses.

The regime government rehabilitated 52 health centers and hospitals, and 1,620 schools, with over 1,000 projects announced in the local administration sector in memory of Aleppo’s “liberation,” the State-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported in December 2020.

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