“The regime can’t enter here. The FSA is very strong and everyone supports the FSA,” says Abu Mhio about rebel-held districts east and west/southwest of the city center. “People open their houses to us.”
It is not possible to verify rebel claims of broad support in Aleppo. Yet one woman cradling a baby on her shoulder stepped into an FSA office today, specifically to ask for an FSA flag – to use as a backdrop for a portrait of the child, she said, and to hang at home.
Today and all week, families raced to fill trucks with belongings, hoisting refrigerators, televisions and anything that would fit before fleeing to safer villages in northern Syria or across the border to Turkey. Looks of fear marked their faces as they continually scanned the sky to check the location of the shooting helicopters.
Aleppo has been a challenge for rebel forces. It was late to join the uprising, has long supported the regime, and its neighborhoods are split between opposition and government supporters. But the expected showdown between rebel and regime forces has also brought a fresh influx of rebels into the city.
“Every day some more fighters come from the villages… we just want to defend these places [in Aleppo], so let God bless us,” says a fighter and former government special forces soldier, who asked to be called Abu Omar. “The regime does a lot of shelling at night to make people afraid, to destroy buildings and kill more people – to make people curse the FSA... they say: ‘You come here, and now the bombs come’ – so we try to protect people. But we need weapons, more weapons, from any country.”
Another fighter, Abu Hamza, brandishes his AK-47 assault rifle to make the point: “This gun costs $2,000, and every bullet is $2,” he says. “It’s so expensive.”