Syria’s underground war

The Los Angeles Times reports: For three days, Syrian rebels dug through a wall of a library that housed a trove of historical religious texts, and underneath an adjacent road.

When they were done with the 50-foot-long tunnel, they waited at one end of it for a tank to drive by, and blew it up.

The explosion cut off the road, a crucial supply route for government soldiers stationed at the nearby 13th century citadel, but it also destroyed what was left of the Waqifiyya Library, already damaged during months of clashes.

Rebel commander Iyad Saqaan, who in 2006 had helped furnish the library with woodwork from his studio, had also overseen the digging of the tunnel. Sitting on a mound of rubble, skipping rocks as if perched on the edge of a lake, Saqaan pursed his lips, shook his head and said, “What alternative do we have?”

As the increasingly destructive Syrian conflict drags on, outgunned rebel groups have become dependent on guerrilla-style tactics better suited to a lopsided battle.

Government forces are now on the verge of laying siege to parts of Aleppo long held by opposition groups that began the rebellion against President Bashar Assad in 2011. An estimated half a million residents could be cut off from food, medicine and fuel in a city that was once Syria’s commercial hub.

The rebels, who have also lost ground in northern Syria to the militant group Islamic State, acknowledge that they don’t have the weapons to stave off a government advance here. Losing Aleppo would be a major setback for the rebels, both symbolically and military, as it is the last provincial capital where they still hold significant ground.

With limited ability to succeed on the front lines, the rebels have taken to digging tunnels under bases, buildings and roads and setting off explosives, trying to kill a few dozen soldiers at a time. They have also launched homemade rockets, often inaccurate, at government forces stationed in landmark structures, frequently killing civilians. In the process, they are helping destroy Syria’s history and infrastructure and, with the deaths of civilians, undermining popular support for their cause.

“It has become an underground war,” said Capt. Abu Baraa, a commander with the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebel brigades, who defected from the Syrian army.

Casualties have included many of the country’s most treasured sites, which date back centuries. In Aleppo alone, 121 historical buildings have been damaged or destroyed, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

A recent analysis of satellite imagery showed that five of the six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have incurred significant damage.

The agency says the tunnel explosions placed the citadel and surrounding buildings at high risk of destruction. Rebels contend they have had little choice but to attack historic buildings because that’s where the government forces are.

“We are open to all possibilities — tunnels, car bombs,” said Abdulkareem “Abu Firas” Laila, a spokesman for the Islamic Front. “Everything is a possibility in order for the revolution to continue.” [Continue reading…]

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