The Battle for Aleppo
The war in Aleppo is never far away. mountains of rubbish line some of the larger streets; an old man serves coffee beside the remains of a burned-out tank; a boy of about 12 limps across the street, an intravenous drip feed trailing behind him. Many of the cars are festooned with bullet holes; a pickup truck we pass is carrying coffins made of cheap wood. Rebel-controlled hospitals, petrol stations and bakeries have been flattened by airstrikes and mortar rounds; at one bombed-out bakery, in the district of Kadi Askar, activists claim that forty people were killed waiting in the queue outside. In Ard al-Hamra, where a flurry of ballistic missiles in February killed scores, I see an entire residential area reduced to bricks. Smoke is still rising from the district of Sheik Maksud, where Kurdish militias, upset at the bombing of their areas, have for weeks been drawn into their own battle with the regime. In two days, I see a half-dozen armed men who plainly aren’t Syrian: one tall, angular Afghan stands guard outside a building, another speeds along on a motorbike, while a few North Africans share a moped and a Kalashnikov. What ordinary Aleppans make of this influx of freelance jihadis isn’t clear. When we approach areas thick with Jabhat al-Nusra, Abdul Kareem tells me to put away my camera.
Given the scale of the damage, it’s surprising how many residents are still going about their business. Even in impoverished neighborhoods, street vendors ply a roaring trade in fruit and vegetables; buses under rebel control ferry people around town, with traffic policemen doing their best to control the flow. Abdul Kareem stops in several neighborhoods to stock up on coffee and sheep’s cheese and to chew the fat with old friends. “Bashar al-Assad is a donkey,” barks the cherubic owner of a coffee house as he grinds our beans. “And his father is a donkey. Two donkeys.” Everyone laughs. “These areas are very poor,” Abdul Kareem says later. “The beautiful places in Aleppo we cannot see.” His own home in the neighborhood of New Aleppo is still firmly under government control; he has no idea whether it’s still standing. This was Syria’s richest city before the fighting, and many of its more prosperous residents are not yet convinced by this revolt of the pious, disenfranchised rural poor. Over there, on the other side of the city’s bridges, the war must look very different.
In the evening, as we drive back toward the Turkish border, there’s barely a checkpoint around. We zip past the enormous, tree-lined army base at al-Moushat, one of Syria’s prestigious military academies before it was overrun by the rebels. “A hard battle was fought there,” says Abdul Kareem. “Hundreds of Syrian soldiers were killed.” Taking a detour, we bypass the rebel stronghold of Tal Rifaat, where last summer I interviewed a charismatic young battalion commander called Abu Nasr; he was killed the same day as Ayham. Abu Nasr talked about the threat from Menagh, the last remaining air force base in the area. Nearly a year later, the rebels are still battling for control of it; we meet some, fresh from the latest assault as they remove heavy guns from their trucks. In the past few weeks they’ve made some progress, even capturing some of the base, but they haven’t had everything their own way. The reason for our circuitous route, I discover, is that a militia from a neighboring Shiite village has arrived to reinforce the Syrian Army and has ambushed the rebels. Only as we near the border do I notice that Abdul Kareem has kept a pistol, wrapped in cloth, in the glove compartment.
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Aleppo, like the rest of Syria, is being ripped apart by bombs, but more difficult to solve is the fact that its once enviable mosaic of ethnic and religious groups is being torn into its constituent parts. Two years ago, Syria’s political awakening was the great hope of the Middle East; now it looks more poison than cure. The conflict, with its cycle of attacks and revenge massacres, is systematically robbing the country of its future; even if the war ended tomorrow, Syria would still be suffering the effects of so many killed or wounded. But with Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq queuing up to support their Syrian brethren, the fighting seems sure to spread. “The damage,” Molham told me, “is not going to become Syria’s alone. Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey—the whole region is going to go up in flames.”
Abdul Kareem had invited me to come and have dinner at his refugee camp, and the day after we get back I take him up on his offer. I arrive early and we spend the afternoon in his steel container, chatting, drinking strong Arabic coffee and, out of the corner of our eyes, watching a rebel-friendly news channel. The minaret from Aleppo’s most distinguished mosque, a thousand-year-old world heritage site revered by Christians and Muslims alike, has just been destroyed in heavy fighting. Another friend of Ayham, a young man called Serj, was killed the day before; Abdul Kareem shows me his picture on Facebook. “I knew him well,” he says. “We all did.” From the same Facebook account, he plays me a propaganda video from Molham’s unit. With Islamist battle music for its soundtrack, the video shows fighters clad in black balaclavas, cocking their rifles above a half-dozen burly, kneeling shabiha; they almost certainly executed the prisoners immediately after. A few weeks later, I would hear that Youness has been killed too, in the course of a raid on army positions at Al-Izaa. One of his fellow rebels would send me a picture of his bloodied body, wrapped in a white shroud, and then politely request a photo of Youness from when he was still alive.
Over a delicious dinner of roast chicken and aryan, the yogurt-based drink popular among Syrians, I ask Abdul Kareem how long this can go on. “One month if you give us weapons,” he says, in the familiar rebel refrain, “ten years if you don’t.” The Shiites, he adds, unprompted, “are the worst people in the world. They’re killing us, with knives.” His two younger sons have joined us to eat, and Saleh, his clued-up 13-year-old, uses his finger to mimic the act of slitting someone’s throat. It’s what they did to 5-year-old Khalil, he says.
The last time I came here, the rebel conversation was all about how the Syrian revolution was for everyone, how all of the country’s different denominations were playing their part, even if discreetly, to push it forward. Are there any Shiites at all in the FSA? I ask Abdul Kareem. “No.” Do they have a future in Syria? “Maybe not.” I wonder what he makes of Jabhat al-Nusra’s phenomenal rise as the rebellion grinds on. “Ninety-nine percent of them will lay down their guns when the regime falls; they are good people and don’t like what their leaders are saying.” Like every other Syrian rebel I meet, however, Abdul Kareem knows they are the coming thing. “Say there are 5,000 Nusra here now,” he says, spitting out the words. “Next year, I promise you there will be 50,000.”