Inside Aleppo, Syria's Most War-Torn City

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A sergeant in Lewa Salaheddin, a Kurdish battalion of the Free Syrian Army, sits in front of a block of destroyed buildings in Aleppo, Syria on December 6, 2012. It’s more than three years since the fight for Aleppo began. By late 2012, parts of the city were already in ruins. Patrick Tombola/laif/Redux

On June 15, dozens of blue metal gas canisters fell from the sky and slammed into the streets of western Aleppo, Syria. “It was raining gas canisters,” remembers one shopkeeper. Locals here know them well and call them jarra. Filled with nails, ball bearings and crude explosives, the modified domestic propane cylinders are fired from homemade howitzers the rebels have dubbed “hell cannons” and have a range of less than a mile.

Nine days later, I’m strolling through Salaheddine, an intensely contested neighborhood in Aleppo that was one of the heaviest hit. Whole four-story houses have been reduced to rubble, and the Syrian army soldiers and their helpers—the regime paramilitaries known as shabiha—are keen to show me the damage. “The sound of booming didn’t stop for 16 hours,” one tells me. “Children passed away.” A Reuters report the day after the bombardment, based on data from the respected Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, estimates that 34 people, including 12 children, were killed. Those deaths were followed by a barrage of barrel bombs, or barmeela—the shrapnel-packed and equally indiscriminate flying improvised explosive devices that Syrian soldiers toss out of helicopters onto the rebel-held area.

08_14_Aleppo_02 An injured Syrian woman arrives at a field hospital following an air strike which hit her home in the town of Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo on August 15, 2012. Khalil Hamra/AP

Over three years, this crude slaughter by both sides has turned Aleppo into a Syrian Stalingrad. It has also divided the city into two distinct halves. In the June attack, the jarra came in such numbers and over such a wide area that they sowed mass panic. Three days before Ramadan, the point of this barrage was to trumpet a major new rebel assault on the regime-held part of the city; the rebel militias, emboldened by new alliances and successes elsewhere in northern Syria, were hoping to break through the stalemate and take Aleppo once and for all. Their new offensive came amid persistent rumors that the Syrian regime might let go of the country’s second most important city, the better to defend its heartlands in the south and west of the country.

Could Aleppo really fall? I’d come back to the city to answer that question. My reason for visiting Salaheddine was more personal. I’d been here before, only a few streets away and on the other side of the line. When the armed rebel groups first launched their war on Aleppo from the surrounding countryside in July 2012—again, on the eve of Ramadan—it was in Salaheddine that their impressive progress ground to a halt. A year later, embedded in a disused school with a battalion of the Free Syrian Army, I’d been taken to Salaheddine to see the place where my guide’s oldest son, a university-student-turned-rebel-fighter, had been shot dead by the Syrian army.

On my return, I recognize the neighborhood immediately, but it is strange to see it from the other side. In a tiny cabin just behind the front line, an officer drinks mette, an herbal tea Syrian soldiers sip to stay awake, and lazily thumbs through the papers that give me permission to be in the area. I ask which rebel groups are holed up just a few hundred yards away, but he finds the question unimportant. “Names don’t matter. It’s their actions,” he says. There’d been signs of some early rebel advances in the fresh campaign; from what the officer has seen, however, it’s been mostly a shower of jarra. The rebels, he admits, control most of Salaheddine. “It’s a friction point. There is no movement—neither from this side nor that side.” In other words, in three years of fierce hand-to-hand fighting and bombardment, to which thousands of young Syrian men on both sides have given their lives, the battle lines have moved barely an inch.

08_14_Aleppo_03 Opposition fighters fire a starting shell from a hell-cannon toward the Syrian Army, in Aleppo on December 2, 2014. Karam Almasri/Nur

The Passageway of Death

If the balance of power inside Aleppo has hardly shifted in three years, the bigger picture in Syria is unrecognizable. While the capital, Damascus, looks more impregnable than ever, elsewhere the Syrian army’s myth of invincibility has been shattered. Its control over its territory is shrinking all the time, and nowhere more so than in northern Syria. To the east of Aleppo, it lost Raqqa province to ISIS, which also rules over several cities and towns dotted around the area. And to the west of Aleppo, there’s Idlib, most of which is under the control of a coalition of rebel militias led by the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Regime-held Aleppo finds itself almost entirely encircled, and it’s being squeezed as never before. If this, the country’s biggest city and its industrial powerhouse, were to fall, the Syrian Arab Republic would be reduced to a rump.

One result of Aleppo’s increasing isolation is that it’s very difficult to get here. The airport is closed to commercial flights, and what would have been the main road runs through Nusra-controlled territory in Idlib and is now out of bounds. A journey from Damascus that would once have taken three hours requires a diversion through the Syrian desert and takes as long as eight hours. On my way to Aleppo, my taxi snaked in and out of convoys 100 trucks deep, all laden with food and fuel for the city and protected by a truck-mounted machine gunner, often a teenager, at both ends. Western Aleppo is now firmly under siege. And like in much of the rest of Syria, it’s the journey that poses the greatest threat. The road comes under regular attack from Nusra and ISIS. A few days after I left, according to the Syrian Observatory, an attack on one part of the route left 18 regime forces dead.

08_14_Aleppo_04 Opposition fighters carry a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in Aleppo on January 27, 2014. Fighting inside Syria has continued unabated as opposition and regime representatives meeting in Geneva discussed ways for aid to reach besieged rebel-held areas, especially in the central city of Homs. Salahal-Ashkar/AFP/Getty

Longer even than the journey from Damascus to Aleppo is the time it takes to get from one end of Aleppo to the other. Moving from the east to the western side of the city once took only a short bus ride. Now it involves navigating a labyrinth of side roads and as many as 20 checkpoints; an endurance test that can last between 10 and 16 hours. Most people don’t bother. There is another, more direct route, but it’s a dangerous one: a tiny, circuitous path between buildings, fortified with boulders and sandbags and leading out into an entirely different world, a street in the rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr area. When we leave Salaheddine, I ask to be taken to the crossing. Just to reach the entrance, I have to hunker down and dash between buildings. On the street outside the passageway, a lonely barber stands in his shop, stubbornly cutting hair. Two children have hurled themselves at one of the huge, heavily pockmarked street blankets hung up to block the view of snipers and are swinging back and forth like Tarzan.

Targeted by snipers on both sides, the corridor is known as the “passageway of death.” I arrive at its entrance to find it strewn with discarded clothes, bits of piping and other garbage. For the first year of Aleppo’s war, civilians braved it in attempts to keep in touch with friends and family, but not anymore. The only people allowed through now are the very sick or badly wounded. But for the last 30 days, one soldier tells me, it’s been entirely empty. Possibly because of their new military campaign, he grumbles, the rebel groups have stopped letting people through.

The usual freedoms required for independent reporting are, in western Aleppo, gone. While reporters on official visas to Syria are sometimes left to their own devices in Damascus, Aleppo is a military zone. My regime-appointed translator has been instructed never to leave me alone. For the past two years, I’ve been in regular touch on Skype with a well-known activist and journalist who lives in western Aleppo and writes under the pseudonym Edward Dark. For his involvement in civil disobedience early in Syria’s revolt, he was briefly held in one of the city’s more brutal security gulags. Recently, however, he’s turned against the rebels too, accusing them on Twitter of looting and murder. When I told him I was headed for Aleppo, he said it would be too dangerous for us to meet. “Syria is a police state,” he wrote. “Usually only vetted people are allowed to talk to foreign journalists; if they're not vetted, they know that what they're saying is being overheard, so they self-censor.” He suggested I go see Alaa el-Sayed, an independent local lawyer. In 2007, el-Sayed established a small online newsletter to investigate corruption. When the conflict broke out, he took to writing about the parlous state of public utilities and the profiteering on both sides that followed. Before long, he had more than 20,000 subscribers.

08_14_Aleppo_05 Opposition fighters prepare homemade shells in Aleppo, on December 2, 2014. The fighters rely on rocket launchers and improvised explosives fashioned from domestic propane canisters. Karam Almasri/Nur

Over a long coffee at my hotel, chain-smoking thin cigarettes with a conspiratorial giggle and tolerating the presence of my Ministry of Information translator, el-Sayed does his best to explain how his beloved city fell apart. The largely peaceful uprising that shook Syria in 2011 came here late and began with the city’s university students. The problem, opposition groups elsewhere in Syria argue, was that Aleppo’s merchants and its commercial class were too concerned with profits to overthrow the system; plus, they weren’t sure of this new movement and who might be pulling its strings. When the secret police and the shabiha cracked down hard on the students, they turned to family in the surrounding countryside who were farmers with more access to guns. The masses of impoverished peasants eking out a living around Aleppo had their own beef with Syria’s regime, and unlike the students, they were fortified by traditional religion. When they too were confronted with extreme violence by regime forces, the whole insurrection was handed to extremists, foreigners, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

“Moderate arms became extremist arms,” says el-Sayed. “The peaceful movement became a religious, armed, extremist movement. But when you take up arms against the government, you should expect the government to react. What did they expect?”

The armed rebels in eastern Aleppo are now arranged in two weighty coalitions; one loosely associated with the Free Syrian Army, elements of which are supported by the United States, and the other dominated by Al-Qaeda. But it’s not so easy to separate the good guys from the bad guys in Syria; it was Free Syrian Army battalions that perfected the jarra. El-Sayed estimates that about 10 civilians are killed a day by jarra and mortars, mostly in front-line neighborhoods like Salaheddine. (The figures collected by the Syrian Observatory are slightly different. When I spoke to its director, Rami Adbulrahman, he estimated that mortars and jarra caused 670 fatalities, including 130 children, in western Aleppo between February 2014 and February 2015.) “Sometimes I sit with my friends in the morning only to hear that during the night they’ve passed away,” says el-Sayed. “Death has become our terrible friend.”

08_14_Aleppo_07 Syrian men surround a pickup truck with the bodies of two men who were killed after artillery mortar shells landed near a bread shop operated by the civilian arm of the Free Syrian Army in the Bustan Al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo on December 3, 2012. Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty

On the other side, civilians are frequently killed by barrel bombs, which the U.N. has banned but President Bashar Assad’s forces continue to use. El-Sayed says he sometimes sees people gloating on Facebook over the deaths of civilians on the other side. “If you get hit, you don’t mind if someone else gets hit too. It’s human nature.”

Western Aleppo has always been more affluent than the east, and many of its rich residents and its professionals have departed. Thousands of the civilians who once lived in the rebel-held side of the city have taken their place—swapping barrel bombs and lawlessness under the rebels for the relative safety of an authoritarian regime. Although no one is sure of the figures, el-Sayed’s rough guess is that 1.8 million people now live in western Aleppo, with only half a million still living in the east. For those on the other side, conditions are worse; almost everyone there survives on food aid of some kind. If he traveled to the rebel side, I ask, what would happen to him? “I don’t know,” he chuckles. “Shall we go together?” Journalists are now being systematically kidnapped in eastern Aleppo, mostly for money; both of us know it would not be a good idea for me to go.

08_14_Aleppo_06 A Dar El Shifa hospital worker scrubs away blood from the entrance of the hospital, in Aleppo on October 4, 2012. Following an uprising during the Arab Spring four years ago, the Army and opposition groups have been engaged in a prolonged civil war in its northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, as well as suburban areas of the capital Damascus. Both sides have been fighting for years for control of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and once the country's commercial hub. Maysun/EPA

Roosters and Snipers

Not everything is gloom in western Aleppo. In the luminescent, humming downtown Azizieh neighborhood in the late evening, well-dressed young people, most of them Christians, hang out, drink coffee and smoke shisha. It’s possible to imagine that the war is going on a different city, but rarely for very long. When utilities are working, citizens of western Aleppo get about three hours of electricity per day and running water once or twice a week. But very often they don’t. In an email, Dark told me he hadn’t had electricity or running water for the previous three weeks. In the narrow market streets, I see young men hovering on ladders fixing braids of brightly colored, improvised wiring above people’s heads to connect their homes to a local generator.

There’s plenty of ingenious make-do-and-mend on both sides of Aleppo’s war, but the city has essentially been crippled. The day after meeting el-Sayed, I visit Aleppo’s Old City and its famous Souk al-Madina, a UNESCO world heritage site that has long been the location of daily skirmishes. Both are in ruins. Over the course of an hour, the only inhabitants I see are two roosters, carefully picking through broken glass, moving as if to avoid the snipers. (The week after my trip to Aleppo, UNESCO announced that 60 percent of the Old City has been destroyed.) Then, on a tour of the Sheikh Najjar industrial zone outside the city’s northeastern entrance, which until a year ago was in the hands of ISIS, the site manager puts a brave face on the attempts to bring Aleppo’s industry back to life. But the thump of occasional incoming shells is clearly audible, and almost everything here that hasn’t been burned out is gone. “Sixty percent or 70 percent of all the machinery here was taken in a single year,” he says, “or was melted down to make mortars.”

Lawlessness is not confined to the rebel side. Even in this police state, theft and criminality are on the rise. A military policeman tells me that his work now involves combating “mostly thievery.” And though the Syrian authorities aren’t keen to show them off, certain areas of western Aleppo, according to Dark, are now thick with their own foreign fighters—Hezbollah from Lebanon and Shiite militia from Iraq. Some of the gung ho paramilitaries I see in the street, loosely uniformed and letting off steam, are rowdy and irreverent.

08_14_Aleppo_08 A group of opposition fighters sit around a fire pit in Aleppo on December 13, 2014. Karam Almasri/Nur

Just about everyone I speak to back in western Aleppo is contemplating leaving, or at least getting their children out. Four million Syrians have already left the country and are counted as refugees. The people who remain are growing desperate. No one talks about freedom anymore; now they just want to live.

Will Aleppo fall? “Not today. But tomorrow—who knows?” says el-Sayed, rolling his eyes. If it does, a rebel victory would lead to another flight of refugees and redouble the humanitarian disaster that already exists in the east of the city. Most people in western Aleppo, according to Dark, have no love for either side: “You could describe Aleppo as largely neutral, having seen the worst of both rebel and regime atrocities.”

08_14_Aleppo_09 A father cries while holding his dead child in front of Dar al Shifa hospital in Aleppo on October 3, 2012. The Syrian Army had shelled the Al-Sakhour district targeting groups it labled as 'mercenaries and terrorists' when the child was killed. Local activists have accused the army of shelling indiscriminately and often in civilian areas. Maysun/EPA

James Harkin’s trip to Syria was taken with the help of The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His book Hunting Season, about the rise of ISIS, will be published by Hachette in November.