Aleppo—It was supposed to be the “mother of all battles” as the regime dubbed it in July, the city where the regime or the revolution would be crushed. But six months after rebels breached Aleppo the fight rages on, leaving civilians struggling to survive.
Residents in rebel-controlled neighborhoods, home to Aleppo’s working class and poor, have endured shelling, air strikes and the brutality of some armed groups for months. Yet they remain in their homes, even as prices rise and the threat of death lurks around every corner.
“I have this shop and own my apartment,” a butcher in the Shaar neighborhood said. “If I had a home in Paris I would be there.” Very few customers can afford his meat, the butcher said, as prices have more than doubled to 800 Syrian pounds ($8) per kilogram.
Fruits and vegetables were offered on street stands outside his shop, as well as clothes, bread and fuel. The Tareeq Al Bab market, one of the cheapest and most active in Aleppo before the war, was busy on a sunny day earlier this month, and almost felt normal. But rebels manned a checkpoint a few hundred meters away, alerting drivers and pedestrians of the presence of government snipers ahead.
Amid the violence and chaos, civilian opposition leaders are trying to establish order and provide basic services, a task well beyond their means. The group that’s spearheading this effort is the Aleppo Transitional Revolutionary Council, which is led by prominent opposition figures from Aleppo and its countryside who are widely respected on the ground.
The council’s three leaders include Jalal Khanji, an engineer and longtime regime opponent, Abdul Aziz Salameh, a rebel leader who serves as the liaison between he council and fighting groups, and Hakeem Halbouni, who runs the daily operations of the group.
But respected men can’t make up for the lack of money. Yasser Zakri, an industrialist who heads the local administration for the council, said his small team is tasked with providing municipal waste services, electricity, water, fuel and bread, covering more than four million residents in rural Aleppo and rebel-controlled areas of the city. (Less than a million people live in regime-controlled territory in Aleppo, he added).
The minimum monthly cost needed for these services is roughly $10 million, Zakri said, but the council has only collected and distributed $1.3 million over the past six months. The council raised its budget from Syrians inside the country and abroad, and received some support from the National Coalition, the opposition’s main umbrella group.
Syria’s civil war is often depicted as a sectarian conflict, pro-democracy revolution or proxy war, but whatever the narrative is the result remains the same: Syria’s institutions are disintegrating and can’t be rebuilt without stability and large influxes of capital.
Responsibility for municipal waste, a core function for most governments, has fallen to activists and fighting groups under constant bombardment by fighter jets and artillery. Only a third of the 165 garbage trucks are operational in Aleppo, Zakri said, and volunteers are hauling most of the trash.
“The contract to remove waste from Aleppo was valued at over $3 million in 2010,” Zakri said. “Diesel was SYP7 per liter, now it’s over SYP170. It’s unrealistic for anyone to expect the same level of services as before the war.”
Efforts at trash removal by the council have been effective in some areas, and many streets appeared to be clean on a recent trip to Aleppo, but residents said some neighborhoods were better off than others.
Bread is another challenge for the council, which secured flour and provides some fuel to bakeries which sell subsidized bread. After severe shortages a few months ago, bread is now plentiful in markets but sells for SYP100 ($1.1) per bag, six-times the pre-war price. It costs around SYP30 if you buy directly from bakeries, where customers have to wait in long lines to get the cheaper price.
Zakri said these small gains gives some credibility to the council but concedes that armed groups, including the extremist Jabhat Al Nusra, are also providing humanitarian aid “that helps people survive” and therefore winning hearts and minds of residents.
“We need the experienced workers, those who maintained the infrastructure of the city, to come back to work,” Zakri said. That would improve the lives of most residents and would allow the council to focus on actually governing Aleppo and forming a wider coalition that would include Christians and government supporters, he added.
Small and irregular money flows are also hampering the military effort to defeat the Syrian army in Aleppo, according to Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, a former officer and a senior commander in Aleppo.
“We didn’t expect that the battle for Aleppo would take this long,” al-Okaidi said at one of his bases north of Aleppo. “We thought it would take less than a month but we didn’t get the necessary support.”
Just as the local civilian councils are attempting to create a template for Syria’s future government, defected officers and rebel leaders have established structures that could become the core for the national army, yet all these efforts haven’t achieved their intended results.
“We are now organized and coordinate with civilian councils, but we have no support,” al-Okaidi said. “Our resistance in Aleppo against such a strong army is a victory given our capabilities.”
But for many residents of Aleppo and its countryside, living through dark and cold nights, mere survival is a hollow victory.