Aleppo, Syria

The area around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is famous for the Dead Cities, a group of about 700 abandoned settlements, empty since the 10th century. These were once of great interest to archaeologists. Today, Bashar al-Assad is trying to turn Aleppo into another city of the dead.

I entered Aleppo governorate in broad daylight, crossing through an olive grove on the Turkish border. Once over, I was picked up by a driver affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, and we continued on our peaceful way, taking the highway to the warzone of Aleppo city. The Assad regime no longer exists as a functioning presence in the surrounding countryside. The FSA, in its various local manifestations and with its various political allies, has the final word.

As we made our way through villages and towns, we passed through a line of FSA checkpoints. Bored rebel soldiers waved us on, after a couple of perfunctory questions. The differing quality of the FSA units was immediately apparent. The frequency of checkpoints and the military bearing of the men crewing them grew more serious as we got closer to the city.

At the entrance to Maare village, the checkpoint was maintained by fighters of the Tawhid Brigade. These uniformed men have an obvious élan that distinguished them from most of the other fighting units in the opposition. Still, the coordination and governorate-wide organization of the rebels revealed by the system of checkpoints was impressive.

The relative tranquility in the villages between the border and Aleppo city is deceptive, however. Assad’s power is not manifested in the few remaining points on the ground he controls but in his near-complete mastery of the air. This enables the dictator to maintain a reign of terror even over areas physically held by his opponents, as we would discover.

There is a sharp change in atmosphere as one enters Aleppo city from the surrounding countryside. Assad has conceded the battle on the ground in the area north of the city, but in the urban area itself the dictator is fighting for every inch. Aleppo is one of the great cities of the Arab world—larger than Syria’s capital, Damascus. Assad understands that he must break the advance of the rebellion there or lose his crown. Failure to do so will mean forfeiting any serious claim to being the ruler of Syria, and becoming just another side in a civil war. The rebels, too, understand the central significance of the fight for Aleppo.

Evidence of the last two months of fighting was inescapable traveling through the city. Much of Aleppo appeared to be devastated. We spent three days touring the frontline outposts, a strange and eerie landscape. The forward positions of the FSA, where the rebels clash with the government forces, were empty of civilians. The streets were strewn with rubble, many of the buildings reduced to bombed-out husks. Destroyed cars and buses marked out the territory. The rebels drag and arrange them at the ends of streets to hinder the movement of armored vehicles.

All around, there are two constants. The first is the incessant noise of small arms fire and the explosion of mortar shells, punctuated every so often by the huge noise of an aerial bomb detonating. The second is the smell of the frontline—an acrid combination of uncollected garbage, excrement, smoke, and cordite.

Yet deeper inside rebel-held territory, in the Sha’ar neighborhood, for instance, something resembling normal life is continuing. People are on the streets going about their daily business. Shops and cafés are open. This is a normality of the most fragile kind. It can be broken in an instant by the appearance of one of the regime’s fighter jets or attack helicopters, which strafe the rebel-held parts of the city, firing rockets and dropping bombs.

So how are things going in the battle for Aleppo? I asked Abu Ahmed, a gravel-voiced commander of the Storm of the North battalion, at a frontline position in the Bustan al-Basha section of the city. Abu Ahmed, who was clearly exhausted, described an attempt by the regime army the previous week to regain control of the neighborhood. “First they started shelling, so we evacuated the civilian population from here,” he said. “Then they came in with tanks and soldiers and shabiha [the Assad regime’s paramilitary forces] guiding them in the first line. It was heavy fighting for two days. But in the end they had to fall back. Then they started the shelling again—and the bombs from the air, of course, and the rockets. But we’re in control here.”

Who’s winning, I asked. I expect a propagandistic reply. Instead, Abu Ahmed acknowledged a stalemate: “We’re pressing them all the time, but the regime is gathering its strength in the center of Aleppo, at the citadel, which it knows it has to hold.

“We’re short of weapons,” he continued. “Everything we get we take from the regime army. The world doesn’t back us because they think the revolution is Salafi [extreme Islamist].”

This impression of tense stalemate was reinforced as we traveled into areas held by other rebel battalions. Saumar, the big, slow-talking commander of the Afhad al-Rasul battalion in the Mashad district of the city, acknowledged the rebels’ shortage of weaponry and ammunition. “In general, we’re on the attack,” he said. “We control the Salah al-Din neighborhood now. We’re near the Ramous highway. But the problem is equipment and bullets.”

News reports suggest that the rebels now control between 60 to 70 percent of Aleppo. I had no opportunity to meet the government troops, of course, but they are reportedly tired, demoralized, and afraid. The rebels that I met are not in that frame of mind. They are tired, too, after the bloody two-month slogging match in the city. But morale is high. They believe they are on the road to victory.

The rebel forces in Aleppo consist of a large number of independently constituted battalions, each gathered around a particular neighborhood and a particular commander. Saumar notes that commanders of all battalions meet daily to coordinate operations. He and Abu Ahmed are both Sunni, neither of them Islamist. Both describe themselves as loyal to the Free Syrian Army.

Neither commander professed loyalty to the notional overall leadership of the FSA, at the time still based in Turkey. “I’m a field commander,” Saumar said, “and I’m part of the Aleppo military council. But I’m not part of any external group, and I don’t see them as authoritative.”

Both men stressed an underlying unity among rebel units deriving from the simple goal of defeating and destroying the Assad regime. In Aleppo, I found no reason to doubt this claim, but it raised as many questions as it answered. The FSA is almost exclusively Sunni Arab. But it is not, as one Assad propaganda campaign with some success in Western capitals has it, motivated solely or mainly by Islamist ardor, either of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist variety. But if the FSA’s only basis for unity is military-tactical, what does this mean for the future political direction of Syria, in the event of the regime’s defeat?

My attempts to bring up the subject of the Syrian National Council or any of the other supposed umbrella groupings of the opposition were immediately dismissed.

The two most noticeable rebel units in Aleppo, and the only two who appear to transcend the general arrangement of local FSA-affiliated battalions, are the Tawhid Brigade and the Ahrar al-Sham group, both of which are tied to the Islamist current. Checkpoints affiliated with these groups have been established at the most prominent entrance points to the city, testifying to a sort of hierarchy of units, in which these feature close to the top.

Ahrar al-Sham fighters, in their mode of dress and their slogans, clearly identify themselves as Salafist Islamists. Their checkpoints and positions fly white, black, and green flags with slogans from the Koran written on them. They are rumored to be supported by Saudi Arabia and to be affiliated with al Qaeda. My own contacts did not extend to this organization.

Tawhid fighters, by contrast, do not markedly differ in their appearance from the FSA groupings. But the brigade, doubtless the largest single rebel group operating in the Aleppo area, maintains a separate leadership structure from the Aleppo military council and the FSA. I met with one of Tawhid’s leaders, in the Saif al-Dawli section of the city. The man, middle-aged, ginger-bearded, from the Al-Bab area northeast of Aleppo, described himself as one of the five commanders of the brigade. He was frank regarding Tawhid’s differences with the FSA and the Aleppo Military Council. “At the moment the Military Council has cut support from us. But we believe it will be restored in the near future.”

What was the reason for the cut in support, I asked. “Fear,” he said. “Fear of the Islamic states.” (Tawhid is rumored to be a major beneficiary of aid from Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.) And was this fear justified? Was Tawhid receiving aid from Islamic countries and movements? I didn’t expect a straight answer and was not disappointed. “Relief materials only,” he replied.

In contrast to the FSA fighters and field commanders that I met, the Tawhid commander had no hesitation in describing his political ambitions for Syria. “All the forces want one thing, one thought—an Islamic state, but with protection for minority rights.”

He was predictably dismissive of the Syrian National Council, describing it as a “spokesman” for the Syrian people, rather than a political authority. “The real leadership is inside Syria, in the field—not in Turkey.”

He had the usual cool politeness and optimism of Islamists. But his parting words to me combined strategic optimism with tactical concern. “The rebels trust in their own motivation and in the help of God. But what we need right now,” he added, “is antiaircraft weapons.”

The helplessness of the rebels in the face of aerial attacks was demonstrated during my time in Aleppo. I was at the Dar al-Shifa hospital in the Sha’ar neighborhood when it was attacked by a regime jet fighter.

Dar al-Shifa is one of two hospitals serving both FSA fighters and civilians in the rebel-controlled part of the city. Along with hospital staff and families of patients, I was forced to take refuge in the basement of the hospital during the attack. The fighter jet dropped a bomb that landed about 10 yards from the entrance to the hospital, killing and wounding a number of people in the street. The jet made a second run over the hospital, firing off a salvo of rockets that caused the electricity supply in the hospital to temporarily shut down.

The bombing of a hospital is a war crime, an attack against a defenseless civilian population. According to Dar al-Shifa staffers, it is a near-daily occurrence.

Airpower is Assad’s main weapon at this stage in the battle for Aleppo. Jet fighters and helicopters drone above like large insects. Flying uncontested over the city, they seem to cruise or hover aimlessly, before swooping down to release their charge with terrible noise and devastation among the population below.

The fighter jets drop a type of bomb that resembles an oildrum filled with explosives. It hits the ground, then explodes about five seconds later. Aleppans have grown used to waiting, but my driver, Mahmoud, was almost killed when he ran into the street to try to move his car after a bomb hit the ground, thinking that the noise it made on impact was the explosion itself. An Aleppan who held him back saved his life. The car was badly damaged, the windshield shattered.

Later, I visited the site of a major aerial bombing in Azaz, north of Aleppo. The bombing, in which around 75 people were killed, had reduced a whole neighborhood to rubble. An old man was moving what remained of his property from the ruins of his former dwelling. Two of his nephews had died in the bombing. He worked himself into a fury as we asked him about the details. “Neither the Jews, nor the Americans, nor the French, nor the British ever did anything like this,” he said, as he counted off modern Syria’s fabled enemies on his fingers.

The aerial bombings have created a huge population of Syrian refugees across the border in Turkey, living precariously in the countryside along the border fence, or at the makeshift refugee camp established at the Bab al-Salaam crossing point, due north of Azaz and about two hours’ drive from Aleppo.

To encounter this population is to understand the terrible human cost of the methods employed by the Assad regime. A schoolteacher from Azaz, encamped with his family at Bab el-Salaam, told me that his children become hysterical when they hear the sound of aircraft. Another man, who had been prescribed anti-depressant tablets, handed me a roll of them. “Here,” he said, “a present. You’ll be needing these when you get back.”

A third man, whose attempts at eloquence gave way to tears, sent his son to bring me one of his daughters from the tent. The little girl, who could not have been more than 4, had suffered severe brain damage from a bomb fragment. She squirmed and wriggled in her brother’s arms, her mouth opening and closing. Her father, weeping silently, showed me the scar on her head where the fragment had entered.

A crime of great magnitude is under way in Syria. As the dictatorship loses ground, it is attacking its own civilian population with terrible and indiscriminate violence.

Observation of the military and political situation in Aleppo from a Western point of view leads directly to an inescapable dilemma. On the one hand, the Assad regime is a criminal enterprise, now busily engaged in the energetic slaughter of a considerable part of its own civilian population. It is also an ally of the most dangerous anti-Western and aggressively antidemocratic alliance in the Middle East, the Iran-led bloc.

For all these reasons, increased aid and intervention on behalf of the rebellion would appear to represent a rare alignment of strategic and ethical responsibilities. The means by which this could be undertaken are familiar: a no-fly zone in the north, increased weaponry including antiaircraft ordnance for the rebellion, a safe zone for refugees.

But there is another consideration that became clearer to me during my talks and meetings in Aleppo. Sunni Islamism is having its moment in the Arabic-speaking world. This is apparent in the nature of the Syrian insurgency. The most powerful forces engaged against the dictator do not represent liberty in the form recognizable to the Western mind.

There are many non-Islamist fighters and commanders among the rebels. But the best-organized, and the only ones with a clear vision of Syria beyond Assad in the crucial Aleppo front, are the Islamists. It is important to note that the more extreme, al Qaeda-type jihadists exist only in relatively small numbers. But the insurgency as a whole was born in rural Sunni Arab communities. Today in Aleppo, the rebel fighters hail overwhelmingly not from the city itself, but from the surrounding villages and towns of Aleppo governorate. If victorious, this rebellion will almost certainly give birth to a conservative, Sunni regime.

The question then is whether the Sunni Islamist ferment now under way across the region constitutes a greater danger to Western interests than the Iran-led bloc of which Assad is a cornerstone.

In the wake of events over the last month in the Middle East, that concern is yet more pressing. After a terrorist attack in Benghazi killing a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and the storming of the U.S. embassy compound in Cairo, it’s hardly surprising that Americans are wary of backing a side in Syria that might in time turn against U.S. interests. And yet the failure to engage further with the rebellion makes a bad outcome certain: either the victory of Assad, or the emergence of a Sunni Islamist regime with no links, debts, or client loyalty to the West.

The United States and other Western powers have typically prioritized threats, to be dealt with in order of urgency. First there were the Nazis, and then the Soviets. The pressing issue in the Middle East is still the Islamist bloc led by Iran that is racing toward a nuclear arms program. Ensuring that the rebellion against Assad succeeds would strike a major blow against the mullahs.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

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