Insurgent with empty ammunition boxes in Aleppo (Photo: Iskandar Kat/AFP/Getty)
In his latest report from Aleppo for The Guardian, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad observes how insurgents try to keep badly-needed military supplies coming from outside supporters:
The rusting green Mercedes truck could have been mistaken for a removal lorry. It was parked in a narrow street outside a luxurious villa a short distance from the Turkish border, and the arms and legs of chairs and tables protruded from the tarpaulin that covered the back. Beneath the furniture, however, was 450,000 rounds of ammunition and hundreds of rocket-propelled grenades destined for the Syrian rebels in Aleppo.
Inside the villa two rebel commanders and a chubby civilian in jeans and T-shirt were exchanging pieces of paper, which the civilian signed. He issued a series of instructions to the men outside, who began transferring crates into the commanders' white Toyota pickup.
"All what I want from you is that you shoot a small video and put it on YouTube, stating your name and your unit, and saying we are part of the Aleppo military council," the civilian told one of the commanders, who fought with the Islamist Tawheed brigade. "Then you can do whatever you want. I just need to show the Americans that units are joining the council.
"I met two Americans yesterday in Antakya (Turkey). They told me that no advanced weapons would come to us unless we were unified under the leadership of the local military councils. So shoot the video and let me handle the rest." Looking in the back, it was clear the ammunition was new. The RPG rounds were still wrapped in plastic.
It was past midnight in Aleppo when Captain Abu Mohamed and Captain Abu Hussein received a phone call informing them the ammunition from Turkey had arrived. Abu Mohamed, a portly 28-year-old member of Aleppo military council, perched unsteadily on a plastic chair in a garage on the edge of the Salah al-Din neighbourhood. He had a handsome face and a great round belly. He and Abu Hussein, a short man with a blond goatee, had been close friends since they were cadets in Aleppo military academy. Abu Mohamed had defected first. Abu Hussein followed him a couple of months later.
Abu Mohamed described where the weapons had come from. Different donors in Saudi Arabia were channelling money to a powerful Lebanese politician in Istanbul, he said. He in turn co-ordinated with the Turks – "everything happens in co-ordination with Turkish intelligence" – to arrange delivery through the military council of Aleppo, a group composed mostly of defected officers and secular and moderate civilians.
Because of its virtual monopoly on ammunition supplies, the council has grown into a significant force in the Syrian civil war, rivalling existing powers like the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist factions.
Stirred into action by the phone call, the two captains raced an old pickup through the dark streets near the front line, under a steady rain of shells. A few rebels, taking cover behind the corners of buildings, shouted at them to switch off their headlights. The captains continued in darkness and a state of burning paranoia, conjuring a sniper behind every shutter and a government tank on every street corner.
They parked the pickup at their rendezvous point in front of a school and waited for the cargo to arrive. An orange flash burst from a balcony in front of them, followed by a loud explosion and the jangle of shrapnel rattling the roof of the car. A shell had hit the building less than 50 metres away. It was enough for Abu Mohamed. "Let's go find some food," he said, crunching the pickup into gear and speeding away.
The rebel plan for the assault on Aleppo had been simple, Abu Mohamed said. They were told by the leadership that if they took the fight to the heart of the city, the supply lines would flow. But three weeks after the rebels entered the town, the ammunition for a front stretching from the Saif al-Dawla boulevard in the north to the Salah al-Din neighbourhood in the south-west had dwindled to 600 bullets and six RPG rockets. The lines were close to collapse.
"They told us to start the rebellion and then we would get support," Abu Mohamed said. "The city was divided into three sectors and we split our forces and ammunition between the three fronts, but we didn't imagine that we would enter Aleppo so easily. We took 60% of the city in the first few days. We overstretched our units, while the regime had decided to concentrate all his power to fight in one sector, Salah al-Din."
"We started pulling resources from the two other sectors and concentrated them here. At the same time the support we were promised stopped. That led to all three sectors buckling at the same time. We don't have the ammunition we were promised. Every day the [Syrian] army is pushing forwards. So we expend the one thing we have, men. Men are dying."
Over the following days, a small amount of ammunition trickled to the rebels. The two captains piled an old Lada high with crates of bullets and drove a dozen times along sniper-infested streets to resupply the fighters at the fronts in Salah al-Din and Saif al-Dawla, handing bullets and rockets to the different units, noting the names of the recipients and the numbers of rounds they had been given in a small ledger. It was one of the most perilous jobs in Aleppo.