'We have no one to help us but ourselves'
Where once were shops and homes there is a tangle of twisted metal, concrete and glass; and despite their triumphs, the rebels know their paltry arsenal is no match for Assad’s troops, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, in Aleppo
AS HE drives his battered car around the ghostly streets of Salahuddin, the young man known to his fellow rebels as Abu Bakr begins to sing. “Ghurabaa, ghurabaa, ghurabaa, ghurabaa,” go the opening lines of one of his favourite nasheed, religious songs usually performed a-cappella. Ghurabaa means “strangers” in Arabic and the song is believed to have first been composed by an Egyptian Islamist while he was on trial several decades ago.
The brigade Abu Bakr belongs to is called Ghurabaa al Sham – or the Strangers of Syria.
“Ghurabaa do not bow the foreheads to anyone besides Allah,” Abu Bakr sings in a soft voice. “Ghurabaa have chosen this to be the motto of life/ If you ask about us, then we do not care about the tyrants/ We are the regular soldiers of Allah, our path is a reserved path/ We never care about the chains, rather we’ll continue forever/ So let us make jihad, and battle, and fight from the start.”
As he turns right into a narrow street, Abu Bakr’s nasheed tapers off as he takes in the scale of the destruction wrought by the planes of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The entire street has been blasted. Where once there were shops and homes, now there is a tangle of twisted metal, concrete and glass. A handful of men gingerly pick their way through the rubble, looking skywards now and then as if expecting to hear the roar of the bomber aircraft again. Abu Bakr wanders around, uttering prayers.
In a darkened doorway stands a man who nervously gives his name only as Abulmajid. He is a pharmacist turned thowar (revolutionary). He witnessed the bombing raid that he says felt like it had knocked the street sideways. He describes Mig fighter jets swooping low enough to make window panes shake before soaring up and then dropping down again to release their destructive load.
“I counted six bombs in 15 minutes,” he says. “It was the most frightening experience of my life. I fear they will come again because they know this is a thowar stronghold.”
Abulmajid ushers me towards a nearby building. Hidden at the back, through darkened corridors, is a makeshift hospital in what was once a lawyer’s office. “Our first secret hospital was bombed so we came here,” Abulmajid says. “I am just a pharmacist but I have been doing my best to treat the fighters. We have brought around 10 injured men here. Most of them had been hit by snipers.”
The beds are empty – most of the wounded were hurriedly evacuated after the bombardment – and there are trolleys containing bandages, syringes and rudimentary medicines. “It is very basic,” shrugs Abulmajid. “But there is a great need for secret hospitals like this – if the thowar are taken to a regular hospital, they will be tortured or killed. This has happened already in Aleppo and other cities.”
Abulmajid is one of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians whose lives have been turned upside down over the past year after the Assad regime met anti-regime protests with brutal violence, helping tip what were initially peaceful demonstrations into an armed revolt against a dynasty that has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than four decades.
“I am not a fighter,” he says, almost apologetically. “But I knew I had to do something. I am trying to help in whatever way I can. It feels like Assad has plunged our country into a kind of madness.”
Named after the legendary Kurdish military leader who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187 and Aleppo four years before, Salahuddin was once home to more than 200,000 people. Now it is emptied of everyone apart from a few thousand rebel fighters determined to hold on to the strategic southeastern district as they prepare to advance on the rest of the city.
The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and an important commercial centre, began here in the dense and rather dilapidated warren of streets that make up Salahuddin. The city had largely been spared the horrifying violence that scarred other parts of Syria until February, when the pro-Assad militia known as shabiha killed at least 10 people at an anti-regime demonstration here. More than a dozen soldiers have died as a result of explosions outside security bases in Aleppo.
Rebel fighters from the loosely organised jaish hurr (Free Army) began slipping into Salahuddin before dawn on July 19th, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. Many came from villages and towns in Aleppo’s hinterland. Others came further afield from surrounding provinces such as Idlib. Among them were teachers, engineers, doctors, farmers, taxi drivers, labourers and army defectors. I met one man who had travelled from his home in Homs, the restive city in central Syria which has borne the brunt of the regime’s onslaught, to join the battle for Aleppo. For him it was a very personal fight, driven by an intense desire for vengeance. In a low voice, he explained that his wife and four children, the youngest only eight months old, had been killed by shabiha.
The rebel ranks also include younger, more fervently religious men like Tareq, who admits to still taking a government salary though he turned revolutionary several months ago. Like the other rebel fighters, he uses a nom de guerre – his is Abu Musab, which translates as “father of Musab” – to avoid detection. The fighters he travels with carry black and white flags and headbands emblazoned with the Muslim declaration of faith. Their rhetoric has a religious tinge but they say they envisage a democratic Syria in which minorities will be protected.
In between chatting about his relatives in Dublin, Tareq voices frustration over how poorly armed he and his fellow fighters are, saying everyone he knows bought their Kalashnikovs with their own money. “We have no one to help us but ourselves,” he says.
There are other rebels in Salahuddin and other outlying areas with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and Dushka anti-aircraft guns mounted on pick-up trucks. One fighter points out, with a wry smile, the irony of the name Dushka, which translates loosely as “little darling” in Russian.
Others have seized weapons from the Syrian military, including a number of tanks. In an Aleppo school turned rebel base, fighters – some barely out of their teens, others dressed in shorts and flip-flops – lovingly cradle a large unexploded tank shell that was confiscated earlier that day.
The opposition forces that have held Salahuddin for almost two weeks are made up of several different factions loosely gathered under the umbrella of Liwa al-Tawhid. The name has religious connotations: tawhid in Arabic refers to the oneness of God in Islam. Liwa can translate as banner or brigade. Liwa al-Tawhid’s name is spray-painted on street signs and on the walls of two burnt-out police stations overrun by the rebels after fierce fighting this week. Pinning down exact numbers – whether for fatalities or weapons jettisoned – is close to impossible, but the fighters claim to have killed more than 100 Syrian soldiers as well as destroying several tanks.
Everyone agrees Aleppo is hugely symbolic and strategic for both regime and rebels. The storied northwestern city, once part of the old Silk Road route and now on Unesco’s World Heritage list, has more than 2.5 million inhabitants. Most of those are Sunni Muslims who live alongside a minority population of Christians and a sprinkling of Syria’s myriad other sects.
Gaining the trust of all elements of the city’s population will be crucial for the rebels, particularly given that the regime’s narrative that paints opponents as “terrorist gangs” or “extremist Islamists” has gained some currency among Syria’s minorities.
“We will show them by our deeds that we are patriots who want a better Syria for all,” said one youthful opposition fighter. He admitted, however, that the rebel killing of several members of Aleppo’s powerful Berri clan this week may have damaged these efforts, though the Berris were feared – even loathed – by many here for their links to the shabiha.
For Assad, losing this important commercial hub just 50km south of the Turkish border would shake his grip on power to the core. The rebels, meanwhile, see in the ancient city the possibility of finally establishing a proper base for their revolt. Caught in between are the more than 200,000 residents the UN says have fled the city over the past week. An estimated 15,000 to 18,000 others have been displaced inside Aleppo, many of them reduced to sleeping in schools, mosques and even parks.
Ask rebel commanders in Aleppo how long they expect this battle to take and you get different answers. “A month,” one told me. “Weeks,” said another. “Only God knows,” was another response.
Rebel fighters know that their relatively paltry arsenal is no match for Assad’s troops, supported as they are by tanks, artillery and fighter aircraft. But the rebels counter that Aleppo’s topography, particularly its narrow alleys and winding streets, suits their style of hit-and-run urban guerrilla warfare. They also boast that they now control an open supply route from the Turkish border, allowing to them regroup, replenish supplies and get their hands on better weaponry.
But in Syria’s see-sawing war, many of the rebels admit nothing can be taken for granted. Most are shy of giving their real names or having their faces photographed – suggesting a latent fear that the tide may turn against them. Others are fatalistic. “We win or we die,” one told me, using the battle cry of Omar al-Mukhtar, a Libyan resistance hero who fought the Italian occupation of his country. The line became one of the most popular slogans of the revolution in Libya last year.
A day of elation can easily turn into a night of despair for the rebels as happened to one band of fighters I travelled with to Salahuddin. Hours after celebrating the seizing of a police station and the capture of the Berris, they learned of the deaths of several rebels they knew well. The men had been shot dead by shabiha who had emerged after nightfall in another part of the city. Numb with grief, the opposition fighters sat chain-smoking in silence. I was reminded of what a rebel commander in Idlib had told me days before: “Please remember none of us likes war.
“But the circumstances we find ourselves in have forced us to become soldiers.”