In Syria's Biggest City, A Deadly Stalemate

A rebel fighter raises his weapon after firing a missile Sunday toward Syrian government troops in the northern city of Aleppo. Syria's largest city has been the scene of heavy fighting for the past three months. Both sides control part of the city, and the fight has been a stalemate recently. i i

A rebel fighter raises his weapon after firing a missile Sunday toward Syrian government troops in the northern city of Aleppo. Syria's largest city has been the scene of heavy fighting for the past three months. Both sides control part of the city, and the fight has been a stalemate recently. Narciso Contreras/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Narciso Contreras/AP
A rebel fighter raises his weapon after firing a missile Sunday toward Syrian government troops in the northern city of Aleppo. Syria's largest city has been the scene of heavy fighting for the past three months. Both sides control part of the city, and the fight has been a stalemate recently.

A rebel fighter raises his weapon after firing a missile Sunday toward Syrian government troops in the northern city of Aleppo. Syria's largest city has been the scene of heavy fighting for the past three months. Both sides control part of the city, and the fight has been a stalemate recently.

Narciso Contreras/AP

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.

Rebel fighters watch as smoke rises after Syrian government forces fired an artillery round at a rebel position during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria, on Sun., Nov. 4.

Rebel fighters watch as smoke rises after Syrian government forces fired an artillery round at a rebel position during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria, on Sun., Nov. 4. Narciso Contreras/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Narciso Contreras/AP

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.

In one Aleppo neighborhood, government forces and rebel fighters are separated by an abandoned building that forms the front line. Most civilians have fled, and rebels live in the abandoned apartments. Government snipers are posted on rooftops. i i

In one Aleppo neighborhood, government forces and rebel fighters are separated by an abandoned building that forms the front line. Most civilians have fled, and rebels live in the abandoned apartments. Government snipers are posted on rooftops. David Holley/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Holley/NPR
In one Aleppo neighborhood, government forces and rebel fighters are separated by an abandoned building that forms the front line. Most civilians have fled, and rebels live in the abandoned apartments. Government snipers are posted on rooftops.

In one Aleppo neighborhood, government forces and rebel fighters are separated by an abandoned building that forms the front line. Most civilians have fled, and rebels live in the abandoned apartments. Government snipers are posted on rooftops.

David Holley/NPR

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.

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