DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's main opposition coalition Thursday condemned a rebel blockade of government-held districts in the contested northern city of Aleppo, issuing a rare statement of criticism against fighters who reportedly caused severe food shortages at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Residents of the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood staged protests against the blockade by Islamic militant rebels, according to activists and a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday.
The demonstration was one of three reported in Aleppo province in recent days against alleged abuses by al-Qaida-affiliated fighters, suggesting growing discontent in rebel areas toward the hard-line factions that are among the most organized of the rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad.
"The people want to break the siege!" the residents shouted angrily during a demonstration at a checkpoint. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on Aleppo.
The checkpoint known as Garage al-Hajz is the only link between rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo and western districts controlled by the government. It was reportedly seized and closed several days ago by non-Syrian fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a merger of al-Qaida's branches in Iraq and Syria.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters banned the transport of goods through the crossing to besieged regime-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, leading to shortages of food including baby milk and bread.
He said that the checkpoint was reopened Thursday based on an order from the Sharia Council of Aleppo, the Islamic court governing rebel-held parts of the city.
The main Western-backed opposition group issued a statement criticizing the siege and urging all rebel units "to help lift the siege imposed by groups not committed to protecting civilians, guaranteeing freedom of movement and facilitating the movement of staple foods to all areas."
Protecting civilians in liberated areas as well as those under Assad's control and providing them with basic needs and ensuring their safety "are top priorities of the revolution," said the statement by the Syrian National Coalition. The group has previously criticized acts by various factions in the splintered rebel movement, but not frequently.
Residents of rebel-held towns stage occasional protests against alleged abuses by fighters, often those affiliated with al-Qaida.
Such demonstrations may be becoming more frequent. On Wednesday, residents of two towns in Aleppo province, Minbaj and Kondi Mazen, protested separate incidents in which fighters reportedly arrested local youths for alleged petty offenses, according to the Observatory and an activist in Aleppo who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Syrian civil war has killed more than 93,000 people, according to the United Nations, and displaced millions more. Aleppo, once Syria's commercial center, has been a main center of fighting since July last year.
Also on Thursday, the Syrian government started buying up local currency and raising penalties for black-market deals to try to stop the fall of the pound, which has tumbled to record lows against the U.S. dollar, the state-run news agency SANA said.
Syria's move Wednesday came as the currency hit a record low, reaching 310 pounds to the dollar compared with 47 pounds to the dollar when the country's crisis began 28 months ago.
The record drop of the pound happened on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Many Syrians are struggling with soaring prices because of the weakening currency.
SANA said the government approved a bill Wednesday that criminalizes business deals in currencies other than the pound, with penalties ranging from three to 10 years in prison.
The bill also seeks to prevent manipulation of prices in the market and "curb exploitation of citizens' needs," SANA said.
The currency began a sharp descent last month after the U.S. decision to arm Syrian rebels.
Syria is believed to have relied heavily on Iran to support its economy. Private media in the region have reported that Iran has supplied Assad's regime with billions of dollars since the crisis began in March 2011, and Syria's SANA recently acknowledged $1 billion in aid.
In an interview with a state-run newspaper Thursday, Assad said "Arab identity" was back on the right track after the fall from power of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which he contends had used religion for its own political gain.
Assad's comments to the Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of his ruling Baath party, came a week after Egypt's military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as millions took to the streets to urge his removal. Morsi was Egypt's first freely elected president.
Assad calls the revolt against him an international conspiracy carried out by Islamist groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — a branch of the Egyptian group with the same name to which Morsi belongs.
"The Muslim Brotherhood and those who are like them take advantage of religion and use it as a mask," Assad said. "They consider that when you don't stand with them politically, then you are not standing with God."
Assad's comments mark the second time in a week that he has gloated publically about Morsi's fall. In an interview with another state-run daily last Thursday, he praised the massive protests by Egyptians against their Islamist leader and said Morsi's overthrow meant the end of "political Islam."
Assad's father, the late President Hafez Assad, cracked down on a Muslim Brotherhood-led rebellion in the northern city of Hama in 1982. The Syrian forces, led by the then-president's brother and special forces from their minority Alawite sect, razed much of the city in a three-week air and ground attack, killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people.
"Arab identity is back in the right track," Assad said in the interview with Al-Baath. "It is returning after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and after these political trends that use religions for their narrow interests have been revealed."
Earlier this week, Egypt restricted the ability of Syrians to enter the country, with officials citing reports that a large number of Syrians were backing the Muslim Brotherhood in the bloody standoff with the military over Morsi's ouster.
Karam reported from Beirut.