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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.

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.

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.

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. 

"They go after you personally; I suffered very much for this," says Saad. Six of his friends have been killed; three of them medical students tortured and burned for assisting wounded demonstrators.

As the men spoke after midnight at an FSA headquarters in the rebel-held enclave, government shelling had just taken the lives of at least three more civilians. Their bodies were immediately taken away for burial under cover of darkness in a nearby public park to prevent any group gathering for a daytime funeral that could be targeted by regime forces.

But even the nighttime burial was in doubt: Incoming fire was so intense and indiscriminate that people were having trouble getting safely to the park; gravediggers were especially exposed.

"We are always going ahead, never going back. We are always progressing," says Saad.

Non-violent ideals fall short on the ground

"One of our dreams early on was to have a revolution like Egypt, with peaceful demonstrations that would be protected by the army – this was our dream," Saad says.

But the tactics of non-violence espoused by academics like former Harvard University professor Gene Sharp – whose work has been used to inspire and instruct non-violent regime changers around the world – did not apply so easily in Syria, activists found.

"I am very fond of this guy [Sharp], but there is always a difficulty in this region, with the shape of resistance," says Abu Thaier, who has several of Mr. Sharp's books in Arabic translation.

"We started with peaceful demonstrations and continued for almost 10 months, but when you see your children, your wife and your mother slaughtered and raped, what can you do?" says Abu Thaier.

"Can you really stand there and say, 'I won't be armed'?" he asks. "The carrying of weapons was a reaction, not an action. We hoped that we would never come to a stage in the revolution where we were forced to carry the weapons, but we had to.

"We believe in the non-violent teachings of Gene Sharp," adds Abu Thaier. "But if he were here in Syria he would have had some teachings to help people carry weapons."

READ ALSO: Why dictators now face civilian revolt, from Syria to Swaziland

As the activists spoke, more shells fell on the Salaheddin district, where outside the anti-Assad graffiti crowds the stone walls. "Kick the Lion" and "Go out!" are beside praise for the hometown: "Aleppo my Soul." 

Those sentiments are often echoed, unbidden, by guerrillas, field hospital volunteers, and ordinary Syrians alike.

"The Syrian regime has been working all these years to crush anything to do with knowledge, thinking and thought," says Abu Thaier.

"In Syria we have thousands of pornography Websites, they are not forbidden. But not one opposition website; that would be a crime for its owner," he says. "The result of this is to crush our humanity from inside. They want people to think only about food and clothes and nothing else."

"We are afraid of none but God," says one female medical assistant.

"We are university students and part of a popular revolution," says Mohamed.

"The more he goes on with violence, the more we go on with our revolution," promises another man, unbowed by the grim scenes of that revolution around him.

Scott Peterson left the Salaheddin district of Aleppo late on the afternoon of July 29 after three days in the enclave, when this story was reported. Follow him on Twitter.

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