Aleppo is an unnerving city, especially the eastern half, which is controlled by the rebels and bombed by the regime. In this vast, dark urban expanse ravaged by war, the streets are lined with the jagged silhouettes of half-collapsed buildings and torn-open rooms, interspersed with intact facades.
Many neighborhoods only intermittently have electricity, and rarely have drinking water. The price of bottled gas for cooking has risen 17-fold. In a city park, an old woman is using a trowel to chop bits of wood from a tree stump. Children are combing through the trash in search of plastic bottles.
And yet people are streaming back into this war-torn city, which once had a population of over 2 million. Tens of thousands have returned because Turkey has refused to accept any more refugees, because they have used up their savings, and because they would rather live at home, in the hope that the next bomb will hit somewhere else, instead of dwelling in sodden tents in the cold. In the evenings, groups of people gather around small fires every few meters along the sidewalks, and pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns patrol the streets, while detonations from Syrian air force bombing raids can be heard in the distance.
No single individual is in charge here, there is no one who could keep rival militias from transforming the city into a second Mogadishu, but so far this hasn't happened. Shops and restaurants are even open in the evening, and there are fewer attacks and abductions than there were in the months leading up to the fighting.
There is also something disquieting about this normality, as if the city were a sleeping monster that could awake at any moment.
Reduced to Ruins
Two years after the first tentative demonstrations for more freedom, the rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a war that is destroying Syria in two ways: by reducing the cities to ruins -- and threatening to destroy the peaceful coexistence of diverse religious and ethnic groups for decades to come.
In late February, the United Nations registered 900,000 refugees in Syria's neighboring countries, and thousands flee across the borders every day. What's more, two and a half million people have become displaced within the country. Typhus, hepatitis and leishmaniasis, a skin infection also known as the "Aleppo boil," are spreading across the country. Some 70,000 people have died in the conflict, with an additional 100 to 200 losing their lives every day. There have been more casualties among civilians than among rebel fighters and regime soldiers.
Two years is a very long time to spend in the firing line of a regime which, since the beginning of this year, in addition to tanks and fighter jets, has now resorted to shooting Scud missiles into those parts of the country that are trying to escape its oppression. The missiles are usually fired from Damascus, have notoriously poor accuracy, and often merely leave behind enormous craters in uninhabited areas. Last Monday, though, a Scud struck Aleppo again, destroying half-abandoned buildings and killing a dozen people. This was followed on Friday by another missile attack that killed at least 12 civilians.
Two years is a dangerously long time when the rest of the world can't decide how to deal with the growing horror of this conflict. While German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is appealing for restraint, Moscow is supplying the regime with weapons, Iran is sending elite Revolutionary Guards to support Assad, and an Iranian clergyman is publicly referring to Syria as "Iran's 35th province."
Given that hundreds of thousands attended the largest demonstrations against Assad in Hama and the suburbs of Damascus back in 2011, it's fair to assume that the majority of Syrians would rather live in a free and democratic system under the rule of law.
Huge and Complex
But how does civil society survive in the face of such excessive violence by the country's rulers? Every air strike, every massacre by Assad's notorious Shabiha militia, increasingly drives the people to resist, including those who did not take to the streets to protest for democracy and freedom, but are now taking up arms to avenge their dead. They are swelling the ranks of the rebels, but they are also changing the nature of their goals: Those only interested in retribution likely care little about what happens after Assad is toppled.
Aleppo is a good indicator of the devastation, in every respect. This is a huge and complex city: It wasn't the general population here that first demonstrated and then took up arms, such as in Homs and Deir al-Zor. Only students and many lawyers rebelled, but on the whole, the city remained calm, even after people in surrounding areas had long since changed sides. Regime-loyal clerics, businessmen and local mafia clans helped keep this financial and commercial center firmly under Assad's control.
It was the rebels from the countryside, from the towns and villages, who led the attack last July and, within weeks, captured half the city -- or liberated it, depending on one's point of view. Whether they wanted to fight or not, the inhabitants of this half of the city became the victims of the regime's counterattacks, which has used artillery, tanks and aircraft to wipe out entire city blocks. The front between the world of the rebels and old Aleppo runs in a zigzag line from the southeast to the north -- and has remained virtually unchanged for months.
But how does this half of the city function, and what holds it together? Rafat Rifai, one of the organizers of the transitional city council, lists off the major players in the liberated section: the rebels of the Tawhid Brigade, the city council, the Free Syrian Lawyers' Association (FSLA), the courts, the physicians' association and the Islamists of the Al-Nusra Front.
According to Rifai, one could also say that no one is in charge: "What keeps Aleppo together is the social contract among its inhabitants -- the mutual respect and ability to compromise -- at least for the time being," he says.
Searching for Justice
Teams of electricians constantly patch up ruptured power lines after they are destroyed. Underground hospitals remain in operation, maintain blood banks and run a vaccination campaign. The state is no longer supplying flour, but 30 to 70 metric tons are still baked into bread every day. These are the first signs of a functioning civil administration.
Marwan Kaïdi was one of the first judges in Aleppo to switch sides. For the past four months, he has presided over the court in the district of Ansari, a job that sounds easier than it is. "We first had to manage to get all rebel units to recognize us as a legal body to prevent them from arresting each other in a dispute," he says. "We want to save the state -- but with what system of justice?"
They are improvising with a mixture of the judicial norms advocated by the Arab League and the tenets of Islamic law. "But we primarily rely on mediation," he admits. "We can't put a thief behind bars for three years!"
When asked whether any proceedings were currently taking place that outsiders could observe, he shrugs his shoulders and leafs through the registry. Then he nods and leads the way through the crowded building to a small office, where a bearded civilian judge, a beardless sharia judge, a court clerk, the plaintiff and his brother are sitting on brightly colored camping chairs arranged around a table.
Surprisingly enough, the case has to do with a rental dispute -- in a city where gunfire is heard in the distance every few minutes, and where the bodies of those shot to death float downriver every day from the regime-occupied zone. A rental dispute.
The plaintiff had rented out an apartment in his building until Dec. 31, 2012. Weeks before that, however, the tenant had simply disappeared, without paying -- but also without taking his possessions. The landlord could simply forcibly enter the apartment and change the lock, at least in these times of war and strife. "But precisely that could be disastrous," says one of the two judges. "Afterwards, the tenant could claim that his valuables were stolen, and then come after the landlord with a weapon. We have to maintain order, especially now!"
Vast Piles of Refuse
He says they have decided on a seven-day deadline, to be posted with a note on the apartment door. After the deadline expires, he explains, the apartment will be opened in the presence of two men from the revolutionary police, and a record made of everything that belongs to the missing tenant.
Earlier, Judge Kaïdi said that maintaining public order is less of a problem than the growing number of devotees of the radicals. "In addition to fighting Assad, they want to combat the infidels," he contends. "But in their eyes, that includes 99 percent of the people here."
Jabhat al-Nusra, the shadowy yet prominent radical group that Kaïdi is referring to, is significantly less impressive militarily in Aleppo than the fairly well organized main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Al-Nusra Front has 500 to 1,000 fighters, compared to the FSA's 20,000. The radical group's popularity is based on money, not military victories.
The Islamist group has enough money to buy hundreds of tons of flour from a local FSA commander -- enough to supply Aleppo's bakeries for weeks. They also have money to allow them to distribute butane and diesel at the old subsidized prices and, in early February, to get the garbage collection up and running again, which has since managed to remove vast piles of refuse and debris.
Nobody knows where the money comes from, not even a former member of the organization, who says that it "probably comes from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait," where preachers collect large amounts of donations. But even the organization's own people don't know exactly where the cash comes from, he says, nor are they told who leads the Al-Nusra Front: "Even the two emirs in Aleppo constantly change their names, and no one knows if there is someone above them," he says.
The ex-member of the group reveals that most of the high-ranking officials come from the circle of Syrian Islamists who went to fight the jihad in Iraq back in 2003, were arrested after their return, and then released again in March 2011. The emirs don't talk with journalists.
There are Al-Nusra groups in other cities as well, but Aleppo is their stronghold -- to the bitter disappointment of FSA commanders who have waited a long time for aid from the West that never arrived. "We met with the Americans time and again," says Abu Jumaa, the second highest ranking officer in the Tawhid Brigade, Aleppo's largest rebel unit, with over 8,000 fighters.
'What Does the West Want?'
"They told us that we should form a joint military leadership and recognize the coalition of the Syrian opposition in exile. We've done that," he notes. "Then they would support us with arms, they said. But they haven't done that, not even with civilian equipment. They don't want us to win. Perhaps they don't want us to lose, either -- but what is their goal?"
Jumaa, who is in his late fifties and was a factory owner before the revolution, confirms the experiences of other commanders: "The Americans maintain that they want to forestall the radicals," he says. "But as long as they receive money from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they become stronger and we become weaker." He points out that this is not an ideological question. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
On Feb. 7, 2013, at a US Senate hearing in Washington, outgoing US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta provided an explanation for the many months of political foot-dragging. He said that he had favored sending military assistance to the rebel groups, as did then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the director of the CIA at the time, David Petraeus. But he said that President Barack Obama had ultimately decided against it.
Washington apparently prefers to pursue negotiations with Moscow. But this won't achieve a break in the fighting or put an end to the war. Both sides in Syria are exhausted. The rebels lack weapons while Assad's regime is running out of troops. The situation is evolving slowly, but steadily, in one direction: Village by village, district by district, military post by military post, rebels are gaining control of the country and seizing weapons.
Instead of guerrilla warfare, the rebels are using their control of large areas of the countryside to pursue almost medieval siege tactics, cutting off supply routes and starving out the troops, who have no lack of ammunition but are running short of bread. For the time being, no provincial capital has fallen, but Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Rakka and Aleppo are surrounded.
"What does the West want?" asks rebel commander Jumaa, and without waiting for a response, he says: "Right now, they are merely prolonging the bloodshed. But why?"