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In Syria's Biggest City, A Deadly Stalemate

Nov 5, 2012
Originally published on November 5, 2012 8:16 pm

Before the Syrian uprising, Aleppo was many things: Syria's largest city, its economic hub and cultural capital, one of the oldest, continuously occupied cities in the world.

Now, Aleppo has a more ominous distinction: a city that's seen some of the worst destruction, not only in Syria, but of any battleground in many years.

It's been more than three months since rebels in Syria launched an offensive to take Aleppo. In the early days of the offensive, the rebels were able to take about half the city.

But since then, neither the rebels nor government forces have managed to gain the upper hand, leaving many to declare the battle for Aleppo — and the battle for Syria — a stalemate.

Front Lines In The Old City

You can see this in what was once a popular destination for tourists in the Middle East: the narrow winding alleyways of Aleppo's old city, built around the 12th and 13th centuries.

We visited on a rainy day, which was good for one thing: the warplanes had stopped bombing.

In some areas, amid the old stone archways, cobblestone alleys and little stone houses with wooden balconies, you wouldn't know there was anything wrong.

Just a few steps down the alley, though, the spell is broken.

A stunning old building, with massive wooden doors covered in patterned copper, dates to 1354, and served most recently as a psychiatric hospital. Now, rebels are using it as a base camp.

To say they've taken good care of the place would be a lie.

These fighters aren't from Aleppo. They come from the small towns and villages beyond the city. To make their mark, they spray-painted the name of their village on the marble sign on this historic site.

Rebel fighters entered Aleppo's old city about a month ago, in a push to take more territory. That push ended with parts of the historic old covered market, or souk, set on fire and destroyed — and few, if any, gains for the rebels.

Now, fighters just stand guard, trying to hold onto the parts of the souk they do control. A new recruit from the village might be disappointed, says a rebel sympathizer named Maysoon.

Ready for battle, he finds, instead, a boring guard post where he rarely sees the enemy.

The Protracted Fight For Territory

Once the rain lets up, we head out into the rest of the city. We start to hear tell-tale booms in the distance. There are still no warplanes. But it is the time of the day when regime troops start shelling rebel-controlled areas.

We drive to another front-line neighborhood, this one a more modern collection of concrete and rebar apartment blocks. You can tell when you're getting close: The shops are closed, and rubble fills the streets.

The rubble is from the shelling and the warplanes. Entire floors are missing from the tops of buildings. Water mains and sewage lines are busted. The streets are covered in broken glass. The neighborhood is almost completely empty.

We come up on a bombed-out apartment building that shelters the rebel unit stationed here. This is the front line.

The regime's forces are only 50 feet away.

The rebels are trying to gain ground, away from this dense neighborhood and into an open area.

The regime is pounding the rebels with artillery shells that are exploding down the block.

Abu Ahmed is the commander of the unit that's holding this part of the front line.

Up several flights of stairs in another abandoned apartment building, Abu Ahmed's men are squatting in a room with lace curtains. The power goes out halfway through our conversation. Everybody is smoking.

Abu Ahmed says rebels took control of this area about two weeks into the Aleppo offensive, in early August. Since then he says they've managed to gain about six blocks.

Abu Ahmed says the goal is to take two buildings used by police and security forces.

If they are able to take over these posts, Abu Ahmed says, "we'll take all the security bases, then we'll free all of Aleppo, and we'll free all of Syria. It's as simple as that."

Too Late To Turn Back

Outside, there's a lull in the shelling.

A woman stands at an intersection with a look of horror on her face. A burnt-out bus blocks the view down the street to her right. A regime's sniper is posted on a rooftop down there.

Rebels tell the woman to stay put. But we need to get back to our car. So we have to duck, use the bus as cover, and run.

It all begs the question, what is the regime's strategy? Why not use ground troops to re-take these neighborhoods, instead of random shelling and a few snipers? If the rebels lack a detailed plan, is the regime's strategy just as flawed?

Some military analysts say the Syrian army has the manpower and firepower to retake Aleppo. But they say it's loath to put troops in harm's way, for fear they would defect.

What's more, they say, the army might be saving its best troops and best weapons for more decisive battles — for example, if there is an international intervention in the coming months. Or if the rebels acquire better weapons from abroad.

So for now it seems each side is hoping to wear the other one down.

At a camp about an hour's drive outside Aleppo, rebel fighters who once served in the regime's army run training courses for civilians who want to join the rebel cause.

The commander of the camp, Abu Mahmoud, says the rebels' offensive in Aleppo was a mistake. He says they should have taken the military bases outside Aleppo first. That way less destruction would have been loosed on the city's residents.

Now that the rebels are entrenched in Aleppo, he says, they can't retreat.

With a sigh, Abu Mahmoud compares the Aleppo offensive to the entire Syrian uprising. We started it, he says. It's too late to turn back now.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's been more than three months since rebels in Syria launched an offensive to take the city of Aleppo. In the early days of that offensive, the rebels were able to take about half the city. But since then, neither they nor government forces have managed to gain the upper hand. And that has left many to declare the battle for Aleppo and for Syria a stalemate.

NPR's Kelly McEvers managed to get inside Aleppo late last month and she sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Before the Syrian uprising, Aleppo was many things: Syria's largest city, the country's economic hub, Syria's cultural capital, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. Now Aleppo has earned a more ominous claim: the city that's seen some of the worst destruction since World War Two.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN)

MCEVERS: This used to be the place you'd come if you were a tourist in the Middle East, the tiny winding alleyways of Aleppo's old city, built around the 12th and 13th centuries. We went on a rainy day, which was good for one thing: the warplanes had stopped bombing.

We're standing under this beautiful old stone archway. It's pouring down rain. We're looking down this gorgeous, little cobblestone alleyway where you see these wooden balconies sticking out of these little stone houses. If you didn't know it, standing right here, you wouldn't know there was anything wrong.

Just a few steps down the alley, though, the spell is broken. We duck into a stunning old building with massive wooden doors covered in patterned copper.

What is this place?

It's a psychiatric hospital that was built in 1354. Now rebels are using it as a base camp.

Some of them sleep here. Yeah, you can see their beds over there.

To say they've taken good care of the place would be a lie.

Shisha pipe, TV, generator, couple of guns, a little oven.

Thing is, these fighters aren't from Aleppo. They come from the small towns and villages beyond the city. To make their mark, they've spray-painted the name of their village on the marble sign outside this historic site. Rebel fighters entered Aleppo's old city about a month ago, in a push to take more territory. That push ended with parts of the historic old covered market, or souq, set on fire and destroyed and few if any gains for the rebels. Now fighters just stand guard, trying to hold onto the parts of the souq they do control.

Well, a new recruit from the village might find himself disappointed, says a rebel sympathizer named Maysoon.

MAYSOON: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And he's got his heart full and he wants to go make clashing and, you know, like a fight, like real fight.

MCEVERS: But instead what he finds is a pretty boring guard post where he rarely sees the enemy.

Once the rain lets up, we head out into the rest of the city. We start to hear tell-tale booms in the distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MCEVERS: Still no warplanes, but it's the time of the day when regime troops start shelling rebel-controlled areas. We drive to another front-line neighborhood, this one a more modern collection of concrete and rebar apartment blocks. You can tell when you're getting close.

The shops are closed, lots of rubble in the streets.

The rubble is from the shelling and the warplanes. Entire floors are missing from the tops of buildings. Water mains and sewage lines are busted. The streets are covered in broken glass. The neighborhood is almost completely empty. We come up on a bombed-out apartment building that shelters the rebel unit stationed here. This is the front line.

So where are the regime's troops and where are the rebels?

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: At that corner, across. That's the regime forces.

MCEVERS: The regime's forces are only 50 feet away.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MCEVERS: The rebels are trying to gain ground, away from this dense neighborhood and into an open area.

So they're trying to move in that direction. They're just trying to keep taking territory this way?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Exactly.

MCEVERS: The rebels are going that way?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MCEVERS: The regime is pounding the rebels with artillery shells that are exploding just down the block.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

MCEVERS: So if they're just trying to move that way and take territory that way, to what end? What's the goal?

It's a question we put to Abu Ahmed, the commander of the unit that's holding this part of the front line. Up several flights of stairs in another abandoned apartment building, Abu Ahmed and his guys are squatting in a room with lace curtains. The power goes out halfway through our conversation. Everybody is smoking.

ABU AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Ahmed says rebels took control of this area about two weeks into the Aleppo offensive, back in early August. Since then, he says, they've managed to gain about six blocks. That's just a few inches each day. Abu Ahmed says the ultimate goal is to take two buildings used by police and security forces.

Let's say they take these two posts, then what?

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We'll take all the security bases, he says. Then we'll free all of Aleppo and we'll free all of Syria. It's as simple as that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Back outside there's a lull in the shelling. A woman stands at an intersection with a look of horror on her face. A burnt-out bus blocks the view down the street to her right. A regime's sniper is posted on a rooftop down there. Rebels tell the woman to stay put. But we need to get back to our car. So we have to duck, use the bus as cover and run.

Ready to go? OK. They're warning the civilians, telling them don't cross on this side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She says she's going to bring her stuff from the house. So he told her to go bring your stuff and go from the back of the bus.

MCEVERS: What is the regime's strategy? Why not use ground troops to retake these neighborhoods, instead of random shelling and a few snipers? If the rebels lack a detailed plan, is the regime's strategy just as flawed? Military analysts say the Syrian army has the manpower and firepower to retake Aleppo. But they say it's loathed to put troops in harm's way, for fear they would defect.

What's more, they say, the army might be saving its best troops and best weapons for more decisive battles, say, if there's an international intervention in the coming months or if the rebels acquire better weapons from abroad. So, for now, it seems each side is hoping to wear the other one down.

At this camp about an hour's drive outside Aleppo, rebel fighters who once served in the regime's army run training courses for civilians who want to join the rebel cause.

ABU MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The commander of the camp, Abu Mahmoud, says the rebels' offensive in Aleppo was a mistake. He says, they should have taken the military bases outside Aleppo first. That way, less destruction would have been loosed on the people.

MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Now that the rebels are entrenched in the city, he says, they can't retreat. With a sigh, Abu Mahmoud compares the Aleppo offensive to the entire Syrian uprising. We started it, he says. It's too late to turn back now.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.