By tank shell, by MiG rocket, Syria’s cities are gradually being ground to dust. A stream of pick-up trucks heads north out of Aleppo each day, carrying the bodies of slain shop-keepers and car mechanics, amateur revolutionaries finding permanent peace in the dusty home villages they left just a few days ago.
This is a civil war that is destroying his country, but Abdulaziz al-Salameh, provisional head of the Aleppo revolutionary council, has the bravado of a Second World War general as he looks at the chaos, and the clear prospect of more. “We are prepared to see the city destroyed before we give it up,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraphin the early hours of Saturday.
The key battle of the Syrian war is now raging in Aleppo, the country’s largest and richest city. Earlier this year, the Free Syrian Army withdrew from strongholds in other cities such as Homs when the loss of civilian life under bombardment became overwhelming. Aleppo, Mr Salameh said, would be different, more like Misurata, the Libyan port that held out against the vastly superior firepower of Muammar Gadaffi’s forces. Or even Stalingrad.
“Assad destroyed Homs, and he destroyed Hama and Deraa before that,” he said. “The whole world looked on, issued condemnations, did nothing. We will not give up, even if Syria is destroyed, and the last man killed.”
Aleppo is not yet Stalingrad, or even Homs, parts of which are a wasteland of wrecked buildings. But the shelling of the city began in earnest this week, when the army surged into the western suburb of Salaheddin, the gateway to the northern districts where its men have been under FSA siege for three weeks.
With the regime afraid to send in ground troops – allegedly because they fear they might defect – the assault is led from the skies. All week, the MiG and trainer jets circled the city in pairs, occasionally swooping to rake rebel positions with gunfire and missiles.
The MiGs, it is clear, do not have the technology that made the Nato attacks on Libya so devastatingly effective last year – an air campaign in which The Sunday Telegraph saw a government office block used for intelligence gathering levelled and the shop attached to it still open for business the next day.
On Monday, missiles aimed at the FSA headquarters in Aleppo missed by 20 yards and hit a house behind, killing nine men, women and children. The pattern was repeated all week, ending in the bombing of a bakery with the loss of 12 lives on Thursday – just because, it seems, it was close to an apartment building used as a rebel media centre.
When the MiGs have scored direct hits on FSA bases, it has been after so many attempts that they have usually been abandoned and loss of life avoided.
On the front line, though, the rebels have suffered a harsher toll. When ground troops finally moved into Salaheddin on Thursday morning, it seemed as though they would be overwhelmed.
The FSA lost 30 dead in Salaheddin last week. Across the district its men are pinned down by snipers of greater accuracy than before.
“They are using all kinds of weapons,” said Mohammed al-Hadid, a defector captain, on Saturday.
“They are so expert I do not believe they are Syrians. I was an officer in the army and we didn’t have snipers that good.”
As he spoke, shots rang down an alley behind him, pinging against the wall of the building opposite, already peppered with bullet-holes. An elderly couple fearfully tried to cross.
“Come on, you’ll be OK,” he shouted at them, and they scuttled over.
The fight is becoming a classic case of hand-to-hand urban warfare. Both sides claim to have the upper hand, but the battle for Salaheddin is still to win.They are using the Stalingrad-era tactic of punching holes in buildings to move around out of the line of fire.
This led Abu Suleiman, 30, into an extraordinary stand-off when they came upon three regime soldiers doing the same.
“We were standing there face-to-face and we ran into neighbouring apartments,” he said. “We started shouting at them to defect, that Bashar wasn’t going to help them.”
After failing to persuade them, they withdrew.
“It was terrible,” a fighter who gave his name as Aboul Walid said as he fled the battle. “The regime army’s tanks were everywhere.”
He limped off, his leg bleeding from a shrapnel wound. His platoon leader was dead. Aboul Abeid, the deputy to Hajji Mari, the head of the Liwa al-Tawhid – the Brigade of Unity leading the rebel fight for the city – followed shortly after, one of the FSA’s most high-profile losses.
But again the regime troops, it seems, were unable to hold on to their ground. While the FSA claimed to have stopped the advance in it tracks, it is clear that the army’s initial gains were sweeping – Aboul Walid came face to face with grenade-throwing soldiers and has the scars to prove it.
Now, though, the FSA is creeping back.
A month ago, what is happening in Aleppo would have seemed impossible. The rebels held a handful of towns and villages across the north of the province, as they did in neighbouring Idlib and in Homs province to the south. Aleppo, Syria’s richest city, with its tourist souqs, boulevards and park, its broadly neutral Christian quarters and its pro-regime business elite, seemed invulnerable.
The strategy that Mr Salameh – who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Jumaa – and Hajji Mari then devised was so striking that it led to a split in rebel ranks. The two men – old friends, one a honey trader from the town of Anadan, the other a seed merchant from Mari – had orchestrated the rural uprising from early on, and decided it was time to strike a decisive blow.
They took their rural volunteer followers with them.
The leaders of what until then had been thought of as the “proper” Free Syrian Army – defected colonels such as Abdul Jabar al-Oqaidi – thought they were crazy, and refused to join in. But on the night of July 18, after a bomb attack in Damascus killed four of the Assad regime’s closest military henchmen, Abu Jumaa and Hajji Mari decided to act.
“That was Thursday night,” Mr Salameh said. “We were in Aleppo the next morning. The military council thought it was too soon in every way. But after they found out that we had been successful and had captured many areas, they came and joined us.”
The dominance of these amateur generals in what both the rebels, the exiled politicians of the Syrian National Council and the regime itself admits is the pivotal battle of the Syrian civil war poses a new problem for the West.
So far, the Americans and the Turks, who have not been providing arms but have helped to channel them in the “correct” direction, to avoid them falling into Islamist hands, have preferred to work with groups of predominantly secular defected officers and the Washington-based Syrian Support Group.
Men such as Abu Jumaa and Hajji Mari are relative unknowns, not overly concerned by the West’s fear of al-Qaeda, which they say plays a marginal role if any at all in the revolution. Some of these revolutionaries have loyalties or at least sympathies to the Muslim Brotherhood, but they also cooperate with much more ideological Islamist groups on the front line, such as the Abu Emara Brigade in Salaheddin.
Yet if the rebels are to win, it is they who need arming. Mr Salameh said his main obstacle to driving out the regime from the northern and far western part of Aleppo was lack of ammunition. He said he had received two small shipments of weapons from Turkey – one of 300 rifles with ammunition and 700 rocket-propelled grenades, and one of 3,000 hand grenades.
“We need help from the US and Europe,” he said. “We have been in this revolution from the beginning, we have the men on the ground and we will take all of Aleppo very quickly if we have ammunition.”
If not, the battle will grind on, the regime pumelling the city little by little into submission. Mr Salameh says he has no regrets at what he has started, even though more than 20,000 people have now died.
Asked if he is affected by those in Aleppo who say they oppose the regime but are also angry with the FSA for making it a target for the bombers, he becomes angry. There is clearly no love lost for the big city from the honey trader from the countryside.
The people of Aleppo stood by as Homs was pulverised, he said. Why should it only be other cities that were caught in the eye of the storm?
“Why destroy one part of Syria and not another part of Syria?” he said. “If all of Syria is destroyed, that is only fair.”