Aleppo’s Deadly Stalemate: A Visit to Syria’s Divided Metropolis

The rebels know they are not loved by Aleppo’s urbane population but they are increasingly inspired by a higher power

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Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa USA

Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo's most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012.

Only stray cats have the courage to roam the streets of this part of Syria’s largest city. As felines freely pick their way through rubble and garbage, human beings dart from corner to corner, anxious bands of rebel fighters dashing between the bullets of regime snipers.

The neighborhood is called Bustan al-Basha and used to be the place a lot of Aleppo’s citizens would bring their cars for repair. It was a mixed Christian-Sunni working class district, bordering the Kurdish district of Sheikh Maksoud. That is in e the past tense because, of the thousands of residents who once lived here, only three remain. The trio live on Rawand Street, which is in rebel hands. The street behind them belongs to the regime. Marie, a Christian Armenian, is retired kindergarten teacher; gray-haired Abdel-Latif is a retired civil servant; and cherubic young Abdel-Maten is a baker who hasn’t been to his workplace for months even though it is less than two kilometers away because it is in Midan, a neighborhood under regime control.  “I’ve been living here for 20 years,” says Marie as she peeks out from her balcony, wiping her soapy hands on a dishcloth. “I’m still here because where am I going to go? This is my home. We are counting on God and staying, but you know, honestly, it’s like I went to bed one night and the next morning everyone was gone. When and how they left, I don’t know. It happened very suddenly.”

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Syria’s grinding civil war swept into its largest city in late July. A proud and ancient cosmopolis, Aleppo is home to more than two million of Syria’s 23 million people but it has now been been crudely carved into pro- and anti-regime pockets, the edges of which occasionally change hands. It is the deadliest sort of stalemate, with international diplomacy struggling to find a solution  as the government of President Bashar Assad pursues a course of survival-via-atrocity; and the Syrian opposition in exile once again changes leadership in another attempt to weave its disparate ideological and military strands together. The grinding war of attrition has turned parts of Aleppo like Bustan al-Basha into wastelands.

The street warfare isn’t winning the rebels any more friends. The urbane Aleppans have never really warmed to the opposition fighers, most of whom come from religiously conservative Sunni Muslim small-towns–and there is growing concern that the rebels are turning more sectarian. The rebels know they’re not really welcome. “The Aleppans here, all of them, are loyal to the criminal Bashar, they inform on us, they tell the regime where we are, where we go, what we do, even now,” says Abu Sadek, a defector from Assad’s military now with Liwa Suqooral-Sha’ba, one of the three rebel units in Bustan al-Basha. “If God wasn’t with us, we would have been wiped out a long time ago.”

Assad’s assault has certainly been ferocious. Many of Bustan al-Basha’s four- and five-storey residential buildings have been partially sliced open, their concrete floors pancaked atop each other, their contents—dining tables, children’s toys, washing machines—spewed into dusty mounds onto the streets below. Apart from the gentle sound of water gushing from burst pipes, there’s a heavy silence here, punctured by sporadic sniper fire, the occasional roar of a warplane overhead unleashing its payload in another part of Aleppo, or the more frequent hair-raising whistle of an incoming mortar. Shorn power lines dangle over the streams of water cascading through the streets that have flooded many basements. The danger of electrocution would be high if the neighborhood had power, but it hasn’t had that since armed rebels rumbled in from Aleppo’s countryside this summer, intent on swiftly wresting Aleppo from the regime’s firm grip.

That of course has not happened. Instead, the rebels have set up camp in abandoned apartments, stealing electricity from a spot about a kilometer away, and sharing it with the neighborhood’s three remaining residents. Former residents who return briefly to check on their properties are not always treated as warmly. They are asked for ID and paperwork to prove that they lived in thearea. Some rebels say it’s to guard against looting. Others have different concerns. “Some of these people toss electronic taggers at our bases that notify warplanes of our location,” says one young rebel, explaining why the rebels distrust returning residents. He hadn’t seen the devices, or had any proof, but was certain it was true.

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On a recent morning, a young man in a thick gray sweater and tight shiny gray dress pants knocked on an apartment that is now the headquarters of Liwa Suqoor al-Sha’ba. He was accompanied by several armed rebels from the Grandsons of Hamza Brigade in the Karam al-Jabal neighborhood of Aleppo, who said they could vouch that he lived in this home and that the furniture washis. The young man showed an ID and other paperwork to back his claim. “I just came to get a few things,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” one of the rebels said. “Take what you want, we will help you.”

The young man, who told TIME his name was Abu Ghaybar (a Kurdish name) but later told the rebels it was Abu Mohammad, was from Afrin, a Kurdish town north of Aleppo city, although he didn’t share that information with the rebels in his home. He and his family had moved into an unfurnished apartment in Haydariye, a safer neighborhood in Aleppo. “I am now less than zero. I don’t even have a pillow to offer a guest,” he said. “We are sleeping on bare tiles.”

Quickly and methodically, Abu Ghaybar moved through his four-room home, shoving clothesinto black plastic rubbish bags provided by the rebels, and stacking white goods at the door. He unplugged the hot plate in the kitchen as several rebels emptied the fridge of eggs, yoghurt, grapes, jam and a bowl of cooked rice. The rebels weren’t happy to be doing so, rolling their eyes as they completed their task, but they said nothing to Abu Ghaybar.

“Do you mind if I take this blanket?,” Abu Ghaybar told a portly rebel known as ‘the teacher’ because he taught primary school before he picked up a gun a few months ago.

“Leave that for us please,” the teacher said.  It was.

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“My son slept here,” Abu Ghaybar said, standing in his only child’s room. He spotted a blue tricycle atop a small four-door pine dresser. “My son keeps saying ‘baba, are the free army playing with my toys?” (The rebels had their own toys in the room, including a BKC machine gun in one corner.)

Abu Ghaybar moved into the living room, unplugging the TV and removing a few colored pencils from a drawer in the TV cabinet. He gathered up family photos, including a baby picture of his now five-year-old son. He pointed to a bare wall with two nails protruding from it. “My family portraits were here, where are they?” he asked.

“We burnt them,” said one of the dozen or so rebels in the room. “You know, if we come into a house and there are pictures of uncovered women we burn them.”

Abu Ghaybar didn’t respond. He just stood there for a moment. He moved into the corridor, but his mood had clearly changed. “You could drink (alcohol) here, there were prostitutes, everything,” he whispered to me. With tears welling in his eyes, he turned to the teacher: “Do you think I am happy living in somebody else’s home?” he said. The teacher responded, “We have families, we have honor, we understand. My family had to flee too.”

Some 35 minutes after he had entered his home, Abu Ghaybar was on his way out, having loaded up all that he could carry into a small white Suzuki pick-up truck. “Well, it looks like we need a new place now,” one of the rebels said. “We don’t have a TV any more, what are we going to do for entertainment?”

The others laughed but the fact is, in Bustan al-Basha, as in many other frontline neighborhoods in Aleppo, the deep stalemate led many of the rebels to say they are bored. The fight in these areas has morphed into a war of the snipers, with fewer opportunities to engage the enemy.

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But that doesn’t mean the danger isn’t there. Crossing the length of Rawand Street involves running a gauntlet of sniper fire. Blue-and-white canvas curtains have been strung up at several intersections along the street, while bullet-riddled school buses have been dragged across other junctions in a bid to block theview of the regime’s sharpshooters. Rebel snipers are always on the lookout for new positions to establish.

They have punched holes through thick apartment walls, creating maze-like safe passages they traverse in the dark. They shout “Allah Akbar” as they approach the holes, lest one of their comrades mistake them for the enemy and open fire. The two sides are so close to each other that it’s a possibility.

Some rebels are clearly growing impatient, itching to move to other more active fronts in other areas. Others reflect on why their push has stalled. “It  wasn’t the time to enter Aleppo, honestly,” says Abu Sadek. “I’m not saying this with regret, it was a battle that had to happen, Jihad for the sake of God, but the lack of coordination between thebrigades hurt us. we weren’t ready for it.” Liwa Suqoor al-Sha’ba says it’s planning a major push in the next week or so to try and break the stalemate.

The group is an Islamist brigade under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. The other two rebel units in the neighborhood are Liwa al-Fateh, which part of the FSA but is not as religiously conservative; and Ahrar al-Sham, a nationwide mini-army of adherents of the conservative Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Ahrar al-Sham is not part of the FSA.

Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa Suqoor al-Sha’ba partly blame Liwa al-Fateh for the rebels’ misfortune. They look derisively at the group, not because of its weak Islamist credentials, but because it has allegedly been looting homes and harassing citizens. It mans a checkpoint that stops cars coming from the adjacent Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood. “Look at those shabiha,” says a member of Suqoor al-Sha’ba, using the term for the marauding paramilitary gangs of thugs associated with the regime. Abu Tayeb, a member of Liwa al-Fateh at the checkpoint concedes without prompting that “our reputation isn’t good.” Still, he says, “this is war, and things happen in war. I’m still proud to be a part of this group.

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Other rebels say it’s that kind of attitude that has stalled their push into the city, just as much as the lack of heavy weapons and regular resupply of ammunition. Any insurgency needs the support of the local population, and looting homes andharassing citizens obviously doesn’t help. “The problem is how can you hold a man with a gun accountable?” says Khaled, a second-year history student at Aleppo university who now totes a Kalashnikov. “You must raise your gun against him. It isn’t the time for this now, we don’t want to open another front among ourselves. We can’t afford to do this now.”

The way forward, according to the two Islamist groups, is to become more religious,more like the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra units that operate in other parts of Aleppo and across Syria. “You have seen the destruction to homes, and the looting that is happening. How are we supposed to win this fight when some people are stealing, how will we win if the boots we are wearing are stolen?” says Abu Sadek. “How will God make us victorious? He won’t. We don’t have the power of weapons, so we must return to God to win this fight.”

These rebels speak admirably of Jabhat al-Nusra, of their fearlessness on the battlefield which they say stems from their strong faith. Many say they aspire to either join them, or become more like them. Toward that end, a significant number of Suqoor al-Sha’ba fighters in Aleppo have taken to wearing black shalwar kameezes and black headdresses. “Yes, this is Pakistani but they are strong mujahedin (holy warriors),” Ammar, a young fighter says, referring to his dress. “We are an Islamic brigade, we take inspiration from them,” he adds, “besides, it’s really comfortable, it’s good for fighting in.” Others say they have discarded their mismatched military uniforms in favor of the Islamic dress because they believe it is similar to that worn by the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet Muhammad), not because it is from the Subcontinent.

“Faith,” says one of the rebels “Faith will make us victorious, not weapons or ammunition or large numbers of people.” The problem is, in cosmopolitan Aleppo—and Syria at large—a religious solution may be part of the problem. On a recent night in one unit’s headquarters here, fighters pealed with laughter when they recalled an encounter between a member of Jabhat al-Nusra operating in Aleppo and a secular FSA commander. The pair were in a meeting when a mortar landed nearby. The FSA commander jumped up to leave, according to several men who were present in the meeting. The Jabhat fighter grabbed his companion’s knee, saying excitedly. “Heaven awaits.” “Go by yourself,” came the reply.

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