The famous British writer, Rober Fisk, that al-Qaeda terrorists had occupied the industrial zone in Aleppo and turned to a facility for suicide bombers.
“Al-Qaeda City was an industrial zone, a vast plain of concrete and stone factories and cattle sheds and homes 10 miles north east of Aleppo…Later, the crews were suddenly confronted by the biggest and most sophisticated fortress ever built by followers of the Osama bin Laden.”
According to Fisk, “Today, 155mm guns are banging off northbound shells from the olive and walnut orchards around what had been one of the country’s economic powerhouses, today reduced to square miles of smashed factories and burned chemical plants where, according to the Syrian commanders who had to smash their way into this place of pulverised iron, rubble and ash, hundreds of suicide fighters blew themselves up en masse rather than surrender.”
Miles of underground tunnels still lace the army’s way beneath what had once been the Sheikh Najjar Industrial Zone, while men from “al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, “Jihad Islamia”, the al-Sham Brigade and remnants of the old ‘Free Syria Army’- spent two years mining the buildings above ground, hacking lorry-wide passageways between their walls and cutting out sniper’s nests in every street and on every floor.
What had been one of Syria’s newest industrial estates was transformed into a place of death; food stores and grain mills were turned into arms storage depots, their basements into dormitories for the hundreds of terrorists who lived here.
It should take seven minutes up the highway from Aleppo to reach this extraordinary city of ruins, but the front lines of the extremist forces north-east of the city – at some points scarcely 700 meters from the Syrian main supply route – so encroach on the countryside that we had to drive more than 30 winding miles along earthen laneways and behind ramparts of sand and concrete blocks to reach the ruins. It was a worrying trail, criss-crossed at night by tracer fire, that snaked past broken, evil-smelling sewage farms, across weed-strewn stretches of pre-war motorways and beneath the grass-covered tracks of the old railway line to Turkey, once the final stretch of track on Agatha Christie’s famed Oriental Express to Aleppo.
The jail, in which hundreds of inmates are reported to have died of disease, hunger and ill-treatment over two years – and which was never taken by the armed forces surrounding it – was not breached. “There were two suiciders inside,” Syrian army Colonel Saleh says coldly. “One was Syrian, the other Egyptian.”
His colleagues are eager to talk of the huge number of foreign fighters who were based in this industrial complex – Chechens, they say, and Afghans and Egyptians, Saudis, Qataris, Algerians.
But this was not just a geopolitical battle for the land north of Aleppo. You only have to drive a few miles east of the ruins to find a deserted but undamaged motorway with its modern, blue-painted signposts to Raqqa, the one large Syrian city today still totally under the control of terrorists.
Colonel Saleh and his men led me [Fisk] through acres of crushed factories, all surrounded by deep trenches and most gouged out by shell-fire and explosives. A headquarters dormitory was constructed beneath grids below a towering cereal feed mill whose outer walls had been smashed down, apparently by air attack – although the colonel denied this. Next to it was a factory for producing ‘zaatar’ – piles of crushed grain were still lying across the floor amid cartridge cases – from which tunnels had been dug up to five meters deep beneath the surrounding buildings, shorn up by earthen sandbags made out of animal feed sacks.
Thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft shell cases were heaped in one garden, but there was one salient fact about this grim city of death: it had been built and defended by technical men, by strategists, by experts in design and defence whose interests went deeper than Islam. Did they come from Turkey?
Afghanistan? Pakistan? Or were they local men trained outside the Muslim world, perhaps originally aided by supplies from the west, initially so promiscuously dispatched to anyone fighting the Assad regime?
Colonel Saleh’s 27 men were just a few of the Syrian soldiers who also perished here. “Our sacrifice was very great,” one of his colleagues said bleakly.
The battle north-east of Aleppo was undoubtedly a victory for the Syrian government. But the gunfire around us told another story: that this is a war which is far from won and the fighting and dying will continue, perhaps for years.