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How 'pro-regime' Aleppo became one of Syria's biggest battlegrounds

Aleppo was long regarded as immune to the uprising sweeping the rest of Syria, but the deaths of several students helped galvanize a dormant opposition.

By Staff writer / August 3, 2012

Civilians race to cross a street as casualties mount from intense shelling on the first day of a Syrian government military offensive against rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in the rebel-held Salaheddin district in Aleppo, Syria, on July 28.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

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Aleppo, Syria

For would-be revolutionaries in Aleppo, the monumental events of the Arab Spring last year looked like an unattainable dream, a democratic fantasy that could never be applied to Syria's decades-old Assad family dynasty.

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Aleppo, Syria's most populous city, had been labelled a "pro-regime" bastion, immune to the pull of Syria's 17-month uprising. That reputation and aggressive security forces kept the revolution at bay – until students were killed in a raid in early May.

Protests and anti-regime sentiment grew. And while Aleppo was late to join the nationwide rebellion, the rebel Free Syrian Army now claims to control one-third of the city, and President Bashar al-Assad has declared the fight a "crucial and heroic battle...on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests."

Who overcame the hurdles of fear to make that unlikely opposition trajectory happen – and how? 

"We didn't live in a country for 50 years, we lived in a kingdom of fear," Abu Thaier, a leader of the secret Revolutionary Council in Allepo, told the Monitor during a recent three-day visit to the rebel-held Salaheddin district.

"At the beginning in Aleppo, we had many difficulties. At first we could get only 50 people to go to demonstrations, and we know if 50 come, then 300 security forces will be waiting for us."

But the anti-regime blood, it turned out, beat as strongly here as anywhere else in Syria, at least among activists determined to bring change.

Regime intimidation backfires

The protests calling for the end of Assad's rule began among students at the University of Aleppo, who for more than a year had been silently inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Demonstrators were sometimes shot at by regime forces. The resulting deaths were recorded by activist videographers, who then disseminated the footage, reinforcing the commitment of more and more Syrians to join the uprising.

"We started with 50 people, but now 1,000 protesters come out, in many neighborhoods, so we are optimistic," says one student activist wanted by the security forces, who gave his name as Ahmad Saad. He noted that 20 smaller demonstrations the day before had been the last before shelling kept people at home.

"When we started the revolution in Aleppo, we were very afraid for our families – if they can't reach activists, they reach others," Mr. Saad says.

That price has been high, and continues to be. 

"We lost many educated people in this revolution, very smart people, and many were arrested and not released," says Saad, a tall young man with indistinguishable looks that have helped him evade capture, or worse. He was arrested three times, but let go because authorities thought he was only a protester – not the activist leader he really is. 

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