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6 Months Of Combat, And No Victor In Syria's Biggest City

A rebel fighter fires toward Syrian government forces in the Bab al-Nasr district of Aleppo's Old City, earlier this month. The city has been a major battleground for the past six months.
Olivier Voisin
AFP/Getty Images
A rebel fighter fires toward Syrian government forces in the Bab al-Nasr district of Aleppo's Old City, earlier this month. The city has been a major battleground for the past six months.

Some six months after Syria's rebels tried to storm the country's largest city, they can claim the eastern part of Aleppo and perhaps 60 percent overall. In the west, the government army has the remaining 40 percent of the city.

The line dividing these two areas is supposedly the front line in Aleppo's war. But lately the front has gone cold, as people here say in Arabic.

You can still hear shots. But peering through a tiny little hole in a stone wall separating the two sides, this particular part of government-held Aleppo looks like a no man's land. There's a lot of trash, abandoned buildings, a mosque that looks like it's been abandoned.

The shots are from a government sniper, posted on top of one of those abandoned buildings. Although there's not much fighting here anymore, government soldiers sometimes try to pick off rebel fighters or civilians who cross from one side to another.

Marwa just crossed the front line. She and her sister sometimes make this perilous crossing twice a day. One day, a sniper almost killed her sister.

Marwa works on the government side but lives on the rebel side. She says life is almost normal on the government side — there's more electricity and bread.

When asked whether she feels like she has a dual personality, she replies, yes, this is the reality.

Combatants Close Enough To Talk To Each Other

A rebel fighter stationed here says the two sides are so close they talk to each other at night, yelling across the front line. They even know each other's names, he says.

Right now this cold front line is a lot like the fight for Syria: Both sides think they can win, but neither side is winning, so neither side is going to back down.

In recent months, rebels have realized that fighting for inches along these front lines is no way to win a war. So while a small number of fighters hold the front, the rest have turned their attention to government air bases that ring the city.

Rebels believe if they can cut off the government's ability to resupply its troops, Aleppo will fall.

Rebels have surrounded Mennagh airport on the outskirts of Aleppo, one of the three remaining key air bases in the area.

Rebels have been getting closer and closer to the base in recent weeks, says a fighter at a ruined house near the airport. But still, there are problems. He says his unit actually had to buy anti-aircraft weapons from another rebel unit.

And he says he has no idea if rebels who recently captured another major air base near here will come and help, or just keep the weapons they seized for themselves and fight elsewhere.

Syrian Soldiers Deserting

The Syrian army, meanwhile, has to contend with deserting soldiers.

One soldier, who had been at the Mennagh airport until he deserted a few days ago, says the government army fed him only once a day. He says that he waved a white flag at the rebels and made his escape at the first chance he got.

The government army also is struggling against better trained and better equipped Islamist fighters, some of them from outside Syria, who are now leading the battles at these government bases.

Of course, many questions remain. For instance, if rebels do take Aleppo, then what? They say they'll join other rebels who are already fighting to take Syria's capital, Damascus. But they face a tough battle there. And taking Aleppo could be a long way off.

As one Syrian civilian leader in the city said: If we use logic, it could happen in three months. If we don't, it could be years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McEvers
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
Rima Marrouch