ALEPPO, Syria - The route to Aleppo from the Turkish border is a long web of dirt back roads with miles of exposed ground. But undaunted and in total darkness, dozens of young men jump onto white trucks with their AK-47 rifles, keen to join the fight there.
Syria’s 16-month revolt has finally erupted in the country’s
commercial hub, but the momentum was not generated inside the
city – it was brought into the historic city’s ancient stone
alleyways from the scorched fields of the surrounding
“We liberated the rural parts of this province. We waited
and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn’t. We couldn’t rely
on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the
revolution to them,” said a rebel commander in a nearby village,
who calls himself Abu Hashish.
The short scrawny man with a drooping grey moustache sits
juggling cell phones and a walkie-talkie, arranging for the next
convoy to head for Aleppo. Tanks of fuel and homemade grenades
for use in rocket launchers are piled up along the outside of
his house, ready to be dispatched.
“About 80 percent of the fighters in this city come from the
countryside. Aleppo is a business town, people said they wanted
to stay neutral. But now that we have come, they seem to be
accepting us,” he said.
As towns across Syria were rocked by the uprising against
President Bashar al-Assad – in which it is estimated 18,000
people have been killed – Aleppo, home to conservative Muslim
families and businesses, stayed largely silent.
Although armed resistance began in poorer districts where
residents had more tribal allegiances or rural backgrounds,
Aleppo’s sacrifices have paled in comparison to nearby northern
Idlib, central Homs or even Damascus, the capital.
Exasperated by the slow progress in Aleppo, rebels in the
countryside said they were finally emboldened to push into the
city after an assassination in the capital Damascus of four top
government officials, including the defence minister.
“It was a boost to our spirits. We were so excited because
we knew it was time. Aleppo is the economic centre, the true
source of regime power. If we can strike it hard, and hold on,
we can bring Bashar down,” said one rebel fighter joining the
convoy who called himself Abu Bakr.
As they arrived in Aleppo before dawn, the fighters sped
through the winding alleyways of the city’s outskirts shouting:
“God is great”. And then the morning skirmishes began.
The rattle of rebel machinegun fire greeted the thuds of
army tank fire, artillery could be heard in the distance, and an
air force fighter jet streaked overhead.
The streets of rebel-held neighbourhoods are a graveyard of
overturned, torched buses, specially placed along the streets by
rebels to block army tanks from rolling in. The charred remains
of tanks can also be seen – in heaps – by palm trees lining main
“So far things here are going well for us. We have been used
to fighting in olive groves and open fields. We were always
exposed,” said Hakour, a 23-year-old with a straggly beard
wearing camouflage fatigues.
Lounging inside a school taken over by the rebels as a
temporary base, he said: “It’s much nicer to fight here where we
can hide in alleyways and buildings. We will stay until Aleppo
Toting grenade launchers, the fighters are incongruous
alongside the school’s pastel-coloured walls. Every rebel unit
that has passed through here has left a message in graffiti.
“The Farouq Brigade was here”, “The Muthanna Brigade will topple
Bashar”, “God is with those who will triumph”.
One rebel plays on an electric keyboard that he found in the
school music room. Other men play table tennis in the main
hallway. Nearby, fighters sleep along the walls, curled up next
to their guns and grenades.
“It took us months and months to liberate the countryside.
But here things are moving quickly. We have even set up a
security team with a hotline if residents want us to help them,”
The rebels drink fizzy soft drinks as they sing and make
jokes. But their jubilation is premature. A few minutes later a
loud blast shakes the school and the rebels scatter to grab
their weapons and head to the basement – a reminder of the
army’s determination to crush the uprising.
As another ripple of mortar fire echoes nearby, the men
decide that they should switch bases.
“LET THEM DESTROY US”
“We had to start the battle to encourage Aleppo and get the
residents accustomed to being part of the uprising. A lot of
families have given the fighters money secretly, but they didn’t
want to do more. And there are even people unfortunately who
still support the regime,” said a fighter named Jumaa.
“I think for Aleppo the memories of the 1980s are still very
deep,” Jumaa said, referring to an Islamist uprising which was
crushed by Assad’s late father, whose forces killed at least
10,000 people in the central city of Hama.
The rebel-held area of Aleppo visited by a Reuters reporter
appeared to be completely deserted by residents. Fighters were
using houses as bases to sleep in.
Just 20 km (12 miles) outside Aleppo, rebels have declared
most of the countryside free of Assad’s forces. In the villages
men gather to smoke and chat at night, while women wrapped in
colourful veils let their children run onto the rubble-strewn
streets to cheer at smiling gunmen.
“God protect the Free Syrian Army,” they shouted.
Despite the tentative calm their home towns now enjoy, there
is a hint of resentment towards Aleppo’s residents from rural
fighters gathered on the city’s streets.
“My brother was shot dead just last month,” says 22-year-old
fighter Mustafa. He points out other faces in the crowd of rebel
fighters. “His cousin died six months ago. Soldiers poured
gasoline on him and set him on fire,” Mustafa says.
Pointing to another group, he says: “Their families have
fled and they haven’t seen them in a year.”
Outside the city, rebel commander Abu Hashish says more
sacrifices are necessary, and that the time has come for his
urban brothers to share the burden.
“In Aleppo they only think about trade, about money. They
think about their own life, they think about their children’s
future. They don’t fight the regime because they care about the
here and now,” he said.
“In the countryside we know we must give up on the present.
I will sacrifice my life and my children’s lives. Let them
destroy our homes. This fight is for a new generation coming
that will have a chance to have a life of dignity. And for me,
that is worth sacrificing everything.”