Agonising ‘stalemate’ grips Aleppo
THE FIGHTER jet banked sharply and made a run at around 300 feet over the two-storey houses of Aleppo, a deep grinding sound coming from its cannon as it unloaded on home turf.
A fuel tanker exploded and fire and smoke pumped upwards. Local people – for despite the conflict, Syria’s biggest city is still full of life – hurried to the side of the dirty roads. Visible above the breeze-block homes, a helicopter gunship hovered. A lone teenager ran out and fired at it with a Kalashnikov.
This sprawling city of 2.5 million mirrors what is happening across Syria. Vastly outgunned, rebel fighters have dispersed into urban areas which are then pounded by artillery and warplanes until the guerrillas are flushed out. Meanwhile, the civilian death toll rises.
Observing the fighting in Aleppo over the past weeks, an impression emerges that Syria is stuck in a stalemate, both on the battlefield, where neither army nor rebels seem capable of a decisive blow, and in the wider struggle for support; many Syrians, especially from minority communities, show little love for either side.
Rebel brigades, many drawn from the Sunni Muslim peasantry of Aleppo’s rural hinterland, say they have brought more than half the great commercial city under their control since their first big push in late July.
But since then, front lines have broadly stabilised amid the daily ebb and flow of warfare that is lopsided but inconclusive.
The teenager who fired at the helicopter was met with a hail of bullets from its gunner. He missed. More rebels appeared and a pick-up with a mounted machine-gun screeched into the road but failed to bring down the helicopter.
Children cowered behind thin walls, some daring a peek at a civil war which has so far killed 20,000 and looks set to escalate.
The way the city has been divided, between Sunni districts largely in rebel hands and Christian, Alawite and ethnic Kurdish areas still mostly controlled by Mr Assad’s forces, reflects difficulties for the opposition in winning over those who fear majority rule could mean an intolerant Sunni Islamist state.
“‘Liberated’ is not a term I would ascribe to what happened when rebels entered Aleppo a month ago,” said the owner of a small eatery in a rebel-held zone.
Nearby airstrikes had strewn concrete rubble on the street outside his restaurant, which he has only kept open to help feed those who cannot leave.
“I can’t bear it any longer. This is my last day. I will close tomorrow and stay home,” the man said, in hushed tones. In a dirty white coat, he ladled out spoonfuls of brown beans into plastic bags for a long line of customers.
Many of Aleppo’s residents share his views. They say their president is a murderous criminal. But they also resent the rebel fighters for bringing the fight to Aleppo. Life in rebel-controlled areas is unbearable.
Piles of uncollected rubbish are burnt every few days, replacing the stench of rotting detritus with that of acrid smoke. Food prices have soared and morning breadlines around bakeries stretch for entire blocks. Children play in the pools of burst water pipes and thousands have lost their homes in the assaults on rebel-held neighbourhoods.
In between the cracks of incoming tank shells, the rebels call to their foes yards away. “We are your brothers. Defect and we’ll embrace you,” they shout. “We are with Assad,” the soldiers call back.
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