Since November 14, 2016, rebel controlled areas of eastern Aleppo have been indiscriminately bombed by the Syrian regime and its allies, killing nearly ninety, according to Al Jazeera. These airstrikes have also decimated countless residential buildings and six medical facilities—one of which was a children’s hospital—leading to the death of at least two children and an ambulance operator, according to The Guardian.
With no respite from the regime’s attacks, and with little-to-no help from the international community, Syrians are falling victim to malnutrition, illness, and death. Like their countrymen in other besieged parts of Syria, residents of eastern Aleppo are constantly struggling to find food, medicine, and fuel, especially as temperatures dip in the winter. In towns like Madaya, conditions are so unbearable that children are committing suicide.
Amid these difficulties, rebel forces are often the only real source of relief and protection for civilians. But, as infighting between these groups becomes more common, rebels are often hurting, rather than helping ease, the situation for Syrians living in opposition-held areas.
Inter-rebel clashes are not a new phenomenon, and have been occurring since the Syrian uprising became militarized toward the end of 2011 and into 2012 in response to the regime’s brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters. In the summer of 2013, The New York Times reported about how rebel infighting greatly undermined the struggle against the regime. These skirmishes were partly fueled by ideological differences—between Islamist and non-Islamist factions—and disputes over weapons and checkpoints.
This is certainly no less true today. In fact, just as the regime intensified its bombing campaign in Aleppo on Monday, Syrian rebels in the town of Azaz, approximately thirty miles north of Aleppo, began clashing among themselves.
As Reuters reports, this is the second major episode of rebel infighting this month alone, as “rebel factions clashed in eastern Aleppo itself [earlier this month].” These skirmishes are ultimately “playing to President Bashar al-Assad’s advantage with the government tightening its grip on rebel-held eastern Aleppo.” Indeed, rebel infighting has been a major obstacle to Aleppo’s liberation, especially since the rebels have limited military capacities.
If the rebels wish to liberate Aleppo (and other besieged Syrian cities) from the regime and its allies, they will have to address this mounting challenge and stop squandering precious time and resources fighting one another.
Nevertheless, it is also important to remember that civilians still largely see the rebels as a source of safety and hope—and understandably so. The rebels were responsible for temporarily breaking the siege of Aleppo in August, and have regularly helped distribute much needed supplies to civilians all over the country.
Like the Syrians who depend on them, we must refuse to abandon the rebels now, even as we hold them accountable for their failures.