ALEPPO The rebel banner of independence waves over the scorched streets and gutted cars that litter the urban battlegrounds of Aleppo, scars of a struggle in Syria's second largest city that fighters believe they are destined to win within weeks.
The scruffy, rifle-wielding youths are undeterred by the fate of equally bold, but ultimately crushed campaigns by rebels in the capital Damascus or in Homs, the bloody epicenter of the 16-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Careening through streets ripped up by army tanks on their motorbikes and flatbed trucks, young rebels with camouflage pants and Kalashnikovs patrol their newly acquired territory, which stretches from the outskirts of Aleppo in the northeast and sweeps around the city down to the southwestern corner.
"We always knew the regime's grave would be Aleppo. Damascus is the capital, but here we have a fourth of the country's population and the entire force of its economy. Bashar's forces will be buried here," said Mohammed, a young fighter, fingering the bullets in his tattered brown ammunition vest.
The government has also predicted victory in the fight to control Syria's main commercial city. For days, the government has massed its forces for a major onslaught that has yet to come. Rebels say it is proof the government doesn't have the ability to storm their territory.
The truth could lie somewhere in between: A state of limbo in Syria's economic centre, paralyzed by artillery fire and an insurgency that has made its home in the narrow, ramshackle alleyways on the poor outskirts of the ancient city.
"WE CAN TAKE THE CITY"
Mohammed and a group of fighters take refuge from the stifling heat in a dark safe house hidden down a crumbling Aleppo alleyway. They pore over a map of the city spread over the floor, tracing the neighborhoods controlled by rebels.
"We have made a semicircle around the city, and we can push in to the centre. Up in the north, the Kurdish groups are running two neighborhoods in the northern central part of the city. We don't work together, but we don't fight," said a fighter called Bara.
"I really believe that within ten days or more, we have a chance to take the city."
But across town, the smoking wreckage of the Salaheddine district in the south tells a different story. Bodies lay in the streets on Sunday as the army pounded fighters with artillery and mortars and helicopter gunships fired from above.
"We don't know if they are going to try to finish the area off or if they are distracting us, and then come shell us again here in the east of town," said Ahmed, a chain smoking activist, cigarettes as he debated with fighters insisting victory was near.
Salaheddine is the main artery out of the city and onto the highway that leads south to Damascus. State troops seem to have concentrated all their forces on wresting it from the rebels.
If the army, which retains overwhelming military superiority with helicopter gunships, rockets, artillery and tanks, cannot secure Salaheddine enough to get tanks on the ground, it would have to bring tanks into the city by going all the way around the province and entering from the other side, because minor roads on the city outskirts are mined by the rebels.
Both sides are trying to avoid using manpower. The army bombards from afar with its tanks or its helicopters hovering overhead. Rebels set up homemade bombs to blow up the tanks when they try to roll in.
On the eastern side of the city, the wounded pour in daily to Dar al-Shifa, a private hospital turned into a rebel clinic. Poorly equipped medics pick out shrapnel from young men's legs.
"Some days we get around 30, 40 people, not including the bodies," says a young medic at the clinic. "A few days ago we got in 30 injured and maybe 20 corpses but half of those bodies were ripped to pieces. We can't figure out who they are."
Abdulsamea al-Ahmad is a medical assistant but has had to run the hospital since rebels took the area.
"The doctors refuse to come. They are too afraid the regime will come back and they will be arrested. But I can't leave, I can't leave people to suffer. God willing, we will all keep up our sacrifices until victory is finally secured."
Outside the hospital, the fighters are confident as they strut through the streets and nod at passers-by. some smile and wave. Most stare at the ground and quickly walk by. Few are given an opportunity to speak privately with journalists.
In the neighborhoods they hold, rebels have confidently scrawled the word "liberated" on the walls, but there are signs of the anxieties lurking below. One fighter flies into a rage when he sees two boys climbing on a demolished tank.
"You dogs! Are you spies? What are you doing? Get out of here," he shouts, shaking his rifle, as they back away slowly.
Some gunmen, wearing white and black Islamic headbands, stop traffic at junctions, guarded by men with heavy machineguns squatting nearby. Above them flutters a makeshift green, white and black independence flag, red stars drawn across the middle with marker pen.
"The situation is really great, because we finally managed to liberate all of al-Bab city nearby. The fighters are moving on and we are now concentrating all our efforts on central Aleppo," said Khalid al-Shamsi, a short, chubby rebel commander with a Kalashnikov over each shoulder.
"Reinforcements and supplies are on the way towards us from al-Bab and other areas."
Shamsi's Khattab battalion is part of the Tawhid brigade that controls broad commercial avenues just outside Aleppo's ancient citadel and historic vaulted souks.
The rebels, who have vowed to "liberate Aleppo", detained scores of Syrian officers, soldiers and pro-government militiamen last week in Idlib province in the city of Aleppo.
"Now the fighters can come into the centre from all over. The more Assad brings in reinforcements, the more we will. We will not withdraw from Aleppo, we will fight with our very last drop of blood," shouted the commander.
"God is great!" respond his fighters gathering around him.
Markets are open, and vendors lay out their vegetables and fruits on wooden tables under umbrellas near the highway. But only a few women in dark coats and veils linger to shop during the fasting holy month of Ramadan.
Most residents can be found in the bread lines. Crowds of sweating men and women queue around the block, waiting for nearly three hours for three packets of subsidized bread.
"God knows what is coming to us. They keep saying the situation is getting better, that we are heading towards victory, but I'm afraid things will get uglier and uglier," said one resident, speaking discreetly when fighters escorting Reuters journalists were not looking.
The government seems to expect it will be back. Water and electricity run normally. It allows supplies of flour for subsidized bread to enter rebel areas as normal.
NO GRAND STRATEGY
Fighters insist they have a right to be confident where their comrades have failed.
"In Homs, the city was too carved up by army sites. In Damascus, the guys couldn't protect their own backs. The countryside was still occupied. Here, we spent months fighting to free the countryside around us. We have plenty of support and supply routes," said another fighter called Bara, who joined fighters hiding out to inspect the Aleppo map.
"I admit it was no grand strategy but random chance that we saw we'd liberated almost all of the countryside and we could reinforce ourselves, maybe as well as the regime can," he said.
Even if the rebels estimation is right, the cost of "liberation" is clear: Buildings have been ripped open by artillery shells and mortar bombs. Concrete, shattered glass and piles of trash spill into the streets.
Stepping out into the oppressive summer heat, the fighter Mohammed says the destruction is a fair price for freedom. Even if the government fights it way back into his area again, the rebels say they will claim victory as long as they can survive.
"They can destroy our town, we will keep fighting if they flatten it all," he said. "Didn't the Germans destroy parts of Britain in World War II? But the British still won in the end. And believe me, we will never stop."
Overhead, a helicopter gunship buzzes above a rebel checkpoint a few miles away. It circles above slowly before unleashing a barrage of gunfire.
"There is nothing we can do against their air power," Mohammed says. "But still, even if they storm Salaheddine, all they will have done is secured their own reinforcements. They won't have won. The street wars will begin again."
Residents seem to be bracing for that eventuality. Fighters estimate about 80 percent of residents in the outer districts of eastern Aleppo have fled. And still, dozens of trucks loaded with children and mattresses raced down the road, shouting out their destination to fighters who waved them on.
"God protect you," the rebels call out to them.
As night falls, the army bombardment erupts again. Blasts of artillery break the evening silence, and the sounds of the gathering storm creep closer.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Giles Elgood)