With that, al-Bab became the farthest point in a swath of rural territory stretching south from the Turkish border toward the city of Aleppo that has slipped beyond government control in recent weeks.
The unraveling of the regime’s authority here in this northern province has been overshadowed by the battles for control of the cities of Homs, Damascus and, most recently, the provincial capital Aleppo, where government forces are waging a full-scale offensive to recapture neighborhoods seized by rebels in recent days.
But even as Assad’s forces have poured resources into sustaining their hold on major population centers, they have steadily been losing control of the countryside, in a series of seesawing battles that have not yet proved decisive but that appear to be giving the momentum to the rebels. The story of the battle of al-Bab, an overlooked front in a war of many fronts, suggests that the government’s hold here was always more fragile than had been thought and that it has become significantly more so in the past few weeks.
This was a corner of the country that was assumed to be neutral in the conflict, a mostly Sunni enclave whose aloofness from the mayhem elsewhere helped sustain the government’s claim that it still commanded the loyalties of significant sectors of the population beyond its Alawite support base.
That the province of Aleppo was slow to join the uprising was due more to the government’s determination to prevent it from doing so than to a lack of resolve by its people, according to Ammar Osman, 29, an activist with the Coordination Union for al-Baba City and Its Suburbs. With more than 4 million inhabitants, Aleppo is the most populous and prosperous of Syria’s 14 provinces, and its location on the border with Turkey endows it with strategic significance beyond its role as the country’s commercial and agricultural center.
“The regime was very tough here. They put in a lot of security forces. They know they can’t afford to lose Aleppo,” said Osman, who spent 45 days in jail last year for his efforts to organize protests.
A race to arms
On April 20, as bloodshed was accelerating elsewhere and the province of Aleppo was beginning to stir, everything changed in al-Bab. On that day, troops opened fire on a protest for the first time, killing seven people. Among them was Ammar Najjar, 20, an engineering student who had led calls for peaceful protests in the town.
His father, Kamal, wept last week as he recalled his son’s death. “He only asked for freedom from tyranny. This was his weapon,” he said, pulling his son’s camera phone from his pocket.