For much of the uprising, Aleppo largely remained on the regime’s side, with little rebel activity. The city’s businessmen could use their influence, threats and payoffs to make sure of that — with tens of thousands on their payrolls and the countryside dependent on them.
What few anti-Assad demonstrations that did take place early on came from the dormitories of the University of Aleppo, home to students from rural parts of the province.
Then the rebels from the countryside launched their surprise attack on the city in July. They moved into its impoverished, mainly Sunni districts, where residents are mostly of rural origin. They have since used those areas as their base from which to wage their bid to take over the city. To this day, all of Aleppo’s rebel-held areas are poor, while the city’s affluent parts remain under government control, with life there reportedly continuing much as it had before.
Once inside the city, the ranks of the rebels swelled with Aleppo volunteers bitter over their poverty.
Mohammed Al-Ali, 25, is one of them.
Just back from a two-day stint on the front lines in Aleppo — ‘‘the enemy was no more than 15 meters away from our position,’’ he said — Al-Ali is fighting as much for social justice as for freedom.
In a blue tracksuit and tennis shoes, he spoke of a father with a meager pension of $200 and a family so poor he had to drop out of school and take various jobs in shops to make ends meet as prices skyrocketed across Syria in the past decade.
‘‘We sold everything in the house that we did not absolutely need,’’ Al-Ali said.
Besides being a fighter, he earns a monthly wage of $80 as a helper in a field hospital.
‘‘I am hoping that when this is over, I will go to university and study Arabic literature. This is my dream,’’ he said.
The rural fighters also bring with them their more fundamentalist religious outlook, which the trauma of war has only deepened. Most rebels in Aleppo wear beards, a hallmark of piety, and their conversation is filled with verses from the Quran or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. They frame the fight in a religious context and speak of martyrdom as something they wish for.
They often trade stories of miracles showing God’s support for them.
Waiting at a field hospital as one of his fighters was treated for shrapnel wounds, a rebel commander who goes by the nickname of Abu Ekrimah recounted one such tale to a comrade.
The burly, bearded commander with piercing hazel eyes — his vest full of ammunition magazines and an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder — told how a long-bearded man with a reputation for piety once gave his brigade’s fighters some homemade grenades. He instructed them to ritually wash themselves as if for prayers and then throw them while shouting, ‘‘God is great!’’
‘‘We followed his instructions, and we could see that when we tossed them, they changed course in midair to score direct hits against the enemy,’’ Abu Ekrimah said.
‘‘God is great!’’ his comrade exclaimed at hearing the story.
For some of the Aleppo rebels, the war against the regime has inspired a turning point in their personal journey of faith.
The rebel Abu Ahmed has images stored on his mobile phone of party dresses he once designed as a tailor working in Egypt, Lebanon and Aleppo: low-cut, strapless, see-through in parts. He says designing such revealing dresses was part of a past he has now put behind him.
He also has a picture of himself with a bruised forehead and a deep cut under his left eye — what he said was the result of a beating from regime loyalists while taking part in a street protest in May 2011. He now is an ambulance driver for the rebels, who revere him for his seeming fearlessness in battle zones.
‘‘Initially, I wanted it to be a peaceful revolution against the regime, but now it is a war fought in defense of our faith,’’ according to the bearded Abu Ahmed.
It is impossible to gauge the degree of support enjoyed by the rebels in the parts of Aleppo they control. The rebels acknowledge that many residents are fed up with the hardships they endure.
Regime forces punish the city daily with artillery and airstrikes. Civilians are killed and wounded while standing on bread lines, walking the streets or watching TV at home. Snipers target civilians in areas where rebels have positions. The staff at the rebels’ field hospital said 80 percent of the 100-120 cases they treat daily are civilians.
Even in rural Aleppo, there is a degree of disgruntlement over the impact of the fighting on the local economy. State-supported farmers’ associations that once sold fuel, seeds and fertilizers no longer do so. Black market prices for the items are so high it’s not worth planting some crops when the season starts in December.Continued...