In the lair of loyalists still killing in Aleppo

They say they can clean the city of rebels in 20 days. Robert Fisk reports from the front line

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The Independent Online

Mortars crashed into the middle-class streets around us and a T-72 tank baked in the heat under a road viaduct – a good place for tanks, when you come to think of it – but Bashar al-Assad's most senior operational commander in Aleppo, a 53-year-old major general with 33 years in the military, two sons, two grandsons, and two bullet wounds from last month's battles in Damascus – claims he can "clean" the whole province of Aleppo from "terrorists" in 20 days. Now that is quite a boast, especially in the Saif el-Dowla suburb of the city where sniper fire snapped down leafy streets shrouded in the blue smoke of burning garbage. For the battle of Aleppo is far from over.

But this was a strange sensation, to sit in a private house, commandeered by the Syrian army – 19th century prints still on the walls, the carpet immaculate – and talk to the generals accused by Western leaders of being war criminals. I was, so to speak, in "the lair of the enemy", but the immensely tall, balding general – his intelligence and ordinance officers adding their own impressions whenever they were asked – had much to say about the war they are fighting and the contempt with which they regard their enemies. They were "mice", the generals said – he would not give his name. "They snipe at us and then they run and hide in the sewers. Foreigners, Turks, Chechens, Afghans, Libyans, Sudanese." And Syrians, I said. "Yes, Syrians too, but smugglers and criminals…" A machine-gun puttered away at the bottom of the street.

We took this ID from the "terrorist" the general said. "Citizen of the Turkish Republic" was printed on the card, above a photo of a man with a thin moustache.

So, suddenly, we had a name for one of the mysterious "foreigners" who – at least in popular Baathist imagination – staff the "terrorist" army the Syrian military are fighting. And a lot of other names with far larger significance. As I prowled around the weapons – all captured within the past week, according to the Syrian officers – I found Swedish explosives.

There was a Belgian rifle; grenades of uncertain provenance; a Russian sniper scope; a 9mm Spanish-made pistol; an ancient automatic rifle; a Soviet sub-machine gun of 1948 vintage; a mass of Russian rocket-propelled grenades and launchers.

Interesting to know who the Spanish, Swedish and Belgian manufacturers originally sold weapons to.

The haul went on and on. The general agreed that weapons may have been taken from dead Syrian troops or soldiers who had been captured. Army defectors, he said, existed, but they were "dropouts, soldiers who had failed their basic tests who were motivated only by money." This is what they say under interrogation, he said. I could imagine what that was like.

But it wasn't difficult to work out just how the fighting in Aleppo is developing. Walking the streets for more than an hour with a Syrian army patrol, individual snipers would shoot from houses and then disappear before government soldiers arrived to fight them. The army had shot dead one man with a sniper's rifle who fired from the minaret of the El-Houda mosque – its palacade appeared to have been hit by a tank shell or an RPG – but there were now few front lines. The Salaheddine district had been "liberated", the Syrian officer said, and the Saif al-Dowla district was only two city blocks from a similar "liberation".

In fairness, at least a dozen civilians emerged from their homes and, unaware that a foreign journalist was watching, put their arms round Syrian troops advancing into the area. One told me he had stayed in his home as "foreign" fighters used his courtyard to fire on government soldiers. "I speak Turkish and most were speaking Turkish but some of the men had long beards and short trousers like the Saudis wear, and had strange Arab accents."

So many Aleppo citizens talked to me, out of earshot of soldiers, about armed "foreigners" in their streets along with Syrians "from the countryside" that the presence of considerable numbers of non-Syrian gunmen appeared to be true. While much of the city continues its life under occasional mortar fire – lunchtime restaurants are open and cinemas are reshowing the movies that ran before the attack on Aleppo last month – tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting are now housed in vacant dormitories on the Aleppo University campus. And President Assad's enemies are never far away.

The operational commander of all Aleppo had told me that a major battle was beginning. "The Syrian army doesn't kill civilians – we came here to protect them, at their request," he said. "We tried to get civilians out of the area where we have to fight, we give lots of warnings."

I prefer the words emblazoned on the young man who said he was trying to reach his apartment in the snipers' zone to see if it had survived. On his T-shirt was printed the legend: "You see things and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were, and I say 'Why not? – George Bernard Shaw." Not a bad motto for Aleppo these days.