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.