* Battle for Aleppo stuck in a stalemate
* Rural rebel takeover of city makes locals resentful
* President Assad chooses air power over infantry
* City divided roughly along sectarian lines
* Civilians trapped as bombardment escalates
By Oliver Holmes
ALEPPO, Syria, Sept 6 The fighter jet banked
sharply over the city and made a run at around 300 feet over the
two-storey houses of Aleppo, a deep grinding sounding from its
cannon as it unloaded onto home turf.
A fuel tanker exploded and pumped fire and smoke upwards.
Local people - for despite the conflict, Syria's biggest city is
still full of life - flurried to the side of the dirty roads.
Visible above the breeze-block homes, a helicopter gunship
hovered. A lone teenager ran out and, in a bizarre display of
audacity, fired at it with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
This sprawling city of 2.5 million mirrors what is happening
across the country. Vastly outgunned, rebel fighters have
dispersed into urban areas which are then pounded
indiscriminately 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 from the chaotic images of war that Syria is
stuck for now 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 among
large 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 merchant and manufacturing city under their
control since their first big push in late July.
But since then, frontlines 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 fire from its gunner. It missed its target. More rebels
appeared and a pickup truck with a mounted machinegun screeched
into the road but failed to bring the helicopter down.
Children cowered behind thin walls, some daring a peek at a
civil war which has killed 20,000 and promises to escalate.
The fighter jet returned for a second run, apparently an
adapted Czech trainer aircraft, not one of Assad's fearsome
Russian MiGs, showing the limitations of an army dependent on
Assad's fellow minority Alawites as Sunnis desert.
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 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, who asked to be called only
Muhammed as he feared reprisal from both government and rebels.
Nearby air strikes had strewn concrete rubble on the street
outside Muhammad's restaurant, which he has only kept open to
help feed those of Aleppo's people who cannot afford to leave.
"I can't bear it any longer. This is my last day. I will
close tomorrow and stay home," the bulky man said, in hushed
tones. In a dirty white coat, Muhammed ladled out spoonfuls of
brown beans into plastic bags for a long line of customers.
The restaurant had three tables but the sound of an
approaching helicopter made people eager to get back to their
homes rather than sit and eat on the spot. Bags of charcoal sat
in the corner - used to heat the beans as there is a gas
shortage. A picture of his father hung on the wall.
"Do you have any bread?" an elderly man asked. "None,"
replied Muhammed, without looking up. "Any chickpeas?" asked
"We felt better before the rebels came," he whispered.
Many of Aleppo's residents share Muhammed's views.
They say their president is a murderous criminal who ordered
his army and 'shabbiha' militia to shoot live ammunition at
peaceful protests for months and level neighbourhoods with
artillery and tank fire. But they also resent the rebel fighters
for bringing the fight to Aleppo, once Syria's commercial hub.
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 around entire blocks. Children play in the
pools of burst water pipes and thousands have lost their homes
in the mounting assaults on rebel-held neighbourhoods.
In Bustan al-Qasr, rebels living in an abandoned school have
dragged desks and chairs into the streets to make checkpoints.
The buildings behind them have gaping holes from mortar bombs
and air strikes which residents say come without warning.
In the principal's office, fighters have scribbled "Free
Army" on the desk. There are maps of the city on the wall. In
one classroom, all the tables have been stacked to one side to
make space for guns, ammunition and medicine. "The verb 'to do'"
is still written on the white board from an old English lesson.
Assad's army is one of the biggest in the region. But, built
with mostly Soviet weaponry, it is a blunt tool to fight a
popular revolt. Schools and police stations are marked on many
simple maps of the city giving away the location of rebel bases.
"We base ourselves here exactly because we don't want
civilians to be targeted. We have not positioned ourselves
inside residential apartment blocks to make sure civilians are
not hurt," said rebel commander Abu Imad, who now sits at the
But there are no absolute military targets and it is the
civilians who bear the brunt. Last week a bomb landed just at
the school entrance. A taxi lay overturned in the street and the
sides of central Aleppo's five-storey apartment blocks crumbled.
There are clear divisions of outlook between Aleppo's
merchants and the rural fighters who have taken control.
In the market neighbourhood of al-Shaar, rebel fighters from
the small town of Anadan, a few miles to the northeast, sit
under a bridge to avoid helicopters and stop and check cars.
The men sit on looted office chairs, scattering red
pistachio husks around them. They say relations with the city
folk are good. But those out shopping pointedly ignore them.
FRONT LINE STATIC
The rebels say that having lost swathes of the countryside,
Assad is not advancing with infantry in Aleppo, resorting to
attacks from the air for fear ordinary soldiers might desert.
"The regime knows it will be a fair fight on the ground,"
said Riyad Hamso, 28, whose foot was wrapped in a white bandage,
a yellow mark on it from a seeping wound. He was shot, he says,
by a government sniper in the frontline district of Salaheddine.
In some areas, the army will only fire when fired upon. On
the outskirts, the army still controls a base within otherwise
rebel-held territory. Paintings of Bashar and his late father
Hafez adorn its walls and sentries look out idly. Rebels say
they need more ammunition before they can overrun it.
The army appears to be employing the same tactic it has in
other parts of the country. The central city of Homs was
battered for weeks to the point of complete destruction. Only
then did the army push in on foot as rebels ran out of bullets.
But rebels in Aleppo say they are fighting a war of
attrition and time is on their side. The army claimed victory
when rebels were flushed out of Homs and other areas around the
country only to find guerrilla fighters sneaking back in.
And unlike Homs, where the army was able to encircle
rebel-held districts, fighters have control of many roads
leading to the city and are able to rotate and take home leave.
In Saif al-Dawla, a southern district of Aleppo where rebels
and government forces battle from street to street, the
frontline shifts daily but has not moved far in weeks.
"The army is trying to encircle us today," said a fighter,
sitting on a mattress on the floor, with a cup of strong Arab
coffee in hand. Yet over the next few days the same man never
seemed to move from his spot, always sipping the same drink.
Sheikh Walid, the commander of an Islamist brigade fighting
in Saif al-Dawla, did not seem too concerned about the
stalemate. "We are able to keep the army from advancing and
slowly we are taking ground in other areas and trying to find
safe ways for more soldiers to defect," he said.
In between the cracks of incoming tank shells, the rebels
call out to their foes who are positioned only metres away. "We
are your brothers. Defect and we'll embrace you," they shout
down the alleyway. "We are with Assad," the soldiers call back.
Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at Eurasia group, said
Assad's army, too, is hoping the impasse can work in its favour,
giving it time to disrupt supply lines: "The regime's strategy
is to confront them with time, rather than go in with infantry,"
he said. "We could be in a stalemate for a long time in Aleppo."
A DIVIDED CITY
Though foreign journalists cannot safely cross into
government-held parts of the city, notably Christian and Kurdish
districts in the west, residents who are able to come and go
with relative ease speak of troops organising local militias.
"There is a Christian militia group that set up checkpoints
and walk around the streets searching houses for dissidents,"
said one woman visiting rebel territory from the Christian
quarter. Many Christians, like the Alawites, have seen Assad as
a bulwark against a Sunni Islamist takeover.
Several civilians who have moved around the city spoke of an
eerie sense of normality in Aleppo's government-held districts.
"People see the fighter jets bomb nearby but they try to
live as normal," said the woman, who asked not to be named for
fear of reprisals. "All the shops are open and the streets are
full of people." Even Aleppo's airport remains open and the
occasional passenger jet can be seen taking off.
Civilians in rebel-held districts also try to get on with
life amid the continuous attacks.
"Assad will kill civilians and nobody cares," said Abu Bakr,
a shopkeeper who lives in Aleppo's Old City, a once picturesque
neighbourhood of covered markets and fragrant souks.
Abu Bakr's own son was killed in an air strike two weeks ago
while lining up for bread. "Look at where the bomb craters are:
by mosques and breadlines," he said. "Assad wants us all dead."
In hospitals on the rebel side, doctors have forbidden
journalists from taking pictures. "If the regime knows we are
working here, they'll bomb us," said a doctor in blue scrubs,
ushering journalists out of his emergency room. A rebel fighter
lay dead inside; shot through the mouth by a government sniper.
Hospitals are full of wounded civilians and in frontline
areas the bodies of residents who strayed down the wrong street
and were shot by snipers lie rotting in the streets.
Abdelrahman, a lanky university student with a short beard
from Bustan al-Qasr says his family is too poor to flee: "We
have enough money to get to Turkey but we do not have the means
to stay there for long," the 20-year-old said. "The camps in
Turkey have no services. People prefer to live and die here."
The helicopters which hover high above to avoid rebel
gunfire drop bombs the size of dustbins. They fall from such a
height that residents below have several seconds to see the mass
of explosives and metal descend from above.
"When you find yourself here, you start to feel different,"
said Abdelrahman. "Two days ago I had to go help pick up body
parts after a missile hit. You start to lose the will to live.
"And death? After a while, you start to wish for it."