When Syrian rebels bombed an officers’ club—which allegedly doubled as a military base for government forces—in central Aleppo on Wednesday, the initial response from many was to rejoice at having struck so deep inside the heart of the regime. “The point is that we got them in the middle of the city,” the head of the rebel military council in Aleppo, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, told The Daily Beast hours after the blasts. Casualty numbers were likely high, as the rebels claimed. “A lot of pigs died today,” Okeidi said.
But as details of the attack slowly emerged, some members of Syria’s armed resistance began to feel troubled. For one thing, the explosion appears to have been the result of suicide car bombs—a tactic most of Syria’s rebel groups have long claimed to oppose. Much worse, though, was the fact that a number of Aleppo civilians allegedly died in the blasts—by latest count, at least 14, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group whose documentation of deaths from the conflict is often relied upon by the media.
News of the alleged civilian deaths has prompted condemnation of the rebels’ tactics from some activists normally dedicated to detailing atrocities committed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Targeting civilians, even if it’s not intentional, is unacceptable and condemnable,” says the Syrian Observatory’s Sipan Hassan. “The revolution began with aims to protect the Syrian people and give them freedom, not to kill them.”
The attacks also have prompted debate inside the armed opposition about a bombing campaign against Syrian military targets that has been intensifying in recent months. “Any operation that hurts someone who’s innocent, we are against it completely,” says Ismail Mattar, a spokesman for the Ahfad al-Rasul brigade in Damascus, which has claimed responsibility for many of the high-profile bombings that have taken place in the capital of late.
The officers’-club attack differed from previous bombings, which had been more limited in collateral damage. Jabhat al-Nusra, a murky and deadly fighting group with suspected links to al Qaeda, released a statement claiming responsibility for Thursday’s attacks that said they had been carried out by a series of powerful suicide car bombs.
The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city that lies three hours north of Damascus, has been raging since a surprise rebel offensive took hold there in July. Assad’s regime has responded to the opposition’s incursion violently, pounding rebel positions and civilian neighborhoods alike with heavy artillery and bombs from fighter jets. Many analysts say the regime’s brutal counterattack was likely intended in part to make the population turn against the rebels and associate their presence with mass death and destruction. The recent attack on the officers’ club may have inadvertently helped that aim.
It appears to be the first time rebel forces have claimed responsibility for a high-profile bombing in which a significant number of civilians are thought to have died. If the death count checks out—as many Aleppo residents apparently believe it does—then it has the potential to shift the tenor of the rebel fight in the city, says Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “I think it’s game-changing,” O’Bagy says. “The battle for Aleppo has largely been a stalemate, and part of the reason is due not only to the regime’s military superiority, but also in large part to civilian resistance to the rebels. This event is going to further tensions among the civilian population and rebel units in Aleppo. I think they’re going to be struggling not only against the regime, but also the population to a certain degree.”
The rebels have been keen to promote the idea that no civilians are harmed in their attacks, O’Bagy says. “They’ve been very careful to try and maintain this narrative about going above and beyond not to launch attacks that put civilians at risk.”
In an interview on Thursday, Okeidi, the rebel military council leader, vehemently denied that civilians had died in the recent bombing. He pointed out that the regime has been accused of faking civilian deaths after rebel attacks in the past, and suggested that any victims thought to be civilians were actually shabiha, or regime-loyal thugs. “No civilians died. The people who died were shabiha,” Okeidi said.
He also claimed that the heavy security around the square meant civilians had limited access to it, and that the bombings took place early in the morning, when civilians would have been asleep in their homes.
An official with the rebel Liwa al-Fatah brigade, which operates in Aleppo, likewise claimed that no civilian lives had been taken in the attack. “It’s funny that people are asking about civilians they think were killed by the rebels, when 30,000 people have been killed by the regime,” he says. “We’re trying to win the hearts of Syrians. We can’t lose them and fight the regime at the same time.”
Rebels often speak of canceling missions over a concern for potential civilian casualties. A spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, a large rebel brigade that operates across Syria that is known to conduct roadside bombings, even said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast that the group had scrapped missions because livestock had been meandering by.
Bombing attacks should be carefully targeted to hit only regime members, says Mattar, the Ahfad al-Rasul brigade spokesman. The brigade claims to get its bombs inside targeted sites with help from the inside, thereby limiting the unintended damage. Mattar also said suicide bombers should have no place in the rebel fight. “When we do an operation, we don’t get any civilians killed. We use defectors who are still working with the government and plant bombs on the inside,” he says. “You can’t blow up a car outside the building. Something like this should be done from the inside to avoid civilian casualties. If there’s a threat to civilian life, it should be called off completely.”
“It’s not possible for someone who wants to protect civilians to kill civilians, too,” he adds.
Thursday’s attack also could be interpreted as a sign of the increasingly desperate situation in Syria, as casualties mount with no end to the conflict in sight. “Sometimes people are hopeless, and that’s why they do things like this,” says a political leader for the Aleppo-based rebel group Suquor al-Sham, who goes by the nickname Abu Mohamed. “I am against any operation that takes innocent life. There are a lot of question marks behind this mission.”