ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - The route to Aleppo from the Turkish border is a long web of dirt back roads with miles of exposed ground. But undaunted and in total darkness, dozens of young men jump onto white trucks with their AK-47 rifles, keen to join the fight there.
Syria’s 16-month revolt has finally erupted in the country’s commercial hub, but the momentum was not generated inside the city - it was brought into the historic city’s ancient stone alleyways from the scorched fields of the surrounding countryside.
“We liberated the rural parts of this province. We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn‘t. We couldn’t rely on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the revolution to them,” said a rebel commander in a nearby village, who calls himself Abu Hashish.
The short scrawny man with a drooping grey moustache sits juggling cell phones and a walkie-talkie, arranging for the next convoy to head for Aleppo. Tanks of fuel and homemade grenades for use in rocket launchers are piled up along the outside of his house, ready to be dispatched.
“About 80 percent of the fighters in this city come from the countryside. Aleppo is a business town, people said they wanted to stay neutral. But now that we have come, they seem to be accepting us,” he said.
As towns across Syria were rocked by the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad - in which it is estimated 18,000 people have been killed - Aleppo, home to conservative Muslim families and businesses, stayed largely silent.
Although armed resistance began in poorer districts where residents had more tribal allegiances or rural backgrounds, Aleppo’s sacrifices have paled in comparison to nearby northern Idlib, central Homs or even Damascus, the capital.
Exasperated by the slow progress in Aleppo, rebels in the countryside said they were finally emboldened to push into the city after an assassination in the capital Damascus of four top government officials, including the defense minister.
“It was a boost to our spirits. We were so excited because we knew it was time. Aleppo is the economic center, the true source of regime power. If we can strike it hard, and hold on, we can bring Bashar down,” said one rebel fighter joining the convoy who called himself Abu Bakr.
As they arrived in Aleppo before dawn, the fighters sped through the winding alleyways of the city’s outskirts shouting: “God is great”. And then the morning skirmishes began.
The rattle of rebel machinegun fire greeted the thuds of army tank fire, artillery could be heard in the distance, and an air force fighter jet streaked overhead.
The streets of rebel-held neighborhoods are a graveyard of overturned, torched buses, specially placed along the streets by rebels to block army tanks from rolling in. The charred remains of tanks can also be seen - in heaps - by palm trees lining main thoroughfares.
“So far things here are going well for us. We have been used to fighting in olive groves and open fields. We were always exposed,” said Hakour, a 23-year-old with a straggly beard wearing camouflage fatigues.
Lounging inside a school taken over by the rebels as a temporary base, he said: “It’s much nicer to fight here where we can hide in alleyways and buildings. We will stay until Aleppo is free.”
Toting grenade launchers, the fighters are incongruous alongside the school’s pastel-colored walls. Every rebel unit that has passed through here has left a message in graffiti. “The Farouq Brigade was here”, “The Muthanna Brigade will topple Bashar”, “God is with those who will triumph”.
One rebel plays on an electric keyboard that he found in the school music room. Other men play table tennis in the main hallway. Nearby, fighters sleep along the walls, curled up next to their guns and grenades.
“It took us months and months to liberate the countryside. But here things are moving quickly. We have even set up a security team with a hotline if residents want us to help them,” Hakour says.
The rebels drink fizzy soft drinks as they sing and make jokes. But their jubilation is premature. A few minutes later a loud blast shakes the school and the rebels scatter to grab their weapons and head to the basement - a reminder of the army’s determination to crush the uprising.
As another ripple of mortar fire echoes nearby, the men decide that they should switch bases.
“LET THEM DESTROY US”
“We had to start the battle to encourage Aleppo and get the residents accustomed to being part of the uprising. A lot of families have given the fighters money secretly, but they didn’t want to do more. And there are even people unfortunately who still support the regime,” said a fighter named Jumaa.
“I think for Aleppo the memories of the 1980s are still very deep,” Jumaa said, referring to an Islamist uprising which was crushed by Assad’s late father, whose forces killed at least 10,000 people in the central city of Hama.
The rebel-held area of Aleppo visited by a Reuters reporter appeared to be completely deserted by residents. Fighters were using houses as bases to sleep in.
Just 20 km (12 miles) outside Aleppo, rebels have declared most of the countryside free of Assad’s forces. In the villages men gather to smoke and chat at night, while women wrapped in colorful veils let their children run onto the rubble-strewn streets to cheer at smiling gunmen.
“God protect the Free Syrian Army,” they shouted.
Despite the tentative calm their home towns now enjoy, there is a hint of resentment towards Aleppo’s residents from rural fighters gathered on the city’s streets.
“My brother was shot dead just last month,” says 22-year-old fighter Mustafa. He points out other faces in the crowd of rebel fighters. “His cousin died six months ago. Soldiers poured gasoline on him and set him on fire,” Mustafa says.
Pointing to another group, he says: “Their families have fled and they haven’t seen them in a year.”
Outside the city, rebel commander Abu Hashish says more sacrifices are necessary, and that the time has come for his urban brothers to share the burden.
“In Aleppo they only think about trade, about money. They think about their own life, they think about their children’s future. They don’t fight the regime because they care about the here and now,” he said.
“In the countryside we know we must give up on the present. I will sacrifice my life and my children’s lives. Let them destroy our homes. This fight is for a new generation coming that will have a chance to have a life of dignity. And for me, that is worth sacrificing everything.”
Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Osborn