You know it's all true when the taxi driver turns off the motorway towards Aleppo. In front lies a mile of empty autostrada, disappearing into the heat haze on its way to one of the oldest cities in the world.
But a halo of brown smoke embraces the horizon, and the driver knows better than to follow the motorway signs from the airport. He turns left, gingerly bouncing over the broken median rail, and between two huge piles of rocks like a frightened cat. In front is a sea of burnt houses and wrecked cars, through which we drive slowly. The engine cuts out in the way my dad's car used to in France on bad postwar petrol, the accelerator cutting out nervously as we drive past two rubbish trucks upended to form a road block.
But these are phantom checkpoints. There are no gunmen, no militiamen, no al-Qa'ida, no "terrorists", no "gangs", no "foreign fighters" – how one grows sick of these semantics – and not a civilian soul, because this battle is over, for now.
This is the suburb of Al Baz, won by the government army, we are told later, although we see no soldiers nor policemen for miles. The army has come and gone, and the buildings are shell-smashed and bullet-scarred.
We drive on through these ghost streets. On our right is a spectral police station, its giant wall-portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intact. But, above each window are the black stains of fires. The building is gutted, the fire station next door is abandoned and a fire truck has been driven into a wall. In four miles, I spot just one forlorn child in the ruins and a mother carrying a baby over an acre of dust. Only when the damaged Citadel of Aleppo appears are there families, small girls in their Eid dresses and a "shawarma" café.
"We cleaned these streets," a Syrian officer will tell me later. Well yes, insofar as you can beat street fighters with T-72 tanks and BMP troop carriers. The Syrian soldiers described to us how they have been fighting in Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa. Bashar has sent his battle-hardened men to fight for Aleppo but this is not, I am told, Maher al-Assad's infamous Fourth Division: "Absolutely not," a general tells me with a laugh – though I have no idea where Bashar's brother and his men are operating.
Now for the official figures – government army statistics of course, for we are on the "other side" of the Aleppo frontline. Total "terrorists" dead: 700 "and many wounded". Total military deaths: 20. Wounded: 100. Internet and mobile lines were cut by rebels near Homs, so a land circuit to Damascus offers the only phone communication with the capital. In Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents would pay to keep the mobile system operating as they needed the phones. But here, it seems they have enough "command and control" systems to ignore Syria's domestic lines. The Free Syrian Army can't surround Aleppo – but they can isolate it.
I asked one of the Syrian military elite here if he had any reaction to US Defence Secretary Leo Panetta, who announced two weeks ago that Aleppo would be "a nail in Assad's coffin" and that of the regime. This was the officer's reply: "The Syrian regime will stay for ever. No power on Earth can bring it down. All regimes will fall – but Syria will stay, because God is on the side of those who are in the right."
Certainly – albeit infinitely smaller than the cost to Syria's civilian victims of this awful war – the army is paying its own price. Of the four generals I have so far met in Aleppo, three have been seriously wounded in the fighting of the past 18 months, one still nursing a sling round his right arm after receiving grenade shrapnel in his shoulder.
There were television sets in the officers' temporary quarters – I saw the anti-regime Al Arabiya and BBC World on the screen as well as Syrian television's own drudge-like coverage of the war – and soldiers, the army is quick to reveal, receive a daily lecture from their officers on the state of the conflict: comment is sacred, I suspect facts are free. Any conversation has to begin with the government line: the army defends the homeland against aggression, an international conspiracy targets Syria because it is the only Arab nation to resist Israel. No admission of troops using guns against unarmed demonstrators and no explanation of how armed Syrian demonstrators turned into "foreign" fighters.
But access to the Syrian army can sometimes produce a factoid more powerful than statistics. Ahmed, a 21 year-old conscript, tells me how his brother, Private Mohammed Ibrahim Dout, was "martyred" by a sniper. His comrade says: "We are sorry for our brother soldier, but he is now in paradise." A general tells me of a friend, a lieutenant in the full-time Syrian army in the Damascus suburb of Douma. "He was married three months ago and he was walking to his home in Douma and some men in a van greeted him and offered him a lift." Twenty-three-year-old Lieutenant Assem Abbas accepted in good faith. "We found him later," the general says, "cut into two pieces and thrown into a sewage tank."Reuse content