Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports: The man stands among the blackened, shell-shattered buildings, and reaches up to encompass them in a broad sweep of his wiry arms. “This,” he proclaims, “is the state of Abu Ali Sulaibi.”
The ruined corner of downtown Aleppo does not, of course, constitute a state and nor does it belong to the man claiming it in his name. But as the Syrian civil war has stagnated and Aleppo has fractured into “liberated” neighbourhoods run by different militias, Abu Ali and commanders like him have become the rulers of a series of mini-fiefdoms. These two blocks of the rebel frontline in Saif al-Dawla are his.
Walking through the once prosperous streets, Abu Ali recalls the life he lived here, pointing out the places where he played as a child, went to school and fell in love. He now lives in a small apartment in the heart of the zone with his wife, Um Ali, three daughters, a son, and a cat named Sanjoob, or Squirrel.
Fifty metres from Abu Ali’s sector, across the Saif al-Dawla Boulevard, a similar array of shattered buildings is occupied by government troops. They are close enough that during lulls in the shooting they can continue the conflict by shouting abuse.
Half of the building where his parents used to live has been sheared off by a rocket attack, spilling furniture and a chandelier into the street. The remaining structure serves as Abu Ali’s command centre, where some of his fighters sleep. He stands in the middle of a small living room surrounded by fighters resting under thick blankets on the floor.
“I can’t believe that this is my mother’s living room,” he says. Then, to the men: “Wake up, you beasts!”
As no one stirs, he pulls a pistol from his belt and fires into the ceiling, bringing down a chunk of plaster. The men jump from their mats, grabbing their guns. “That was Abu Ali’s wake-up call,” he says.
Outside, Abu Ali sits on a broken plastic chair set amid the rubble. His fighters, bleary-eyed, sit around him, making Turkish coffee and smoking. There is no food. The men live on one meal a day and many have not eaten since lunch the day before.
A trickle of civilians who braved the sniper fire to reach Abu Ali’s headquarters now come forward, as they do each morning, to ask favours of the chief. Some are trying to salvage their food or furniture, others come to ask permission to scavenge or squat in the empty apartments.
On this morning, six civilians stand sheepishly in front of him: a man in his 50s and his teenage son; a lanky man in a coat that is too big for him; a young engineer in rimless glasses and a bald man with his sister, who wears a black hijab. The civilians stay at a distance out of respect or fearing his unchecked anger.
“What do you want?”
“We want to collect some of our stuff, Abu Ali,” the older man says.
“Not today. Come back on Saturday.”
“But you told us to come on Wednesday.”
“I changed my mind. You should know that this is the state of Abu Ali Sulaibi.” He roars out his catchphrase as much for the benefit of his men as the civilians.
“You are all informers,” he tells the scared civilians. “I know you cross back to government side and report on us.”
“We are not,” says the bald man. “Our hearts are with you.”
“When you say that, I know you are an informer.” Turning to one of his men he says, half-joking: “Wasn’t he the one who was chasing us when we were out demonstrating?” The bald man’s face turns pale.
Abu Ali keeps the civilians waiting for two hours. Then, like a true autocrat, he quickly changes his mind and summons two of his men to take them where they want to go. [Continue reading…]