Aleppo was Syria’s largest city and its commercial capital, with a population of 2 million when the revolution began in 2011. Dominated by a conservative commercial elite, the city was slow to join the mass protests which broke out across the country and support for the revolution was initially limited to the University campus, where the first anti-regime protest took place on 13 April 2011. A turning point occurred in the first half of May 2012 when government forces decided to crack down on student dissent and attacked a number of demonstrations, killing thirty students. Occurring at a time when there was a UN monitored cease-fire in place which explicitly allowed for peaceful protests, this led to anti-regime protests across the city.

The driving force for the liberation of  Aleppo, however, came from the surrounding countryside, where the Free Syrian Army had taken root.  In July 2012 the FSA launched an offensive to liberate the city which met with initial success, but after intense and protracted fighting, culminated in a military stalemate around shifting front lines that cut through the heart of the city.

Today Aleppo is a pale reflection of its former self. Large numbers of its citizens have fled the city, and many neighbourhoods are deserted. But some 200,000 to 300, 000 courageous civilians are still there, determined to protect their homes and businesses as best they can.

Aleppo is also a divided city – the western half occupied by the regime, while the East is under the control of a number of armed opposition groups (some no more than local militias established to protect their neighbourhoods). The media often emphasises the divided nature of the opposition forces, but the Syrian regime is also highly fragmented: there are no fewer than 6 factions of the Syrian state controlling West Aleppo – the Syrian Army, the Baath Party militia, Airforce Security, State Security, Political Secuity, and the Military Police. Each of these groups controls a patch of territory and a number of checkpoints which it guards jealously against not only the opposition but also the other regime groups.

ISIS was briefly in control of a part of East Aleppo but was driven out by the other opposition groups in the summer of 2014.


Life in East Aleppo

Life is very difficult in both parts of the city as the war between the regime and the rebel forces is waged in their midst, but it is opposition-controlled East Aleppo that bears the brunt of the conflict. There electricity supplies are regularly cut, household fuel supplies are scarce, and healthcare facilities shattered. But worst of all is the continuing onslaught by regime forces against the civilian population. Regime snipers regularly fire on people going about their business, and civilian areas are targeted by artillery fire and bombing raids.


The River of Death

The sort of regime-directed terrorism that Aleppo civilians are subject to was dramatically revealed in January 2013, when the receding waters of the Queiq  River washed up over 100 dead bodies.  The victims were male, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, but included a 14-year-old boy and an elderly man. All of them had been executed - shot in the head at close range with their hands and feet tied. Relatives  subsequently identified many of the  bodies as family members  who had gone missing while making journeys through regime checkpoints.

Aleppo's "River of Death"

Living under the Barrel Bomb

The most devastating weapon that the regime uses against the people of East Aleppo is the barrel bomb - crude  weapons  made by packing old oil drums with high explosives and scrap metal. One of these was dropped into Al-Kalasa, a residential area of multi-storey apartments, causing 3 buildings to collapse and causing at least 15 deaths including 4 children:

In February 2014 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2139 which demanded an end to the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government. Human Rights Watch has documented what happened next:

Red dots mark barrel bombs dropped on Aleppo after the adoption of
UN security Council Resolution 2139

Coping with adversity

The people of Aleppo, however, are both resilient and resourceful. In order to avoid the creation of bread queues, which were frequently targeted by regime aircraft, local bakeries work with neighbourhood councils to run a bread delivery service.  And volunteers have formed a civil defence force that provides rapid responses to regime bombing raids - the “White Helmets”.

Aleppo citizens string sheets across the road to obscure the line of fire for regime snipers

Portrait of A Syrian Revolutionary: Abu Mariam

 “The rebels’ mistakes are heaven when compared to the regime”Abu Mariam
One of the leading figures of the civil opposition movement in Aleppo was Wael Ibrahim, known as Abu Mariam. A former lorry driver, he has been described as “one of the most important secular activists in Aleppo”. (He and his younger brother Aboude – a youthful revolutionary singer –were featured in the Channel 4 documentary Children in the Frontline.)
While a staunch supporter of the revolution Abu Mariam was also a fervent champion of its original democratic values. You can see him in this video leading a demonstration  in February 2013 and tearing down an Islamist banner that he objected to. (He was sentenced to corporal punishment by the Aleppo Sharia court for this action.)

His independent spirit brought him into conflict with armed groups who he felt were acting corruptly – and he was physically attacked  on a number of occasions for his independent stand. But he never wavered in his support for the revolution, as the quote above shows, and as he explains in this moving interview.
Tragically, Abu Mariam was taken prisoner by ISIS during the time they were present in the city and reportedly executed by them in August for the crime of being “a secular apostate and an advocate of democracy".

But his struggle to uphold the values of the Syrian revolution while working for the downfall of the Assad regime is continued by his family, friends, and comrades in Aleppo, and by the many Abu Mariams to be found in cities all across Syria. They are the future hope of Syria –and  they deserve  to have their voices heard and to receive our active support and solidarity.