The battle for Syria's north is not a fair fight. But the rebels are winning anyway.
ALEPPO, Syria — For insurgents that are outgunned and lacking support, Syria's rebels are a consistently cheerful lot. It's not hard to see why: Here in the country's northern Aleppo province, they have largely driven Syrian troops out of the countryside, and are forcefully challenging President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the city of Aleppo.
The green, white, and black flag of the Syrian opposition flies at the Bab Salama border crossing with Turkey, which the rebels captured on July 22. A few weeks after it was taken, the Turkish government agreed to reopen the crossing as if the rebels were the recognized government. Even now, though, it is possible to walk through the border gates between Turkey and Syria, get your passport stamped by a grinning rebel at an immigration post, and hitch a ride south in the back of a truck. It may not be luxurious, but it is a far cry from the illegal and dangerous hike across the Turkish frontier that many reporters and activists were previously forced to take to enter Syria.
Syrian rebels have largely cleared regime troops from the area between the Turkish border and Aleppo, the country's economic hub and largest city. Abdul Nasser al-Khatib, a rebel commander in the newly formed al-Tawhid ("Unity") Brigade, an organization of rebel groups around Aleppo, claimed that opposition forces hold an approximately 125- by 25-mile area in the north.
"We have made our buffer zone," said Khatib, a burly former interior decorator. Roads snaking through the rich, dark brown farmland of northern Syria are devoid of regime checkpoints. There are even a few Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints. Free from a threat in the countryside, the rebels have moved almost all their fighters to the city of Aleppo, where battles are still raging.
Al-Tawhid, which consists of about 8,000 fighters, was formed in July, before rebel forces entered Aleppo. It is an umbrella brigade for all the different battalions that have driven regime forces from the towns and villages of the Aleppo countryside and have come to fight in the city. While it is the main force in the area at the moment, Khatib said that the group would not continue after the fall of the regime and would do its best to help foster civil structures. The brigade is dominated by conservative Muslims -- not unusual for a force from the rural countryside -- but Khatib maintained that Islamist extremists would have no power in the future Syria.
"It is good for Aleppo," said an activist named Yasser Haji, speaking about al-Tawhid. But he laments that the rebels haven't organized and created other alternative structures beyond the regime anywhere near fast enough. "We have been too slow," he said.
Freedom is in the air. But the Assad regime still possesses tools to terrorize residents and thwart the rebels' designs: Calm countryside mornings are shattered by the afternoon, as airplanes and shelling strike towns and villages in attacks that continue throughout the night. For the rebels, it is impossible to feel fully liberated -- or confident about their success -- when death could come from above at any moment.
"[W]hat we need is not a buffer zone. We need a no-fly zone," Khatib told me. "Without a no-fly zone we will be finished."
I experienced this only too closely on Aug. 15 in the city of Aleppo, when I accompanied a group of rebel fighters on a mission to help take back a captured roundabout from regime forces.
Earlier in the day, regime troops and tanks had emerged from a military base just outside of Aleppo -- one of the regime's last strongholds in the countryside. Most of the time, the soldiers stayed inside the base and were resupplied by helicopter. But on Aug. 15, they attacked the rebels at a roundabout along the road ringing the city, in the suburb of al-Jandou, and took control of it.
A rebel named Abdullah, a former English literature student at Aleppo University, said this was the first attack from the north of the city in about 13 days. By mid-morning, rebel forces had launched a counterattack, but fighter jets and helicopters thwarted their advance. The rebels did not have the weapons to repel the aerial assault, and a sustained fight broke out amid the stalemate.
The squad of rebels I was with, who were based in Aleppo's Sha'ar neighborhood, about a 20-minute drive from the roundabout, wanted to join the battle. But they lacked ammunition. They spent the morning on their radios trying to find bullets, but by the time they found some were instructed to stand down, as the situation looked like it was under control for the moment. They sat on the floor and listened to the reports of fighting on their radios. The sound of shelling in other parts of the city could be heard nearby. Their base had been bombed only a few nights before. At one point, they tensed. "A fighter has been killed," said one of the rebels.
It was not until mid-afternoon that the squad was called up to act as reinforcements by Hajji Marea, one of the main leaders of al-Tawhid. The floor of the covered truck in which we drove to al-Jandou was covered in gasoline -- a fact that didn't stop one of the fighters from smoking. Parking away from the fighting so as to not announce their arrival, the rebels dismounted from their vehicles and walked into the neighborhood.
They walked spread out, not bunched together as amateur fighters might. Every man had an assault rifle. Of the approximately 20 men, two had rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Extra rockets rested in holders on their backs. One man held a heavy machine gun, bullets draped around his neck and metal handcuffs on his side, in case prisoners were taken. Two rebels carried extra boxes of ammunition for the group.
The sounds of fighting were still in the distance and neighborhood residents stood outside their houses. As we approached the battle, residents began offering assistance: They directed the rebels, most of who were from the countryside and did not know the area, to navigate the winding back roads. "Hey, guys, this way," they said, pointing the rebels through the streets. As they went, the rebels stopped to consult with people about what was happening and the best way to approach the scene of the battle. It was hot, and some of the neighborhood's residents offered them water from inside their homes.
Suddenly, we were there. A regime jet, probably an L-39 Albatros, screamed low overhead as rebels who were already engaged in battle fired on it with two truck-mounted Dushka guns. A fighter firing one of the weapons, a Soviet-era heavy machine gun, watched open-mouthed as the plane darted overhead. His truck sped down the street after it, but it was already out of range. Absent extraordinary luck, the rebels' weapons were simply incapable of downing the jet.
Before the rebels from Sha'ar neighborhood reached the roundabout, the Albatros came back around and seemed to locate them. They ducked into a house just before it fired a rocket. The explosion reverberated down the street, hitting about three houses down.
The rebels pushed into a stairwell in the house and listened to instructions from a commander. The neighborhood had been abandoned. The plane was hitting the streets around us with machine guns and rockets. The rebels seemed to be only too happy under direct attack from the plane. I was not. German photographer Daniel Etter and I -- after some yelling at a rebel who clearly preferred to stay and, somehow, continue forward -- ran back out into the street with two rebels and began to retreat, leaving the others behind.
It was in this slow procession up the dirt street -- the fighter plane swooping overhead and a buzzing helicopter apparently acting as its target spotter -- that I fully understood the frustration faced by Syria's rebels. Was Assad not an international criminal? Was it not clear, from everything the rebels had accomplished with so little international support, that the regime would not last? The status quo the Assad regime had long upheld in the Middle East was over. With more advanced weaponry, the rebels could better protect innocent lives. Including mine.
One of the two rebels with me refused to run, apparently out of defiance. "No, no," he kept saying. "Allahu Akbar!" Then he made me yell "Allahu Akbar!" -- twice, as if the phrase could keep the plane away. Then he kissed me hard on the cheek and finally ran a short way. We passed the smoke, a twisted car chassis, and other debris left by a rocket running until we were forced to flatten ourselves against a wall as the jet swooped down again, trying to kill us, blowing people's empty homes to bits in the process.
Eventually, a man let us clamor into the back of his truck and drove us out of the neighborhood. The back of the building where we had arranged to meet our driver had also been bombed. With Assad's air force circling overhead, nowhere was truly safe: "This building will be bombed today," the tense activists at a nearby media center predicted.
The attack on the roundabout was just one sign that the regime was expanding the fight around Aleppo. After eventually making it out of the city, we learned that a town called Azaz, only about four miles from the Turkish border, had been hit by airstrikes and about 40 people killed.
But while the Syrian military's use of air power temporarily delayed the rebels' advance in the city of Aleppo, jets and helicopters alone are not capable of reversing the regime's losses. It would take more than 24 hours, but the rebels would seize back the roundabout, after an all-night battle against tanks. The next day, planes, which did not attack at night, once again returned to harass the rebels. But they were not accompanied by regime troops.
"I think what [the rebels' success] shows is a degree of tactical proficiency, effective command and control at least tactically or locally, and a reasonable state of supply for ammunition," said Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy via email. "Very important was the state of morale, i.e. willingness to fight and no real fear of combat aircraft."
Khatib, the rebel commander from al-Tawhid, said that that even if they did not procure better anti-aircraft weapons, the rebels would continue the same strategy against the regime.
"Bashar al-Assad, he will give up Syria. Before he gives up Syria, he will destroy Syria," he said. "He knows the FSA will destroy most of his army. But he can kill people ... sleeping at home, by fighter jets."