A victorious army? There were cartridge cases all over the ancient stone laneways, pocked windows, and bullet holes up the side of the Sharaf mosque, where a gunman had been firing from the minaret. A sniper still fired just 150 yards away – all that was left of more than a hundred rebels who had almost, but not quite, encircled the 4,000 year old citadel of Aleppo.
"You won't believe this," Major Somar cried in excitement. "One of our prisoners told me: 'I didn't realise Palestine was as beautiful as this.' He thought he was in Palestine to fight the Israelis!"
Do I believe this? Certainly, the fighters who bashed their way into the lovely old streets west of the great citadel were, from all accounts, a ragtag bunch. Their graffiti – "We are the Brigades of 1980", the year when the first Muslim Brotherhood rising threatened the empire of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez – was still on the walls of the Syrian-Armenian hotels and silver shops. A 51-year-old general handed me one of the home-made grenades that littered the floor of the Sharaf mosque; a fluffy fuse poking from the top of a lump of shrapnel, coated in white plastic and covered in black adhesive tape.
Inside the mosque were bullets, empty tins of cheese, cigarette butts and piles of mosque carpets, which the rebels had used as bedding. The battle had so far lasted 24 hours. A live round had cut into the Bosnian-style tombstone of a Muslim imam's grave, with a delicate stone turban carved on its top. The mosque's records – lists of worshippers' complaints, Korans and financial documents – were lying across one room in what had evidently marked the last stand of several men. There was little blood. Between 10 and 15 of the defenders – all Syrians – surrendered after being offered mercy if they laid down their arms. The quality of this mercy was not, of course, disclosed to us.
The Syrian soldiers were elated, but admitted that they shared immense sadness for the history of a city whose very fabric was being torn apart, a world heritage site being smashed by rockets and high-velocity rounds. The officers shook their heads when they led us in to the ramparts of the immense citadel. "The terrorists tried to capture it 20 days ago from our soldiers who were defending it," Major Somar said. "They filled gas cylinders full of explosives – 300 kilos of it – and set them off by the first entrance above the moat."
Alas, they did. The huge medieval iron and wooden gate, its ornamented hinges and supports – a defence-work that had stood for 700 years – has been literally torn apart. I clambered over carbonised wood and hunks of stone bearing delicate Koranic inscriptions. Hundreds of bullet holes have pitted the stonework of the inner gate. Below, I found a T-72 tank with its barrel grazed by a sniper's bullet which was still lodged in the sheath, its armour broken by a grenade. "I was inside at the time," its driver said. "Bang! – but my tank still worked!"
So here is the official scorecard of the battle for the eastern side of the old city of Aleppo, the conflict amid narrow streets and pale, bleached stone walls that was still being fought out yesterday afternoon, the crack of every rebel bullet receiving a long burst of machine-gun fire from Major Somar's soldiers. As the army closed in on the gunmen from two sides, 30 rebels – or 'Free Syrian Army' or 'foreign fighters' – were killed and an undisclosed number wounded. According to Somar's general, an officer called Saber, Syrian government forces suffered only eight wounded. I came across three of them, one a 51-year old officer who refused to be sent to hospital.
Many of the rebels' weapons had been taken from the scene by the military 'mukhbarrat' intelligence men before we arrived: they were said to include three NATO-standard sniper-rifles, one mortar, eight Austrian machine-pistols and a host of Kalashnikovs which may well have been stolen by Syrian deserters. But it is the shock of finding these pitched battles amid this world heritage site which is more terrible than the armaments of each side. To crunch over broken stone and glass with Syrian troops for mile after mile around the old city, a place of museums and Mosques – the magnificently-minareted Gemaya Omayyad stands beside yesterday's battleground – is a matter of infinite sorrow.