ALEPPO, SYRIA: At 2:30 am on January 22nd, Sheikh Maqsoud, a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria, was struck by tragedy. A five-story apartment building collapsed, burying dozens of residents under a mountain of rubble.

After round-the-clock rescue efforts, 16 bodies were recovered and two survivors were taken to the neighborhood hospital for treatment. According to state media, the structure’s foundations were weakened by water leaks.

For the residents of Sheikh Maqsoud, this is only the latest in a series of disasters as the neighborhood struggles to survive under a crushing siege imposed by opposition and regime groups alike.

Over the past decade, Aleppo has transformed from a once-thriving commercial, travel and cultural hub into a battlefield, leaving much of the city in ruins.

Slowly, as the front line moved elsewhere, Syria’s second largest city began to rebuild. However, Sheikh Maqsoud, an independent enclave on the northwestern edge of the city, continues to struggle for survival.

With half of the neighborhood of 2 square kilometers destroyed after years of fighting between opposition groups and self-defense militias in the neighborhood, the people of Sheikh Maqsoud have done their best to continue their lives normally.

Over the past year, one force has been particularly brutal in depriving neighborhood residents of everything from medicine to fuel and even food — the Iran-backed Fourth Division.

With winter approaching, the residents struggle to cope.

“We were burning garbage because there was no fuel. It gave me a chest infection. I’ve been to the hospital twice this week,” said a resident of Sheikh Maqsoud when Arab News visited the neighborhood in December.

Fuel has not arrived in the neighborhood in more than 50 days, said Marei Sebli, a member of the General Council of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh, where residents often get an hour or less of electricity per day because their private generators run empty.

We can’t get fuel. “Children and old people can’t handle the cold,” Sibley said. “They don’t even let medicine through here. What is allowed through is very expensive. Six months ago, they cut off our flour, and all the bakeries were closed for about 20 days.”

According to Subli, the Fourth Division demands up to 2.5 million Syrian pounds (more than $380) for each fuel truck that enters the neighborhood — an exorbitant price, given that the average monthly salary in Syria does not exceed 150,000 Syrian pounds (about $23).

“Soon our workshops and tailors will be closed because they are without electricity, and in the end all our young men will be unemployed and forced to sit at home in the dark.”

The Fourth Division’s roots go back to the 1980s, when Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifaat fled the country and his paramilitary group, the Defense Companies, dissolved into several militia groups.

The Fourth Division was eventually formed from these groups, and subsequently used to crush uprisings in Daraa, Baniyas, Idlib and Homs since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. A Human Rights Watch report from 2011 documents the Fourth Division’s involvement in many abuses, including arbitrary arrests and killings of protesters.

The actual commander of the division is Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to an investigation conducted by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Modon, the Fourth Division has enjoyed Iranian support – material, financial and advisory – since the start of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.

Quicklyfacts

• Sheikh Maqsoud is under the control of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

• Many buildings in Aleppo have been destroyed or damaged during the 11-year-old Syrian conflict.

• Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria and was its commercial center before its destruction.

Early in the conflict, the Syrian Army was mired in defections and internal strife, an effect the 4th Division was not spared. As with many other units in the Syrian army, the Fourth Division has had to rely on Iranian militias to bolster its strength.

The siege of the Fourth Division was not limited to Sheikh Maqsoud. It extends to the northern countryside of the city in the al-Shahba region, between Afrin and Aleppo. Shahba includes the town of Tal Rifaat (population around 18,500, of whom 15,700 are internally displaced) and five camps, all of which are home to thousands of displaced people from the Afrin region.

At some of the regime’s checkpoints in Shahba, pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are displayed next to pictures of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad.

No one joins the Syrian army anymore. Their soldiers are all Iranian mercenaries. When these mercenaries come here, their goal is to take everything and share it with the state,” Muhammad Hanan, the co-chair of the Tal Rifaat district, told Arab News.

Hanan explained that the presence of the Iranian militias in the al-Shahba area mainly serves to protect the Shiite-majority towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa, located between Tal Rifaat and Aleppo.

From 2013 to 2016, the region was controlled by opposition groups, who were ousted by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units, or YPG. At that time, the Syrian state’s military presence was mainly limited to small towns and villages in the region.

However, after the Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018, government forces – and therefore Iranian mercenaries – began to increase under the pretext of protecting the region from the Turkish-backed opposition factions.

In the end, they don’t stand for anything. “So far, the Syrian state is taking every opportunity to weaken us and control Shahba,” Hanan said.

Hanan and other local officials told Arab News that regime checkpoints are preventing vital aid from the United Nations and other NGOs from reaching the area.

“The regime’s Fourth Division blocked the roads. If you want to bring something from outside, like fuel or propane, you have to cut it off,” Dr. Azad Risho, director of Afrin Hospital in Shahba, told Arab News.

“It’s the same with medicine. It has to come from the side of the regime. When international health organizations provide aid to Syria, because the Syrian regime has a stature, all the aid has to come through the regime.”

There are also international powers here, such as Russia and Iran. It is a political game. Even if the system is going to provide assistance, it must be in the interest of these forces. For this reason, we have become victims of politics.

Hassan, an administrator at the Shahba branch of the Kurdish Red Crescent, told Arab News: “The situation is horrible. There is no medicine at all. We only deal with emergency cases. We have no dermatologists, no nephrologists, and we have no equipment like MRI machines.” magnetic.

“For patients with these needs, we have to send them to Aleppo. This has its own problems; The regime often prevents these people from entering (the city).”

However, in light of the stifling siege of Sheikh Maqsoud and the Shahba area, there is one commodity that the Fourth Division seems happy to enter into these areas – drugs.

Last year, a New York Times investigation discovered that the Fourth Division was responsible for the production and distribution of Captagon pills and crystal methamphetamine throughout Syria, with the division transporting the drugs to border crossings and port cities.

Recently, we seized and burned 124 kg of hashish. These 124 kilograms were brought by the Syrian regime – by the Fourth Division, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups. “They tried to bring it in containers of oil,” Ghahraman, an official in Sheikh Maqsoud’s Internal Security Forces, told Arab News.

“They want to bring some things, especially narcotic pills, with their organs, and spread them among the people.”

Despite the blockade, Sibley said, “our people are very resilient.”

Does the regime want us to lose and take us back to 2007? They insist that we should all be under one flag, one language, and one leader.

Because we in Sheikh Maqsoud want coexistence and brotherhood among peoples, and the regime does not accept us. But of course, people who have found their freedom will never return to the arms of the system.



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