The Battle for Aleppo
The last time I came here, much of the rebel fury was reserved for Alawite Muslims, the minority offshoot of Shiite Islam from which the Assad family and many of the regime’s senior functionaries and paramilitaries are drawn. This year, however, the Shiites themselves are the enemy. A television in the corner is blaring footage of the daily sectarian violence in neighboring Iraq, most of it directed against Shiites, and I ask Aleh, a wiry young man sitting beside me, whether he really wants Syria to end up like that. “I want it and I don’t want it. I don’t want it because it will kill very many. But the Shiites must understand that they don’t own Syria or Iraq. A very bad war is coming.” But surely, I say, he’s only talking about the irregular paramilitaries of the shabiha and not an entire religious group? “We don’t like all the Shiites, because all of them are killing us,” he insists. “They say bad things about our Prophet. When I kill a man in the Syrian Army, I am sad. But I enjoy killing Shiites or Alawites.”
Every so often, the generator dies and the room turns pitch black. At one point I see a flashlight, and then Abdul Kareem is hovering over me with a dozen conical steel tubes. The men in this unit, he tells me, have just welded it into a pipe bomb. “We throw it like a grenade,” he says, mimicking the act. “America sends us nothing.”
Just as I’m about to fall asleep, I hear shouting from the street outside. Locals who double as police have brought in four men, accusing them of theft and possibly murder. One is a former member of the FSA, and all were pretending to be working for another rebel unit when they were caught. It’s a big problem, says Abdul Kareem; given the amorphous nature of the organization, anyone can claim rebel status and loot the area. “We can’t clean ourselves properly because we are too busy fighting,” he adds. The detainees are taken to a room at the end of the corridor, and late into the night I hear flesh being slapped and terrible screams. I get up and sit on the balcony with the other men, spitting out the shells of tiny Syrian nuts and listening to a regime helicopter hovering overhead; no one says anything. “Thieves,” shrugs Abdul Kareem. The next morning I’m awoken by a woman, apparently a relative of one of the alleged thieves, wailing and yelling at a rebel sentry in the street outside.
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The previous evening, Molham had offered to take me to the front line at Salaheddine; he’d even given me a military pep talk. For the rebels, he said, the battle for Salaheddine wasn’t really about strategy. It had been the first big engagement for them on their way into central Aleppo, so winning it outright was “a matter of honor,” he told me. On the way, however, he had other business to attend to; Youness had sustained a minor shoulder injury. We stopped at the street clinic of a local healer, a wizened old man in an Arabic headdress. Before he would treat Youness, however, he wanted to give everyone a piece of his mind. Some FSA units, he said, were nothing better than thieves and bandits; no one seemed to want to do anything about it. Eventually Abdul Kareem calmed him down, saying he’d see what he could do.
Very little can prepare you for the epic scale of destruction in Salaheddine. In the worst-affected streets, barely a house has been left untouched; a weightless, otherworldly quiet obscures the fact that many poor Aleppans are still living here among the ruins. When the car can take us no farther, we get out and stumble through the wreckage. Just behind the pockmarked dome of the area’s main mosque, Molham shows me a grassy yard where the rebels bury their dead in shallow graves; the fighting here is so intense that they have no time to bury them properly. As the streets narrow, drapes hang on the upper floors to block the view of snipers. It’s only when we arrive that I realize they’ve taken me to where Ayham was killed last August. Molham, standing in the exact spot where it happened, points out the remains of a makeshift clinic where rebel-friendly doctors had been working when regime forces stormed the area. As we stand there, another group of rebels is preparing to go into battle: a white van packed with men wearing black Islamist bandannas fires itself up with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” before speeding off toward government lines.
After we return to the car, I follow up on something Abdul Kareem had mentioned earlier: that his battalion had arrested an alleged perpetrator of one of Aleppo’s most appalling massacres and that the man had made a confession. Did they beat or torture him? I ask. “Just a little,” says Molham. The suspect had asked to see his children, and they were duly smuggled into rebel-held territory to meet him. “When they arrived, the man began to kiss their feet and cry,” Molham tells me. “They were telling him that they hated him for what he had done.” In the end, Molham and everyone else in the room was crying, too. Will he be killed? “Probably.”
Molham says that his unit handed the alleged killer over to a secret rebel court, where his testimony was being checked by human rights activists and lawyers. There is no way to verify this, and no prospect of an interview with the suspect. Torture and criminality are rife on all sides in Aleppo; confessions extracted under such conditions have doubtful value. What’s clear, however, is that the disparate rebel factions are working hard to establish an alternative administrative and judicial system in the areas under their control. After we drop Molham off, Abdul Kareem takes me to the Al Shaar district to see it in action. In an open-plan office space above a factory humming with sewing machines, I find a long row of young men and women typing away at computers. Each table is responsible for its own municipal area: one for civilian defense, another for engineering projects, another for rebel-held hospitals and medical supplies. Everything is in embryo; the office has only been open a month, and the 25-year-old doctor who shows me around has only been working here for two days.
At a longer table in the middle, Abdul Kareem introduces me to a stout, balding man dressed in a suit. His name is Yasin Hilal, and he is an administrative official in rebel-held Aleppo as well as a leading figure in a rebel association of lawyers and judges, many of whom have defected from government areas. When I ask what kind of legal system the rebels are setting up, Hilal responds that its principles are those common to many Arab countries, combining elements of Islamic and civil law. It also comes with two kinds of courts: one to settle civil disputes, the other a network of secret military courts to try those accused of working for the regime. Though he doesn’t exactly say so, Hilal’s courts seem to have an uneasy working relationship with those of Jabhat al-Nusra, whose own heavily guarded Sharia court I’d passed on my way into the city. Would his government be more Islamic than Assad’s relatively secular Baathist state? Hilal seemed reluctant to comment but eventually said this: “The rules of justice are the same the world over. And there will be a charter to protect the rights of minorities.” I press him on how exactly his fledgling government would differ from the Baathist system. “It will be more Islamic, yes, but more modern.” Later, he shows me a montage of photos of rebel jurists who’d either been killed or are languishing in regime prisons.
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