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Syria 1st-Hand: Visiting the "Deadly Stalemate" in Aleppo (Abouzeid)

Destruction in the Bustan al-Basha section of Aleppo

Rania Abouzeid writes for Time magazine:

Only stray cats have the courage to roam the streets of this part of Syria’s largest city. As felines freely pick their way through rubble and garbage, human beings dart from corner to corner, anxious bands of rebel fighters dashing between the bullets of regime snipers.

The neighborhood is called Bustan al-Basha and used to be the place a lot of Aleppo’s citizens would bring their cars for repair. It was a mixed Christian-Sunni working class district, bordering the Kurdish district of Sheikh Maksoud. That is in e the past tense because, of the thousands of residents who once lived here, only three remain. The trio live on Rawand Street, which is in rebel hands. The street behind them belongs to the regime. Marie, a Christian Armenian, is retired kindergarten teacher; gray-haired Abdel-Latif is a retired civil servant; and cherubic young Abdel-Maten is a baker who hasn’t been to his workplace for months even though it is less than two kilometers away because it is in Midan, a neighborhood under regime control.  “I’ve been living here for 20 years,” says Marie as she peeks out from her balcony, wiping her soapy hands on a dishcloth. “I’m still here because where am I going to go? This is my home. We are counting on God and staying, but you know, honestly, it’s like I went to bed one night and the next morning everyone was gone. When and how they left, I don’t know. It happened very suddenly.”

Syria’s grinding civil war swept into its largest city in late July. A proud and ancient cosmopolis, Aleppo is home to more than two million of Syria’s 23 million people but it has now been been crudely carved into pro- and anti-regime pockets, the edges of which occasionally change hands. It is the deadliest sort of stalemate, with international diplomacy struggling to find a solution  as the government of President Bashar Assad pursues a course of survival-via-atrocity; and the Syrian opposition in exile once again changes leadership in another attempt to weave its disparate ideological and military strands together. The grinding war of attrition has turned parts of Aleppo like Bustan al-Basha into wastelands.

The street warfare isn’t winning the rebels any more friends. The urbane Aleppans have never really warmed to the opposition fighers, most of whom come from religiously conservative Sunni Muslim small-towns --– and there is growing concern that the rebels are turning more sectarian. The rebels know they’re not really welcome. “The Aleppans here, all of them, are loyal to the criminal Bashar, they inform on us, they tell the regime where we are, where we go, what we do, even now,” says Abu Sadek, a defector from Assad’s military now with Liwa Suqooral-Sha’ba, one of the three rebel units in Bustan al-Basha. “If God wasn’t with us, we would have been wiped out a long time ago.”

Assad’s assault has certainly been ferocious. Many of Bustan al-Basha’s four- and five-storey residential buildings have been partially sliced open, their concrete floors pancaked atop each other, their contents—dining tables, children’s toys, washing machines—spewed into dusty mounds onto the streets below. Apart from the gentle sound of water gushing from burst pipes, there’s a heavy silence here, punctured by sporadic sniper fire, the occasional roar of a warplane overhead unleashing its payload in another part of Aleppo, or the more frequent hair-raising whistle of an incoming mortar. Shorn power lines dangle over the streams of water cascading through the streets that have flooded many basements. The danger of electrocution would be high if the neighborhood had power, but it hasn’t had that since armed rebels rumbled in from Aleppo’s countryside this summer, intent on swiftly wresting Aleppo from the regime’s firm grip.

That of course has not happened. Instead, the rebels have set up camp in abandoned apartments, stealing electricity from a spot about a kilometer away, and sharing it with the neighborhood’s three remaining residents. Former residents who return briefly to check on their properties are not always treated as warmly. They are asked for ID and paperwork to prove that they lived in thearea. Some rebels say it’s to guard against looting. Others have different concerns. “Some of these people toss electronic taggers at our bases that notify warplanes of our location,” says one young rebel, explaining why the rebels distrust returning residents. He hadn’t seen the devices, or had any proof, but was certain it was true.

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