The long road to Raqqa

The Raqqa offensive (codenamed Operation Wrath of Euphrates), is an ongoing military operation launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Raqqa Governorate, with the goal of isolating and eventually capturing the Islamic State’s capital city, Raqqa. Another one of the main goals is to capture the Tabqa Dam and the nearby city of Al-Thawrah. The offensive has also been dubbed the Battle to End All Battles in the War on ISIL. The offensive is concurrent with the Turkish anti-ISIL Battle of al-Bab, the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, the Battle of Sirte (2016) in Libya, the Palmyra offensive (December 2016) launched by ISIL, and a reignition of fighting in Deir ez-Zor’s siege.

Heartbreaking last Tweets from inside besieged Aleppo

As Syrian government forces take the last enclaves of rebel-held Aleppo, people trapped there sent their pleas for help out to the wider world.
Activist @Linashamy Lina Shamy’s last distress call from besieged Aleppo: “All those who hear me must move now to save civilians in Aleppo.” http://pic.twitter.com/26M9GAj9kG
— هادي العبدالله Hadi (@HadiAlabdallah) December 12, 2016
My dad is injured now. I am crying.-Bana #Aleppo
— Bana Alabed (@AlabedBana) December 12, 2016
this is a call and might be the last call.
Save Aleppo people. Save my daughter and other children. #StandWithAleppo
— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016
Understand this. I can’t simply surrender and being captive. I am speaking out and this is a crime. I might then ask death and not got it.
— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016

I can tweet now but I might not do it forever. please save my daughter’s life and others. this is a call from a father.

— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016

Final message – people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now & still alive. – Fatemah #Aleppo

— Bana Alabed (@AlabedBana) December 12, 2016

Last message from this old man in Aleppo: ‘We don’t have anything left. Oh Arabs, where are you? We are being slaughtered. Safe us.’ http://pic.twitter.com/E1sws1s2Y8

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) December 12, 2016

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East Aleppo : ‘No place for people to live’

Residents in rebel-controlled east Aleppo – now down to a handful of neighbourhoods – say they fear retribution if they flee to government-held areas. Aisha, a mother of three children, is one of them. Last week, she and her family fled farther south in Aleppo when government forces took over her neighbourhood. Despite the bombings, weak utilities and sanitation, and depleting food supply, Aisha says she prefers to live in rebel areas. “We’re hearing about the army taking and arresting people, so I’m content to wait for a route to open so I can go to live with my family in the countryside,” she said. Hundreds of men from Aleppo went missing after entering government territory, including some of Aisha’s family members with whom she lost contact. After the military onslaught that began three weeks ago, the Syrian army is now controlling around 85 percent of previously rebel-held parts of  east Aleppo. The UN and rebel sources say 100,000 people are now in east Aleppo, crammed into a handful of neighbourhoods that amount to around 15 percent of the area the rebels held three weeks ago.

Last stand for Aleppo’s rebels

The Syrian army and its allied militias are pushing deeper into east Aleppo as rebel lines collapse and their last urban stronghold looks closer than ever to falling. The fighters withdrew from at least six more east Aleppo neighbourhoods in the face of goverment advances, including al-Salheen, al-Firdous and Bustan al-Qasr, once one of the most fortified districts under opposition control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said at least 60 people were killed by gunfire or shelling as government forces pushed into the Aleppo’s remaining opposition-held districts. “The battle of Aleppo has reached its end. It is just a matter of a small period of time, no more, no less … it’s a total collapse,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the UK-based monitoring network’s director. Syrian refugees in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep and the capital Istanbul held solidarity protests on Monday night in support of the people in east Aleppo, as the government stepped up its bombardment.
 
 

The Great Mosque of Aleppo

English: Courtyard of the Great Mosque of Alep...
 
The Great Mosque of Aleppo (Arabic: جامع حلب الكبير Jāmi‘ Halab al-Kabīr) or the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo (جامع أمية بحلب) is the largest and one of the oldest mosques in the city of Aleppo, Syria. It is located in al-Jalloum district of the Ancient City of Aleppo near the entrance to Al-Madina Souq. It was built in the beginning of the 8th century. However, the current building of the Mamluk period dates back the 13th century, except the Seljuk minaret which stands since 1090.[1] It is located in its Old City.
Many historians claim that the mosque is home to the remains of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.[2][3]
 
History
The site of the Great Mosque once was the former Agora from the Hellenistic period, which later became the garden for the Cathedral of Saint Helena, during the Christian era rule of Syria.[3]
The mosque, begun about 715, was built on confiscated land that was the Cathedral cemetery.[4] The construction of the earliest mosque on the site was commenced by the Ummayad caliph al-Walid I in 715 and was finished by his successor Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik in 717.[5]
In the second half of the 11th century, the Mirdasids controlled Aleppo and built a single-domed fountain in mosque’s courtyard.[6] The detached 45-meter high minaret of the Great Mosque was restored by the Abul Hasan Muhammad of the Seljuks in 1090.[7] The mosque was restored and expanded by the Zengid sultan Nur al-Din in 1169 after a great fire that had destroyed the earlier Ummayad structure;[3] Later, the Mamluks made further alterations. Carved Kufic inscriptions decorate the entire minaret along with alternate with bands of stylized ornaments in patterns and muqarnas.[5]
In 1260, the entire mosque was razed by the Mongols.[5][8]
The courtyard and minaret of the mosque were renovated in 2003.[5]
Over the weekend of 13 October 2012, the mosque was seriously damaged during clashes between the armed groups of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Army forces. President Bashar al-Assad issued a presidential decree to form a committee to repair the mosque by the end of 2013.[9]

  Architecture

The Great Mosque is built around a vast courtyard that connects to different areas of the mosque, positioned behind the colonnaded arcade. The courtyard is well known for its black and white stone pavement that forms complex geometric patterns. The courtyard holds the two ablutions fountains.[5]
The main prayer hall of the mosque holds the primary elements of the mosque: the shrine of Zechariah, a 15th century minbar, and an elaborately carved mihrab. This large prayer hall originally had a basic straight rooftop with a central dome, but was replaced by the Mamluks with an intricate cross-vaulted system with arches and a small dome over the arcades.[5]
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The Battle of Aleppo

English: Eight arches bridge at the entrance o...
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The Battle of Aleppo (Arabic: معركة حلب‎) is an ongoing military confrontation in Aleppo, Syria between the Free Syrian Army and its allies and the Syrian military. The battle began on 19 July 2012 as a part of the Syrian civil war. Clashes escalated in late July as the Syrian Army and opposition fighters fought in the city, which is the largest in Syria and holds great strategic and economic importance.[65] The scale and importance of the combat has led to combatants calling it “the mother of all battles”.[66][
 
Background
The uprising against the Syrian government began on 15 March 2011, with nationwide demonstrations. However, the inhabitants of Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remained largely uninvolved in the anti-government protests. In fact, the two cities have seen rallies in the tens of thousands in support of Assad and his government.[68]
As the government launched crackdowns and military sieges into restive towns and cities, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion. Opposition forces composed of military defectors and civilian volunteers clashed with security forces across the country. However, Aleppo city remained relatively peaceful.
Fighting in Aleppo governorate began on 10 February 2012. Over the next five months, major clashes left large parts of the rural countryside under rebel control, with the capital of the province, Aleppo city, still being firmly under government control. However, on 19 July, rebel forces stormed the city and a battle for control of Syria’s largest city and economic hub had begun.[65]

  Combatants

At the beginning of the Battle of Aleppo, rebels reported to have between 6,000[69] and 7,000[70] fighters within 18 battalions,[33] the largest one being the al-Tawhid Brigade. The most prominent rebel group fighting in Aleppo is the Free Syrian Army, an organisation largely composed of army defectors. Most of those rebels that are from Syria hail from the Aleppo countryside, such as the towns of Al-Bab, Marea, Azaz, Tel Rifaat and Manjib. A rebel commander has noted that exchanges between locals and the FSA were civil.[71] However, in a report, a resident accused the rebels of using the civilians as human shields by using civilian homes as shelter.[72] On 19 November, the Islamist fighters in Aleppo rejected the newly-formed Syrian National Coalition. Most notable of those are the largest FSA al-Tawhid Brigade and the al-Nusra Front.[73] The next day, however, the rebels retracted their rejection.[74]
Looting for supplies became a common occurrence among the rebel fighters by December, switching their loyalties between groups who had more to share. This new approach led to incidents such to the killing of at least one rebel commander following a dispute, the loss of one frontline position due to fighters retreating with their loots and the failure of an attack on a Kurdish neighbourhood. One rebel commander told that the situation was getting worse and that others commanders were thieves The loss of popular support for the rebels was another effect of the widespread looting.[75]
Islamic extremists and foreign fighters have joined the fighting in Aleppo. Many of them are highly experienced and come from neighboring Iraq, a country with an ongoing insurgency.[15] Jihadists have been reported to also come from several countries across the Muslim World.[14] Jacques Bérès, a French surgeon, who treated wounded fighters in Aleppo reported that he noticed a significant number of foreign fighters, most of whom had Islamist goals and were not directly interested for the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Some of the fighters included Libyans, Chechens and some Frenchmen. He said this was in stark contrast to Idlib and Homs, where foreign forces were not common.[76] Some FSA brigades have cooperated with Mujahideen fighters.[15]
The Syrian government has support in Aleppo, as rebel commander stated that “around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime”. However, during the course of the battle, Assad lost a significant amount of support from Aleppo’s wealthy class.[77] CBS News learned that 48 elite businessmen who were the primary financiers for the Syrian government decided to switch sides to the rebels.[78] For the first time, the Syrian Army engaged in an urban warfare. Their forces are divided into small groups each consisting out of 40 soldiers. The soldiers are mostly armed with automatic rifles and anti-tank rockets. The artillery, tanks and helicopters are used only as a support. In August the Army deployed its elite units.[79] Eventually, after the rebels executed Shabiha and tribal leader of the al-Berri tribe, Zeino al-Berri, the tribe joined the fight against the rebels.[80] Also, as Christians in the city feared the possible oppression and expulsion under Islamists, some supported the Army and formed their own militias to fight the rebels after the capture of their quarters by the special forces of the Syrian Army.[19][20] The Armenians, who are also Christians, also supported the Syrian Army. Aleppo’s Armenians claim that Turkey supports the FSA in order to attack Armenians. Arab Christian and Armenian militia has around 150 fighters.[21]
At the beginning of the Battle, Aleppo’s Kurds also formed armed groups of which the most notable was the Kurdish Salahaddin Brigade. The Kurdish Salahaddin Brigade works together with the opposition, while the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has cold relations with both sides. The PYD’s Popular Protection Committees stay out of the Arab areas and at the same time insist that the FSA stays out of the Kurdish area, moreover, they don’t confront the Syrian Army unless they are attacked.[81] The Kurdish areas in Aleppo are mainly under the control of the PYD.[23] Syria’s Turkmens also joined the battle and their Turkmen Sultan Abdulhamid Han Brigade has 400 fighters.[26]

  Battle

  Rebel attack and capture of Eastern Aleppo

Gunfire between rebels and security forces broke out on the night of 19 July in Salaheddine, a district in the southwest portion of the city, and its surrounding neighborhoods.[82] It is unclear whether the district already had a strong rebel presence before the battle began, or it was captured by opposition fighters coming from the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, thousands of rebel soldiers from Aleppo’s northern and eastern countryside began to move towards the city.
Fighting in Salaheddine continued into the next day, as the Syrian Army began shelling rebel controlled districts with artillery and attack helicopters. By the early afternoon of 21 July, rebel forces from the outskirts of the city had penetrated into Aleppo’s northeastern neighborhoods of Haydariya and Sakhour, where they clashed with the Syrian Army. Activists reported that the fighting caused many residents to flee to safer areas.[83]
On 22 July, fighting had spread from Salaheddine and neighboring Saif al-Dawla to al-Jameeliya and its surrounding neighborhoods near the city center,[84] leading to a battle for the city’s main intelligence headquarters.[85] By the next day, rebels on the eastern front captured Helweniyeh, and according to a rebel commander, Hanano and the industrial area of Sheikh Najjar as well.[86] Meanwhile, continuing clashes near the city center included a rebel attack on the city’s state TV station and the central prison, where according to activists a massacre conducted by security forces had taken place.[87] Throughout the day, power was out in much of the city.[88]

  Fighting in city center and army reinforcements

On 24 July, the FSA launched an offensive to take the city center, leading to heavy fighting near the gates of the Old City, a UN World heritage site known for its ancient structures. Meanwhile, rebel forces on the eastern front continued to push westwards. The FSA set up checkpoints in the eastern al-Sahkour district.[89] Later that day, the Syrian Army used, along with artillery and attack helicopters, fighter jets for the first time since the conflict began to bombard rebel-held districts.[90]
During the next two days, the government sent thousands of Army reinforcements from surrounding regions to Aleppo. The troops were sent mostly via the M5 highway connecting Damascus and Aleppo from the city’s south, and the main Aleppo-Latakia road from the city’s west, with rebels conducting several deadly attacks on arriving troops. Among the government troop reinforcements that were massing on the outskirts of Aleppo were also special forces units. The Syrian Army had reportedly amassed 10,000 soldiers around Aleppo and its countryside.[91] Meanwhile, 1500 to 2000 rebel fighters from around northern Syria arrived to assist the 2,000 already in Aleppo.[92] Along with the Old City, fighting raged in the central districts of Jamaliya and Kalasseh, and Bustan al-Qasr.[93]
On 27 July, skirmishes occurred out on the outskirts of the city as both Army and FSA reinforcements continued to arrive. Rebel forces advanced to the central district of Fardous, despite continued bombardment.[91] Kurdish fighters, who had gained control over most of the northern districts of Sheikh Maqsud and Al-Ashrafiya, clashed with Syrian troops around the neighborhoods in retaliation after government troops attacked their convoy on the airport road the previous day.[61]

  Salaheddine raid

On the morning of 28 July, the Syrian Army started an attack against Salaheddin district, which held the largest concentration of rebels.[94] The assault commenced with an eight-hour artillery bombardment, which started at four in the morning, after which tanks and ground troops moved in.[95] During the clashes, rebels, providing unverified video footage, claimed to have shot down a government helicopter gunship, a rare feat. Rebels also claimed that 8–10 tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed.[96][97] Meanwhile, rebel forces continued to attack a strategic police station in the city center for the third day, in an attempt to link up with opposition forces in the northeastern Sakhour district on the eastern front.[98][99] By the end of the day, the rebels had repelled the assault with government troops pulling back, but the bombardment continued.[100] Among the FSA fighters killed that day was a battalion commander.[98] On the next day, fighting continued in Salaheddin, with reports of Syrian Army soldiers defecting with tanks occurring in the city.[101] In the evening, the state media reported that Salaheddin was recaptured by the Army, a claim rejected by the opposition, who claimed to be in control of 35 to 40 percent of Aleppo.[102]

  Continued rebel offensive

In late July and early August, the FSA continued its offensive in Aleppo, with both sides of the conflict suffering high casualties and losses. Rebel commanders said their main aim was to capture the city center.[103] Rebels seized a strategic checkpoint in the town of Anadan north of Aleppo, gaining a direct route between the city and the Turkish border, an important rebel supply base.[104] They also captured Al-Bab, a town with an army base northeast of the city.[105] Later, rebels attacked the Minakh military air base, 30 kilometres northwest of Aleppo, with arms and tanks they captured at the Anadan checkpoint.[106] Opposition forces continued to make territorial gains in the city, controlling most of eastern and southwestern Aleppo, including Salaheddine and parts of Hamdaniyeh.[107] They continued to target security centers and police stations, as clashes erupted near the Air Force intelligence headquarters in Aleppo’s northwestern Zahraa district.[108] Rebels overran several police stations and posts in the central and southern districts of Bab al-Nerab, Al-Miersa, and Salhain, seizing significant amounts of arms and ammunitions.[107]
During this time, the Syrian military continued its attempt to capture Salaheddine, while bombarding rebel-held territories throughout the city with artillery, helicopters and airstrikes.[103] Ambushes and executions continued as well. However, the Army appeared to have made little effort in sending ground forces to recapture the central and southern districts.[107] Also, a militia from the loyalist Al-Barre tribe began to clash with rebel forces in southern Aleppo and near the city’s southeastern international airport. Clashes between the tribesmen and the rebels escalated after rebel fighters executed the tribe’s militia leader, Zino Berri.[109]
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