Aleppo: Aleppo’s ancient Umayyad mosque, which
slid back into rebel control for a third time after prolonged
clashes, offers a chilling window into the intractability of the
Syrian civil war, now in its third year, according to an AFP
The iconic mosque in Aleppo’s labyrinthine Old City has been a key
battleground since last July, with rebels seeking the ouster of
Bashar al-Assad’s regime laying siege twice but each time only
managing to retain control for less than 48 hours.
the centuries-old mosque - scarred by bullets and littered with
charred relics and artifacts - for the third time late February
and have since managed to hold sway through weeks of erratic
shelling and “guerrilla” sniper attacks.
But Free Syrian Army (FSA)
rebels acknowledge that until the neighboring regime-controlled
Citadel - a medieval fortified palace overlooking the mosque that
offers Assad’s men a strategic high ground - is captured, their
grip remains shaky.
The hilltop Citadel, a fine military vantage point to launch
tactical shelling and sniper raids, has stubbornly remained
elusive and the rebels are able only to maintain an uneasy
stalemate with no visible sign of a way forward.
“Neither side [is] able to establish a monopoly of force across
the entire country,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria expert at the
Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
lines in Syria continue to ebb and flow with both the rebels and
the regime taking territory in some areas and losing territory in
others,” she told AFP.
Syria has paid a heavy price for the brutal impasse, with the war
leaving more than 70,000 people dead, millions displaced and
countless cities and neighborhoods ravaged.
But at the mosque, rebel comrades wielding homemade grenades, guns
and bandoleers of bullets remain defiant in the face of near-daily
shelling since taking control of the site.
One group warming their
hands by a smoldering bonfire stood up at routine intervals,
especially after every new round of shelling, to bellow “Allahu
Akbar” (God is greatest!) in unison - to signal to regime soldiers
that they remain undefeated.
The fighters tread a delicate
tightrope between holding control over the mosque, an
archaeological treasure in the UNESCO-listed Old City, and not
damaging it, FSA fighter Abu Omar said, fingering his prayer
But it has suffered extensive damage anyway. The bullet-pocked and
soot-stained walls bear the physical scars of a messy war. Antique
furnishings and intricately sculpted colonnades have been charred,
valuable Islamic relics ransacked, and ancient artifacts -
including a box purported to contain a strand of the Prophet
Mohammed’s hair - looted.
The place was once filled with
worshippers who prayed on green and gold velvet carpets. Rebels,
sandbag bunkers and rolls of barbed wire now surround it like a
garrison. But the rebels have managed to salvage ancient
handwritten Koranic manuscripts and have hidden the
m in a “safe place,”lest the mosque slip out of their control again. “They
(regime soldiers) can watch everything from the Citadel,” said Abu
Omar, revealing a picture of himself on his cell phone posing with
the retrieved scriptures. “We don’t want it to fall back into the
The first two times the mosque slipped away, he said, a regime
sniper planted on the minaret of the mosque caused much grief.
They could not reach the minaret due to non-stop shelling, but
were able to take him down in their third attempt. And another
gambit paid off.
The rebels gave up access to two
adjacent cobblestone streets leading up to the mosque to regime
forces and then cornered them from behind. “That trick was a
blessing from Allah,” Abu Omar said.
Rebel snipers now patrol all the
access points from which the regime forces may try to retake the
site around the clock, he added.
But AFP’s chilling video from last year shows how dramatically the
army retook the mosque from the rebels, overwhelming them with
explosives while shelling and bombing their way in. And such raids
in the future by troops launching invasions from the Citadel can't
be ruled out.
An Islamic landmark with Greek, Roman and Byzantine
ruins, the Citadel has been an icon of Arab military might for
centuries. Its deep moat, connected to a number of underground
passageways and caves, and other defense mechanisms continue to be
as decisive now as they were hundreds of years ago.
Moreover, the regime army is equipped with superior heavy
artillery, mortars, tanks, helicopters and night vision equipment.
“The rebels have shown an ability to target key centers of the
regime, but have faced difficulties in holding territory. The
regime has the ability to go on the offensive and retains military
superiority,” ISW’s O’Bagy said.
“The only way that this type of
stalemated fighting may shift is if there were to be significant
support given to the opposition to shift the balance of power in
their favor. Otherwise, there is going to be a long war of
attrition ahead", he added.