| ALEPPO, Syria
ALEPPO, Syria Aug 1 At the frontline of the
battle for Aleppo, the ancient citadel is tantalisingly close
for Syrian rebels.
As they push towards the centre of Syria's biggest city,
they can see the crumbling stone walls of the 800-year-old
fortress perched on a dry, grassy hill just 200 metres away.
"One day soon, we're going to march inside it. We will make
it to the heart of the city," says Ahmed, a pale and scrawny
young rebel. He shades his eyes from the glaring sun as he
stares at the citadel - once a symbol of Arab military might and
more recently a tourist attraction - from his perch on the
rusted balcony of an abandoned apartment.
"In the evening, once it is cool, the fighting starts. They
fly over with helicopters and snipe at us from the citadel. We
crouch in our positions and fire back," says Ahmed.
Rebels fighting in the 17-month-old revolt against President
Bashar al-Assad say the territory they have seized proves they
are advancing on the heart of Syria's largest city.
They are heavily outgunned by Assad's forces, but believe
they have what the government troops lack - the will to win.
From their deepest point inside the city in the Bab
al-Hadeed area, rebels with rifles and chequered scarves patrol
traffic. Cars rattle down the main roads into the square, past
two sandbagged rebel positions. The rebels lurk in alleyways
with rocket propelled grenades and rifles, waiting.
"The regime soldiers are somewhere down that road, just a
few hundred metres away," one fighter says. He looks calm, but
never loosens his grip on the RPG launcher hoisted over his
Rebels have blocked roads leading into the traffic
roundabout at Bab al-Hadeed with wooden crates and metal desks
dragged into the road. From there, it is a short walk down stone
pavements lined with curled iron lamp posts into Aleppo's
historic old city, where stone and marble Arabic homes have been
transformed into boutique hotels for the tourists who no longer
The stone gateway standing over the square, which has
survived hundreds of years of changing rulers, is freshly pocked
with the bullets.
In the midday heat the only sound is of cars and men
greeting each other in the street. Most women and children have
fled, residents say.
"What's odd actually is how little fighting there is. I'm
surprised the regime hasn't come down on this place. Look how
close they are to the main symbol of the city," says an elderly
man, peering outside of his bakery - one of the few shops not
shuttered and closed for business on this urban battlefront.
Down the main road toward the citadel, rebels say they have
slowly advanced a few metres in the past two days. They mark the
end of their territory with a battered red bus across the road,
the opposition's green, white and black flag flutters above it.
"We are the Free Syrian Army," is scrawled across the bus in
Twenty-three-year old Mohammed, whose muscles bulge out of
his black t-shirt, leads a group of young rebels guarding their
position in the northern end of the city.
Government snipers are not far away, he says, but the large
grin on his face never flickers.
"We are standing on the first point of defence for the
rebels and for liberated Aleppo. From this point here, the main
square of the city, Saadallah al-Jabri, is somewhere around 700
metres away from there," he said.
Many government offices are centred in Saadallah al-Jabri
square, making it the ultimate strategic target, he argues -
even more than the beautiful citadel which has been declared a
world heritage site by UNESCO.
"With God's help, we will advance towards it further in the
coming days and liberate it from the enemy," said Mohammed.
Fighters insist that army attacks, even with artillery and
tanks, cannot dislodge the rebels' hold.
"The only way they can be effective is with troops on the
ground, and their men don't have the will for that much loss of
life" said the fighter Mohammed, picking up the metal shards of
rockets he said the army fired at his men's checkpoint.
"So they shell. But just go deeper into the city: Off every
road here, the old city is a network of tiny, twisted alleys."
Some residents say they feel trapped in a dangerously quiet
centre waiting to explode. An older man with a grey beard
whispered: "We have the regime pounding and the rebels in the
streets, and we civilians are stuck in the middle."
But the fighters who have battled Assad's forces for more
than a year are only looking forward. "Soon you will see us in
the citadel," says the rebel Mohammed. "And from there, you will
see a liberated Aleppo."