Life in Aleppo has become almost unbearable. People are living in misery and surviving on sheer determination. When I arrived, Aleppo was a city under siege from the air and from the ground, with regime forces trying to maintain their foothold in the city. I had heard rumors on the way in that a school had been destroyed from the air earlier that morning; I arrived to have those rumors confirmed by three impact craters in the schoolyard. Apart from the aerial bombardment, Aleppines are contending with widespread and severe hunger, as well as a lack of water and the bite of freezing cold. I was horrified to see children shivering violently on the open streets.
It is true that the civilian and rebel command structure in the city is decentralized and uncertain. However various civic organizations (ambulance corps etc) and Katibas (anti-regime militias) have been working together with surprising fluidity. I saw Kurdish and Arab fighters in the same Katiba as well as Kurdish Katibas that were working in coordination with the FSA. I have heard many stories of FSA on Kurdish violence, and vice versa, but in Aleppo at least it is clear that the core of the Kurdish movement is directly involved in the fight against Assad and strongly allied with the FSA (in some cases obviously integrated). In one case I saw a Kurdish FSA fighter commanding Arabs, which I wouldn’t have expected given the stereotypical animosity between the two groups.
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Another thing that was abundantly clear to me was the fact that despite the presence of a well-armed Salafi minority, the overwhelming majority of the fighters you see on the streets are not Muslim extremists. It was clear from my conversations with FSA fighters and from simply walking around Aleppo that the Jabhat al Nusra is distinctly different from the more moderate FSA. The Islamist vision of the Jabhat al Nusra is frightening to most ordinary Aleppines I met. The presence of al Nusra fighters is tolerated because they effectively attack the regime, but it is clear that the FSA treats the Kurdish fighters with a level of trust that they do not give the al Nusra fighters.
The people of Aleppo have proven their brilliance under fire, piecing together improved ambulance and bus services, hospitals, machine guns, grenades and tanks from scraps. I saw mirrors attached to broomsticks, a makeshift tool used to scope out enemy snipers; bike handlebars mounted to the back of an anti-aircraft gun to replace the broken or discarded firing mechanism; ambulances which are now painted black because the regime targets them at night. The rebels have a variety of low tech innovations like homemade grenades, holes that they have punched into buildings so they can advance or retreat under cover. But most surprising were the carpets that were hung across contested streets to limit the view of regime sharpshooters. These low-tech gadgets are contrasted by the high tech, and sly ways in which the rebels maintain contact with one another and the outside world. The satellite uplink I used was held together with dangling scraps of wires that would slip out of place and cut our communication with the outside world. It’s a nod to the entrepreneurial fact everyone here likes to remember: Steve Jobs was half Syrian with roots in the besieged city of Homs.
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My experience at the front gave me a glimpse of the course of the battle. During sniper runs (when you run across a street exposed to regime sharpshooters), the regime fighters would fire wildly at even the slightest movement. After we cursed at the snipers, an FSA sharpshooter who crossed the street with me said, “I would not have taken the shot, not waste bullets.”
The neighborhood of Almaria is rubble and skeletons of buildings, the site of constant mortar bombardment, where ground is gained and lost at a horrifying human cost. I was told that the regime is becoming more frightened to fly helicopters over the city during the day.
A friend told me that a month earlier the regime had a firmer grip on the skies, as judged by the drop in daylight helicopter and MiG attacks. At one point the FSA brought me into a ravaged apartment block and let me film the regime sniper positions from around 200 meters. That was the closest I had ever been to seeing the faces of the regime forces, who had since then been manifest only in explosions across the city, in the roar of engines in the sky, and in the sound of gunfire.
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The attitude in Aleppo is one of desperate determination to survive. Maybe someday the Syrians will be able to use their genius as free people, showing the world their gift for innovation. Perhaps the boys on the dushkas will someday be able to throw their weapons back in the scrapyard and put their energy towards building cars and computers. Maybe those mirrors will be used by women fixing their makeup, not by rebels on the watch for snipers. And then, maybe the carpets will be brought down to adorn living room floors.