They are chopping down even their best crop-bearing mature olive trees in a desperate effort to supplement the noxious crude oil they’re burning in rickety aluminum stoves in order to stave off the bitter cold. Damascus cut the electricity a week ago and the struggle to stay warm in the town of Tel Rifat and forage for food is sapping faith in the eventual success of a revolution that’s in its 22nd month.
War fatigue is setting in here in an enclave the rebels managed to carve out over the summer in northern Syria stretching 30 kilometers south from the Turkish border to Aleppo, the country’s second largest city. The tenacity of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the relentless air-raid-induced stress and fear and the hunger and cold is shaking confidence in the Free Syrian Army’s ability to break the deadlock and prompting some to argue the revolution is dying as the fighting continues.
“Save the people from the FSA,” spray-painted graffiti reads in the center of this town of about 40,000 that’s backed the rebellion from the first day.
No one here expects victory soon and townspeople don’t believe the FSA, the main rebel group, will win by force of arms: they pin their hope on someone in Assad’s inner circle defecting and shooting the Syrian president or on the West belatedly dispatching troops.
“The FSA can’t win this,” says Mohammed, a high school teacher before the rebellion. Eating grilled chicken with seven male friends in a small room fronting a house stretched around an open-air compound, where women dash through the strong rain pulling crying children to an outhouse, he thinks all that will save Syria now from ruin is someone close to Assad, probably a Sunni, “deciding he wants to be a hero and pulling an assassin’s trigger.”
Their view is not that different from Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, who conceded in a frank interview with a Lebanese newspaper earlier this week that neither al-Assad’s forces nor rebels seeking to overthrow him can win the civil war. Unlike Sharaa, the townspeople of Tel Rifat can’t see any possibility for a negotiated settlement—the hatred between rebellious Sunnis and the Alawi-minority regime is too great for that, they argue. There have been too many deaths for negotiations. All they can see is further fighting and suffering and an uprising moving further away from simple reform aims and a rebellion fracturing into competing groups, something that’s already happened in neighboring Idlib province, where an armed group abducted NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his crew last week.
Local spirits were not even lifted by the Islamist al-Tawheed brigade's capture on Monday of the Hanano military academy, five kilometers north of Aleppo. A month-long siege there led to the death of top rebel commander, Youssef al-Jader, who used the nom de guerre Abu Furat. Hanano, a sprawling base that included an army barracks as well as an infantry training school, was the second military installation overrun by rebels north of Aleppo in a week.
Rebels had to guard the base after its seizure from civilian looters intent on carting off anything that could be sold or used in the struggle for survival over the winter months. At one point, a rebel fired his AK-47 to halt a car that left the base without being searched. As he did this, FSA pickups piled high with seized ammunition exited the main gate, careening under a battered arch sporting murals of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, that fighters defaced within hours of capturing the base.
With the winter starting and already the struggle to survive stretching the endurance and resources of the people of Aleppo province, anger is mounting—against the Assad regime, the FSA, the Turks for making it harder to cross the border and the West for failing to provide more aid and not intervening to halt the carnage and suffering. Aleppo is not Grozny or Sarajevo—the fighting is less concentrated and far more widespread and the shelling and airstrikes are less intense—but the civilians in Tel Rifat and many neighboring towns are close to the breaking point and at a loss about how they will survive the winter.
Aid agencies say the bitter cold is going to cause a deepening humanitarian crisis, and the United Nations has appealed for $1 billion to help Syrian refugees. “This is getting disastrous,” says a doctor with the NGO group Doctors Without Borders. Syrian and foreign doctors working in Aleppo and across the province predict civilian deaths will soar due to respiratory illnesses as December turns to January.
“We are already seeing an increasing number of cases of pneumonia and influenza and we are battling a host of other diseases, including jaundice, as well as trying to cope with the war wounded,” says Dr. Abdul Mohammed, a Syrian neurologist now working at a makeshift emergency room located in a small shopping mall in the Shaar district of Aleppo. “We are lacking half of the medicines we need,” he says. Another medical worker says: “The West should stop sending journalists and start sending soldiers, that is what we need.”
It is a sentiment shared by 37-year-old Hassan, a father of four young children.
“The regime is still strong and fighting back,” he says. Huddled close with his family to a brown aluminum stove in one room of their Tel Rifat house, his thoughts are on the battle to survive over the winter. Despite two of his brothers having fought in the rebellion he notes that criticism of the FSA is growing. “The FSA is a mixed bag,” says Hassan, a short stocky man who before the rebellion was a chauffeur and small-time businessman. “There are good and bad among them and there’s a criminal element,” he says.
Jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the Obama administration because of ties to al Qaeda, are increasingly benefiting from disillusionment with the FSA.
Hassan and his three brothers note that locals like them are increasingly drawn to al-Nusra. “They are very religious and correct. We never have a problem with them. If they capture anything from the army they distribute it among the people and say, ‘we apologize because we know the fighting is hard on you and that we are responsible for some of your suffering.’ When the FSA seize anything they keep it for themselves saying it is their right.”
They acknowledge the FSA has been better at organizing affairs in the town in recent weeks—rationing bread from the town bakery and crude oil for heating from a oil well the FSA controls so all families get a share. But they believe the FSA puts itself first.
The popularity of the jihadists in towns such as Iaziz, Tel Rifat, and Al Bab, where the black flags of jihad have been raised in recent days, is pushing the revolution further away from its reform roots, driving it closer to a religious war.
And the jihadists are smart in the language they use, which resonates with civilians. Talk of establishing an Islamic regime, of a Caliphate, is kept to a minimum, although the jihadists concede that is their overarching goal when quizzed. In their conversations with locals and in the graffiti they daub around Tel Rifat and other towns they operate in the jihadists emphasize fairness and their work for the people. One piece of graffiti in the center of Tel Rifat, proclaims that al-Nusra wants to: “Establish Social Justice, Help the Poor and Orphans, Control Money and Distribute it Among the People.”
As the popularity rises of the jihadists—FSA fighters respect them as well, noting their fearlessness and effectiveness—the war in Aleppo province seems stalemated, despite the advance the FSA made in seizing the infantry training school. In Aleppo city itself neither the rebels nor Assad’s forces are mounting large-scale offensives to capture districts they don’t already control. They seem content to hold what they have, clashing regularly, testing and taunting each other.
Tank bombardments and airstrikes are mounted throughout the day at various rebel positions, but without much apparent military logic. Dull thuds as a missile or shell impacts sends people scurrying and anxiously scanning the skies.
Likewise in the countryside to the north of Aleppo airstrikes on the towns come and go with regularity, striking not at obvious military targets but just lashing out to make life more fearful and unpredictable for civilians. In Iaziz on the border on Sunday a Syrian Air Force MiG 23 bombed a house injuring six, and then roared over a refugee camp right by the border crossing at Bab al Salam, strafing it and sending women and children screaming as the cannon shots ripped by tents.
Later that night a warplane bombed Tel Rifat, destroying a house. Cars on the road leading into the town halted as the jet roared overhead to deliver the missile and within seconds of the impact an orange ball illuminated the night. “We get airstrikes every two or three days, depending on the weather,” says Abdul, a shopkeeper. “They just want to punish us.”