Syria rebels claim upper hand as battle for Aleppo grinds towards stalemate

Martin Chulov reports from Aleppo: All the might that the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad can muster is now camped just over a large bank of land to the east of Salahedin, the suburb of Aleppo that has become the focal point of the conflict. All the men the guerrilla force can assemble are holed up in crumbling buildings, the closest of them only 200m from the nearest regime tank.

Yet the decisive battle that most in Aleppo seemed to have feared is slowly giving way to another – even more dreaded – reality. Stalemate, with neither side willing or able to advance. A new sense is beginning to settle in that neither Salahedin, nor the rest of Syria’s second city, will see an end to the fighting any time soon.

Despite its superior numbers and weaponry, the army appears in no hurry to bring the uprising here to an end. The siege that has crippled the city is likely to get far worse.

“This will be a second Baba Amr,” said Sheikh Salim al-Hoss, as he rested under a mulberry tree in a commandeered schoolyard just outside Aleppo. “They are going to wear us down. They think they have time on their side.”

Hoss was sitting with members of a military council, who were all breaking their daily Ramadan fast on Tuesday night, largely in silence. Snipers had killed two young rebels from their unit in the late afternoon and the rush to bury them before sunset seemed to have numbed the men.

The effect on one of the dead men’s fathers was more profound. He stood trembling and bewildered later in the evening as he received condolences in a hastily erected mourning tent. A tear ran down his face as lines of wellwishers reached for his hand.

Just before noon he had spoken to his 24-year-old son, Ala’a Tamur, by phone in between battles on Salahedin’s main frontline. Just before dinner he buried him.

“Be proud you have a martyr, uncle,” one of the men’s colleagues told the boy’s bereft father. The 73-year-old stared and nodded.

Street 15 in Salahedin now resembles Leningrad in its darkest days, and the suburb itself is in far worse shape than when the Guardian last visited on Saturday. Most streets on the eastern side are now impassable by car. Broken sewage and water pipes and food leftovers have formed a festering stew over the few surfaces that aren’t littered with the flotsam and jetsam of war. And Salahedin has a new arrival – flies, which swarm around anything organic. They are so thick in some parts that rebels look for detours to avoid them. As they do they need to avoid trampling on the only other thing that seems to be living at ground zero of the battle for Syria – kittens.

Rebels have taken in many of them, and it’s not uncommon to find a gnarled, sweaty guerrilla sleeping on the floor of a commandeered flat with an abandoned kitten asleep on his chest.

Two men sleeping in what passes for a first aid clinic in one part of Salahedin had to throw their new pets aside late on Wednesday, when a wounded rebel appeared like a ghost in their darkened doorway. He fell on a foam mattress clutching his left side. “A sniper, haram,” he said. “I was going to meet the defector.”

“Press hard [on the wound], press until it hurts,” one bystander said. The men instead offered caresses and comforting words, then bundled him into the back of a 4×4, which rushed him away.

Snipers continue to filter into Salahedin despite the almost impossible journey to get here. “We had four in this quarter alone today,” said a rebel from Damascus, who himself defected three months ago. “There would be many more if they could find a way.”

Recent senior defectors, among them two colonels from Aleppo who made their way to a nearby town on Tuesday, claimed that the fear of large numbers of defections if a ground attack was launched was shaping regime tactics.

“If they send the army in, they will throw off their clothes and leave,” one of the men said. They want to sit back and bomb, just like they did in Homs.”

The defectors also claimed that jets would bomb Aleppo and the eastern hinterland between 3am and 5am. On cue, the jets arrived. The fulfilled prediction means the two officers will now be asked to help devise tactics to repel the assault.

Whoever can prevail in a war of attrition will prevail in Aleppo and likely in the overall uprising. Though battle-weary and at times despairing, and still underprepared, the rebel forces appear to have the stamina to see the fight to a conclusion.

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