Excitement fades to despair in rebel-held Syria as war grinds on

Early rebel optimism in Syria has given way to a grim realization that victory may still be years away. For the past two months, civilians have been fleeing Syria at a rate of 8,000 per day.

Javier Manzano
Residents of Aleppo, Syria, sifted through what was left of their homes after four bombs destroyed dozens of residences on March 19.

Before war came to Aleppo, Syria, Abu Anas was a well-to-do landscape architect who paid a considerable sum to send his children to private school. Now an opposition fighter, he spends his time away from the front line preparing his three sons, the oldest of which is 10, for the possibility of military service.

Abu Anas doesn't want any of his sons to join the fight until they are men, but he acknowledges they may not wait.

"I hope the revolution is victorious soon, but I think it could take up to 10 years," he says. "If I die before we obtain victory, my sons will be able to continue fighting," he says.

"I will not be happy if my children leave the school to fight, but what can I do? I hope it will not come to this, but if this does happen I will be proud of my sons. It means that my sons have learned a good lesson: not to let a dishonest person control the country."

More than two years into Syria's uprising, and almost a year since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) began fighting in Aleppo, it's hard to find anyone here who will offer an optimistic prognosis. At best, residents and fighters still believe in the revolution but accept that it will take much longer than they expected to remove President Bashar al-Assad. At worst, onetime supporters now question whether the revolution was worth the costs and find themselves at odds with both the opposition and Mr. Assad.

"At first I was happy about the revolution, but after a while I realized it was wrong. I saw the situation moving in the wrong direction," says Abu Ali, a local glass-shop owner. "It was wrong to start a revolution. It was supposed to happen another way without guns and weapons. The worst thing is that it's not organized."

The statistics offer a numbingly grim explanation of what happened to the hope and excitement of the early days of the Syrian uprising, inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that brought about swift regime change.

In a country of just over 20 million people, the death toll has surged past 70,000. For the past two months, civilians have been fleeing Syria at a rate of 8,000 per day. More than 1.4 million Syrians are now refugees living outside Syria, 4.25 million have been internally displaced, and at least 6.8 million are in need.

On the eve of the revolution, Aleppo was Syria's quiet, industrial, commercial capital, and a favorite of tourists for its old city, home to one of the oldest castles in the world. The province, 200 miles north of Damascus, is about the size of New Jersey and home to 4 million people, about half of whom live in Aleppo city.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Aleppo has always been at the center of trade. At the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization, it was a hub for merchants and would later become a prominent stop on the Silk Road. Later, it was at the heart of the Crusades and conflicts between Turks and Arabs.

Its past left a city shaped by historical relics and artifacts from some of the greatest civilizations in history. Medieval buildings make up central Aleppo's Old City, classified as a world heritage site by the United Nations. Outside the city's ancient quarters, Aleppo was a simple industrial town with plain stone buildings and factories that provided it with a healthy, but still developing, economy. While never as liberal as Damascus, Aleppo was home to many moderate Syrians, and many foreigners went there to study Arabic and the region.

Against this backdrop, the depth of Aleppo's loss is vast. Even in a city that has been destroyed by conflict and rebuilt many times over, the magnitude of the current destruction stands apart.

'Want this war to be over now'

Abu Ali's glass shop has been shuttered for almost a year. When war reached Aleppo, he realized no one would buy glass, so he locked up his business and began selling vegetables on a neighborhood street corner. Overnight, he went from being a middle-class professional to a menial worker, losing about two-thirds of his income.

He was willing to make the sacrifice for the long-awaited regime change. But now, with the city still divided between opposition and regime forces, fighting at a stalemate, and numerous problems emerging in the leaderless, opposition-controlled areas, his conviction is waning.

"I'm angry that it's taken such a long time. I want this war to be over now," he says.

The vast majority of those who've stayed in Aleppo can't find work. All but a handful of the city's factories have closed, and an overwhelming number of businesses are unable to operate amid the fighting. Abu Ali, who, like all Syrians in this story, declined to use his real name for security reasons, is among the few who have some, if not much, income.

The desperation has spawned a crime wave. Armed groups prowl the city, some claiming to be members of the FSA, others with no discernible affiliations. They commit crimes ranging from petty theft to kidnapping and ransom. Residents often accuse criminal groups of acting on behalf of the Assad government to discredit the revolution.

The crime wave has created a deep-seated fatalism among residents. They often casually mention that they would not be surprised to be kidnapped or killed in their own home. Those unable to cope with the crime and general wartime violence often join the daily exodus of Syrians fleeing the country.

The opposition has created makeshift police units, courts, and prisons, but crime has grown at a rate that far outpaces efforts to control it.

Abu Ali knows of eight people on his block alone who've been kidnapped and ransomed in recent months. He witnessed four of these incidents, which happened in the open, when many people were on the street.

In March, less than 100 yards from the corner where Abu Ali sells vegetables, Abu Saif was abducted from his snack shop. Several men entered his store saying he was needed for questioning at the police station and that the matter would be easily resolved. He got into a car with the men, who drove a few blocks before putting a bag over his head and transferring him to another car.

His captors handcuffed him to a chair in a basement, beat him, and accused him of working as a spy for the Assad regime. The interrogation soon turned to questions about his two brothers and which one had more money. The men then kidnapped that brother and demanded a ransom of 1 million Syrian pounds ($14,260). When Abu Saif's other brother heard, he suffered a heart attack that caused him to go blind.

After a week of negotiations, Abu Saif's family paid 500,000 Syrian pounds ($7,130) in exchange for the brothers' release. Once the group received the money, they dumped Abu Saif and his brother in a field on the outskirts of town.

Abu Saif says his family stayed neutral for much of the Syrian uprising. In the 1980s, they supported a revolt against the government that resulted in the slaughter of as many as 80,000 people. With the memory of the last uprising still fresh in their minds, his family members were apprehensive about taking sides this time.

"We were not with Assad or the revolution," Abu Saif says. "Even now, I still don't know who kidnapped me."

His house has also been destroyed by fighting between opposition and government troops. What remains has been looted.

"It's a bad situation," he says. "There's nothing I can say. There are still some good people in the revolution. Maybe we can win in the end."

'Shame on the revolution'

Faced with unchecked lawlessness, Syrians say they find the honest, evenhanded approach of Islamist groups reassuring – even Syrians worried about the politics of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has openly professed allegiance to Al Qaeda and is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States. But Syrians now back conservative Islamist groups because they've developed a reputation as one of the more honest brokers among opposition groups.

"We worry about warlords after Bashar goes. We want the Islamic groups to control the situation now," says Abu Yousef, a former jewelry maker who now works in his uncle's tire shop.

In the past year, Abu Yousef's home was destroyed in an airstrike; his car was crushed when two tank rounds smashed into a nearby building that then collapsed on his car. His jewelry workshop is part of the front line and has suffered considerable damage. Of the seven people who used to work for him, two are now dead and the rest have either left the country or taken refuge in the countryside.

Most recently, a criminal group that he says is connected to a corrupt FSA unit kidnapped his cousin. His family had to pay a $40,000 ransom for his release. "It brings shame on the revolution. Not everyone likes these people doing bad things, and we have to bring them before the justice of sharia law," Abu Yousef says.

Like many Syrians now calling for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria, Abu Yousef stresses that an Islamic government in his country would be moderate, not like those seen in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. A number of Syrians cite Turkey as a model, but stress their system will be unique to Syria.

The opposition in Aleppo has established the most extensive transitional government inside rebel-held Syria. In March, activists held elections to create a provincial government. The resulting Aleppo council has outlined a number of ambitious plans: reopen schools, hospitals, and factories; fix the electric grid; create solar power generators; and undertake many other initiatives.

There's only one problem: The council has almost no money. It inherited a budget of $900,000, but it has already used most of that on setup costs and some infrastructure work, such as street cleaning and fixing power lines. It remains unclear when or if it will receive more money from the main opposition coalition, international groups, or private donors. Without funds, the council can only make plans and organize volunteer initiatives.

Even this proves difficult. The council took over managing Syria's most populous city without any government records. The woman charged with managing education programs knows that they've reopened 68 schools with all-volunteer teachers, but she does not know the total number of schools inside Aleppo and lacks enough information to even confidently estimate whether 68 schools is a lot or a little for a city the size of Aleppo.

"There is no money, and there is still a war, so we can't do much for this country. The infrastructure is completely destroyed. Until we get money we are working on education and health, but we can't do anything without money and [with] ongoing fighting," says Abu Azouz, the head of the Aleppo City Council. He estimates that the city council will be completely out of money in about a month.

Only promises?

Throughout opposition-controlled Aleppo, fighters, activists, and civilians complain that the US and the international community offer only promises. Whatever hopes they once had that the US or other Western nations would intervene militarily or provide substantial amounts of humanitarian aid have been all but squelched.

The lack of change in US policy toward Syria amid claims of chemical weapon use sends a clear message to the Syrian opposition, even though evidence of such weapons remains inconclusive: They are on their own.

"Americans care about a dog getting killed, but they don't care about the massacre of human beings," says Abu Zubair, leader of a group of opposition fighters in Aleppo. "We are now the victims of Western governments and the Assad regime."

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