Robert Fisk: 'Rebel army? They're a gang of foreigners'

Our writer hears the Syrian forces' justification for a battle that is tearing apart one of the world's oldest cities

Share

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 into 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 carbonized 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 whose barrel had been 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 Major 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 "mukhbarat" 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.

Many of the soldiers, who were encouraged to speak to me even as they knelt at the ends of narrow streets with bullets spattering off the walls, spoke of their amazement that so many "foreign fighters" should have been in Aleppo. "Aleppo has five million people," one said to me. "If the enemy are so sure that they are going to win the battle, then surely there's no need to bring these foreigners to participate; they will lose."

Major Somar, who spoke excellent English, understood the political dimension all too well. "Our borders with Turkey are a big problem," he admitted. "The border needs to be closed. The closure of the frontier must be coordinated by the two governments. But the Turkish government is on the enemy side. Erdogan is against Syria." Of course, I asked him his religion, a question that is all innocence and all poison in Syria these days. Somar, whose father was a general, his mother a teacher, and who practices his English with Dan Brown novels, was as quick as a cat. "It's not where you are born or what is your religion," he said. "It's what's in your mind. Islam comes from this land, Christians come from this land, Jews come from this land. That is why it is our duty to protect this land."

Several soldiers believed the rebels were trying to convert the Christians of Aleppo – "a peaceful people", they kept calling them – and there was a popular story doing the rounds yesterday of a Christian storekeeper who was forced to wear Muslim clothing and announce his own conversion in front of a video camera. But in wartime cities, you find talkative soldiers. One of the men who recaptured the entrance to the citadel was Abul Fidar, famous for walking between Aleppo, Palmyra and Damascus over 10 days at the start of the current conflict last year to publicise the need for peace. The president, needless to say, greeted him warmly at his final destination.

And then there was Sergeant Mahmoud Dawoud from Hama, who had been fighting in Hama itself, Homs, Jebel Zawi and Idlib. "I want to be interviewed by a reporter," he announced, and of course, he got his way. "We are sad for the civilians of this land," he said. "They were in peace before. We promise as soldiers that we will make sure a good life returns for them, even if we lose our lives." He does not mention all those civilians killed by army shellfire or by the "shabiha", or those thousands who have suffered torture in this land. Dawoud has a fiancée called Hannan who is studying French in Latakia, his father is a teacher; he says he wants "to serve his homeland".

But the thought cannot escape us that the prime purpose of men like Sergeant Dawoud – and all his fellow soldiers here – was not, surely, to liberate Aleppo but to liberate the occupied Golan Heights, right next to the land which the "jihadis" apparently thought they were "liberating" yesterday – until they discovered that Aleppo was not Jerusalem.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer - Kent - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer - ne...

Recruitment Genius: Production Team Leader / Chargehand

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Chargehand to join ...

Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

£30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Ukip on the ropes? Voters don’t think so

Stefano Hatfield
'One minute he cares desperately about his precious things, the next he can’t remember them'  

I repeat things over and over in the hope they’ll stay with him

Rebecca Armstrong
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project