Battle for Aleppo’s hearts and minds

Al Jazeera comes across divided loyalties in Syrian city caught up in fighting between pro- and anti-government forces.

Aleppo, Syria – As the battle for Syria’s main city Aleppo rages on, divisions among its inhabitants are a stark reminder of the equally crucial fight for hearts and minds.

Unlike other Syrian cities, many residents in Syria’s commercial capital failed to rise up and join the opposition Free Syrian Army in its campaign to seize Aleppo from government control.

Aleppo is made up of diverse groups, and it is now clear that some sections within the population are wary of the rebels and their intentions. In the aftermath of largescale deaths and destruction, civilian support for the rebels remains precarious – a serious obstacle to capturing the prized city.

The Free Syrian Army doesn’t control all the roads leading into Aleppo. The presence of Syrian flags and posters of President Bashar al-Assad are glaring reminders the regime is still very much alive in the city.

“Activists have reported that members of Christian and Armenian neighbourhoods in Aleppo have taken up arms to defend their area from the Free Syrian Army.

Driving through government-controlled territory, Syrian soldiers carrying assault rifles lined the roadside and guarded their barracks. They didn’t appear edgy, but this area wasn’t a front line.

Aleppo joined the armed rebellion against the Syria government in mid-July when fighters from the countryside stormed neighbourhoods and dug in. But the city as a whole didn’t sign up for the battle.

“It is a shame that the men and youth of Aleppo city didn’t fight with us,” said a 27-year-old fighter from the city who asked to remain nameless. “Maybe they are just too scared because they have seen what the regime is capable of doing. But this attitude is wrong.”

The opposition was able to set up checkpoints in Sunni neighbourhoods. But Aleppo is a mixed city, and they weren’t welcomed with open arms in other areas.

The battle drags on

The fight for Aleppo has entered its second month. Al Jazeera journeyed back to where it all started – the impoverished district of Salaheddine. The army managed to push back into some areas, but has not been able to retake it.

Salaheddine represents the only static front line where both sides are locked into face-to-face confrontation, sometimes only metres apart. The district was in ruins – and still extremely dangerous. Mortar rounds landed indiscriminately and exploded, and government snipers were never far away.

Most of the fighters were in high spirits despite the stand-off. “Inshallah (God willing), we will push them (the Syrian army) out of here,” one said. “We are making our own weapons and we will use them soon.”

There is optimism despite the odds, but hope is different from reality. And that reality became clear just a few minutes later.

A pick-up truck carrying wounded fighters stopped at a mosque-turned-rebel base in Sukkari neighbourhood. “Where should we take them? Which makeshift clinic should we go to,” screamed a rebel from the vehicle.

There was panic and the once-calm faces of the men quickly changed. It was as if everyone realised it could be them the next time, gravely wounded and desperately searching for medical assistance. The opposition had suffered losses, many casualties caused by airstrikes and artillery.

Arab foreigners join the fight

Sukkari, like Salaheddine, is one of Aleppo’s poorest neighbourhoods. It has also been devastated by ongoing bombardment from government forces. On a street during a lull in fighting, a Syrian flag that once represented a united country was used by a fighter to clean his machine gun in a symbol of defiance.

The majority of Free Syrian Army fighters are Syrians, but several hail from Saudi Arabia and Egypt [Reuters]

The majority of fighters here are Syrians – but the war has also attracted Arabs from other countries who feel obliged to help the opposition, who are mainly Sunni Muslims. Several combatants were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“We share the same goal,” said one 27-year-old fighter who requested anonymity. “We are fighting the same enemy.  You see soldiers come from many Arab and Islamic countries – some of them they said we are al-Qaeda. Some said we are from various Islamic groups. But we came here to support Syrians against Assad. When you see this and you don’t see the locals fighting, it is a real shame.”

This diverse city has been carved out along ethnic, religious, and class lines, with mainly Sunni districts providing support to the opposition. Other non-Sunni majority areas haven’t been so accommodating.

Aleppo had long been immune to the fighting in the countryside and other cities. The authorities continue to receive some backing here. It is not clear whether the support is driven by fear of Assad’s regime, or distrust of the opposition’s agenda.

Battle lines drawn on class and religion

Activists have reported that members of Christian and Armenian neighbourhoods in Aleppo have taken up arms to defend their area from the Free Syrian Army. Without government accreditation, it was not possible for Al Jazeera to go to these areas and speak to these people about their concerns.

Even in rebel-held territory, civilians are often guarded in their responses to questions, either fearing the rebels, or wary of informants with the possibility of a return by government forces.

Several families returned to Sukkari to try and salvage whatever belongings remained in their now-destroyed apartments. Looking angry, they refused to answer questions. It is difficult to know who they are upset with for their shattered lives: the rebels for bringing the war to their neighbourhood, or the government for shelling their homes.

In Aleppo, the line between rebel and government territory is blurred. The rebels have gained ground, but they weren’t welcome in some areas. The result is a military stalemate on the ground – one that could last for a long time.

Source: Al Jazeera