Note: This piece was written before the lastest victories of the Syrian opposition in the south and south west of Aleppo.
Castello Road swoops around the north of Aleppo in a great arc that connects the east and west of the city, curving all the way from the Jundoul roundabout in the east to the Leermoun roundabout in the west. From Leermoun roundabout one can head north on the Ghaziantep Road, up into the rural northern part of Aleppo province and away to the Turkish border; or one can head south, down into the heart of the western neighbourhoods of the city, and from there one can leave the city on the Dara ‘Aza Road, out into the rural western part of the province, or head for the Damascus International Highway.
The road got its nickname amongst the inhabitants of Aleppo from a tourist resort complex situated on it called ‘al-Castello,’ equipped with a restaurant, swimming pool, and event spaces for weddings and parties. The road supposedly acts as a northern ring road for the city, allowing travellers from the east and north of the city to reach the west and south without passing through congested areas. But it has only ever fulfilled this purpose for those who own their own car or truck. The general population of the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside have always been obliged to travel right into the centre of the city in order to access public transport, as no buses or taxis used to pass along Castello Road. This is because there are no residential areas nearby: some sections of the road are instead crowded on both sides with industrial zones, workshops and farms, but the road is mainly surrounded by empty land.
North of the road – which is to say on the right hand side, for those travellers who are heading towards Leermoun from the eastern neighbourhoods of the city — is the Shaqif industrial area, with the Handarat camp behind it. After that comes the Castello tourist resort complex and beyond it, to the north, the Malah farms overlook the road, separated from it by a rocky bluff and a few hundred metres of empty land. This vacant land, dotted with the occasional farm, runs along the right hand side of the road all the way to the Leermoun roundabout.
Along the left hand side of the road is a strip of bare land about a kilometre wide which leads to Sheikh Maqsoud, a Kurdish-majority neighbourhood overlooking the road. To the west, Sheikh Maqsoud gives way to al-Sakan al-Shababi and Bani Zeid, which overlaps with the Ashrafieh neighbourhood.
It is worth noting that, prior to the revolution, the name Castello was only used for the first section of the road, only as far along as the Castello complex – the rest of the road, from the Castello complex to the Leermoun roundabout, was known as Leermoun Road. But during the revolution the name Castello took over and began being used to denote the whole road. For a certain section of the population of Aleppo, the road played another role before the revolution: it served as an outdoor leisure area for people and their families, somewhere they could go and get a breath of fresh air. They would bring their basic picnic set-ups along to the vacant land beside the road near to the Leermoun roundabout, and spend some time hanging out on the grass under the trees. It was a picnic area for those whose economic circumstances would not permit them any other type of tourism outside the city.
And so this was the situation at the Castello Road until the middle of 2012, when fighting spread right into urban Aleppo, and the Syrian revolutionary factions gained control of some of the city’s neighbourhoods. That was the start of a journey that would eventually see the Castello Road become the most dangerous road in the world, as well as the sole lifeline for nearly half a million people, and the scene of some of the most crucial battles in the history of the country.
The Armed Revolution
In the first half of 2012, armed groups began to appear in the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo that were rising up against the regime. In July of that same year the first violent clashes with regime troops broke out in the Salah al-Din neighbourhood. After that, groups of armed revolutionary Syrian factions entered the city – in particular from the rural northern areas of Aleppo province – announcing the beginning of the battle to liberate Aleppo. Al-Tawhid Brigade, under the leadership of the martyr Abdul Qader al-Saleh, was the decisive force, made up of most of the factions in the rural northern part of Aleppo province at that time.
But this did not yet lead to Castello Road gaining any particular importance – it was not even really useable in the beginning, due to the concentration of regime forces around Leermoun roundabout and in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, and in the al-Kindi hospital near to the Handarat camp. So it remained of little importance until after the opposition factions had gained control of the Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood (with the collaboration of Kurdish forces) and of the al-Kindi hospital and the Leermoun roundabout. This was because the countryside to the north, east and south of Aleppo was open to the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo via scores of major and minor roads, and the regime was stationed in a number of positions, barracks and military bases to the east of Aleppo. But one after the other most of these roads were cut off, whether completely or nearly, or they became very difficult to reach safely on account of the regime forces’ presence there.
Aleppo International Airport and al-Nayrab Military Airbase to the east of the city both remained under the regime control, but were almost completely militarily cut off from where the regime forces were stationed in the western neighbourhoods of Aleppo, and from the regime forces in the rest of the areas of the country.
In late 2012 and early 2013 the regime seemed to be in a state of total retreat from Aleppo, and the factions of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamist factions that were now in control of most of rural Aleppo set out to blockade the regime barracks and military positions, and to attack the regime all over urban and rural Aleppo. Aleppo city seemed as if it were on the brink of being completely liberated from regime control.
From Attack to Defence
The proclamation of the founding of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS, or Daesh) in April 2013 was a critical event in the history of the Syrian revolution, as from that point on tension gradually escalated between the general factions of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamist factions, al-Nusra Front and Daesh. This was what increased the various factions’ preoccupation with their existing conflicts over control of areas and resources – capital, equipment, munitions – which had originally begun before this, as well as increasing their concern with stockpiling weapons and capital in preparation for potential internal battles.
The chemical weapons attack in August 2013, and the frustration and rise in extremism it went on to fuel, were also decisive factors in the way the conflict developed: they increased the popularity of Daesh and al-Nusra Front, and also fostered more dispute between the revolutionary factions. Syrian regime forces seizing control of Khanasir and then Safira in north-eastern rural Aleppo in early November of the same year marked the beginning of a shift towards the regime having the upper hand in Aleppo. Most Syrian revolutionary factions and activists laid the blame for this shift with Daesh: Daesh’s withdrawal from Aleppo in early 2014 without a serious fight had allowed the regime to secure road known as Archeological-Khanasir Road. Once the regime had control of this famous road it was able to seize control of the bases, airports and barracks around Aleppo, and then to advance — with the help of secure supply routes — and succeed in securing the Ramouseh Road south of Aleppo. From there the regime could securely link the western neighbourhoods of Aleppo city with the rest of the areas of Syria that were under its control with almost complete continuity, up to the time of writing.
When this happened the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo completely lost access to the southern and south-eastern parts of rural Aleppo, not just via main roads but even by minor lanes. Despite this, the city of al-Bab to the east of Aleppo could still be reached by several routes, the most significant of which was Naqarin Road. There were also some smaller access routes still open that passed through the areas around Hanano, Sheikh Najjar and Handarat to the east and north-east of Aleppo, as well as through the Bashkwi junction to the north of Aleppo. This is a crucial junction: it not only links the rural northern part of Aleppo province with the city but also with the north-eastern rural areas, via scores of agricultural routes.
The armed conflict with Daesh that broke out at the beginning of 2014 marked the first intimations of what we now know was the looming spectre of the siege of the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo. Daesh withdrew from the parts of Aleppo it had been in control of – among which were the areas around Castello Road – after it lost the battle with the 16th Division and some of the Free Syrian Army factions the Division supported there. After this all the minor roads to the east and north-east of Aleppo became dangerous to travel on, because they were under Daesh control; Daesh was fortifying its position there by occupying all the roads leading to al-Bab and Akhtarin. However, this situation did not last long, as Daesh then withdrew from Naqarin, from its positions in the Sheikh al-Najjar area and from the industrial estates around it, moving off to the east without a fight. This cleared the way for regime troops to advance north and blockade the factions stationed in the industrial area, forcing them to withdraw into the centre of Aleppo. In summer 2014 the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo were surrounded by regime troops on three sides – west, south and east – and have remained so ever since. The only access to them has been via the north of the city, from Handarat and Castello Road.
The Free Syrian Army factions and Islamist factions in Aleppo tried to regain the upper hand and repel the tightening grip of the siege, violently attacking the regime forces’ positions in a number of areas of Aleppo throughout 2014. They came very close to breaching regime defences and reopening a route to the south of the city, at Ramouseh. Had it succeeded, this breach would have broken the siege the western neighbourhoods of Aleppo that were under regime forces’ control.
But these attempts were not successful, and the Syrian regime forces – reinforced by Hizbollah militias plus Iraqi and Iranian militias – continued advancing north and north-west, from their positions in the Sheikh Najjar industrial estate. In the first quarter of 2015 the regime consolidated its control of Handarat, Saifat and the strategic Bashkwi junction. They went on to reach the edges of Ratian and Haradatnayn, near to Nubbol and Zahra, after long and harsh cat-and-mouse battles that cost both sides hundreds of lives. Among the most notable of the many critical junctures these battles moved through was the regime forces breaking the blockade of Aleppo’s central prison, north-east of the Sheikh Najjar industrial estate, in May 2014, and then gradually advancing to the north-east.
From Defence to Resisting the Siege
Securing and fortifying Castello Road took on huge importance, as once regime forces were stationed right near to the Handarat camp and the Malah farms north of Castello Road it became the only completely secure road for opposition factions to use. So the factions reinforced the areas under their control in and around the Leermoun roundabout, and the nearby front lines of al-Khalidiya and Bani Zeid, and in the Handarat camp, the Shaqif industrial area and the Malah farms. Dirt roads linking Castello Road to Kafr Hamra were also paved, enabling them to be accessed without passing through Leermoun roundabout, which had become a constant hotspot for military clashes and the massing of troops. This also allowed the rural northern or western parts of Aleppo province to be accessed from Kafr Hamra. From the north or west of the province Idlib could also be reached via the Babis road.
So in this way Castello became the sole lifeline feeding the armed factions of Aleppo city, and the civilians there too. Various products were brought into the city along Castello Road from the countryside around Aleppo, and from the border crossings at Bab al-Salama and Bab al-Hawa. It was now no longer a road in the traditional sense of the word, but a loophole, just a few kilometres long. It was well secured, but it could also turn into an open battlefield, due to the lack of residential areas on either side of it.
The Kurdish units that were stationed in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood began to pose a serious threat to the Castello Road from the middle of 2015, as the conflicts between them and the factions lead to the latter’s withdrawal from the joint operations room in May, whilst maintaining their positions at the edges of the neighbourhood. The Kurdish units attempted to block the road by keeping it under gunfire several times from early July, which led to clashes between them and the factions. These clashes ended in a truce between the two sides, and in the factions withdrawing from their positions at the edges of the neighbourhood, in exchange for the Kurdish units not targeting the Castello Road at all. This was all agreed on September 29 2015. Just two days later the Russian air attacks began, in support of the Syrian regime forces and the militias backing them up.
The results of the Russian intervention were catastrophic for the Syrian revolution and its troops, who were locked in an open-ended battle with the regime and Daesh, and at the same time fragmented by disorganisation, and internal disputes. With Russian airforce back-up, the regime succeeded in advancing from its positions in Bashkwi and seizing control of Haradatnayn, Ratian and Ma’arasata al-Khan in early February 2016, and breaking the blockade of Nubbol and Zahra — having failed in this attempt about a year earlier and suffered heavy losses of lives and equipment.
With this development the rural northern part of Aleppo province was split into two sections, and the regime continued its violent shelling of the villages of Hian, ‘Adnan and Kafr Hamra. At the same time regime forces were advancing in the rural southern part of Aleppo province in an attempt to prevent any possibility of Free Syrian Army factions and Army of Conquest factions advancing and being able to open a way through to the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo from the southern side. It is said that this is what the factions are now striving to do, after having recently managed to resume their advance on the two fronts of al-‘Ais and al-Hadir in the rural south of the province.
The Kurdish forces stationed in Sheikh Maqsoud made several attempts to block the Castello Road with gunfire, despite the truce that had been agreed upon. They also killed a number of civilians, in separate incidents, notably after tension escalated during the Syrian Democratic Forces’ advance from Afrin at the expense of the Syrian revolutionary factions. The Kurdish forces went on to take control of Tell Rifaat and attempted to storm Azaz. The factions responded to the attempts to block Castello Road by shelling Sheikh Maqsoud several times, causing deaths and injuries.
The Syrian regime forces launched a battle in early July 2016 that they then tried to brand as a decisive battle over the siege of Aleppo. After a series of cat-and-mouse attacks the regime took control of the Malah farms, reaching as far as the rocky bluff that separates the farms from the Castello Road. This means that the road has been blocked by gunfire since July 10, at a time when attacks on the Handarat camp and Leermoun fronts have been intensifying, as well as on the two fronts of Bani Zeid and al-Sakan al-Shababi near to Sheikh Maqsoud.
The Syrian regime forces managed to cross the rocky bluff on the night of July 17 2016 and for the first time stormed the Castello tourist complex, effectively blocking the road. But at noon the following day the Free Syrian Army factions, the Islamist factions and al-Nusra Front managed to destroy the machinery the regime was using in their attempt to erect barriers across the Castello Road and block it. They also managed to drive regime forces out of the buildings of the Castello complex, forcing them to retreat once again to the hilltop in Malah from where they resumed their targeting of the Castello Road with firearms.
The battles for Castello Road are still ongoing, and the regime are still attempting to get control of it by land, backed up by thousands of bomber jet flights and hundreds of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese fighters. Meanwhile the factions’ fighters risk their lives fighting to defend themselves – and nearly half a million people inside Aleppo – from the spectre of siege and starvation, by attempting to take back the Malah farms and repel the regime attacks on the fronts at Leermoun, Bani Zeid, al-Sakan al-Shababi and Handarat camp. It also seems that the factions are working to find an alternative to Castello Road: on July 20 they attempted to block the Ramouseh Road south of Aleppo. If they were to succeed in this, it could be the beginning of a new route being opened up, linking the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo with the rural south of the province. Even if they fail, they will still have put pressure on the regime and engaged it in another battle that might be just as dangerous as the battle for Castello.