ALEPPO, Syria — Its base comes from a tractor, two rusty poles and random pieces collected in a glassworks. To assemble this mortar, nothing has been wasted. It's been built by downloading instructions from Google. "For grenades, I used even the fertilizer of my wife's flowers," said Firas with a smile. He is 43, and in his previous life was a sales manager in a car dealership. Now he introduces himself as "the mortar manager."
This is Aleppo today. The war is so normal here, so familiar that garbage bins mark the front line of fighting on one side of a street, while on the other they’re used as goalposts for an improvised soccer match. Snipers have shifts. You can see them reaching their nest in the morning, coffee in hand, and parking in front of the main door as if they were going to work.
In Aleppo, nothing is as safe as the front line as the war changes course. Civilian casualties are no longer collateral damage, they are the target. "[Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad realized he cannot win on the ground, and is trying to bomb, or elsewhere to besiege and starve us into submission. It is no longer a war. You don't fight anymore, you simply die. It is murder," Firas told Al-Monitor.
Barrel bombs are so inaccurate, and rebels and loyalists so close to each other, that helicopters would hit both sides. And so Firas, like many others, moved what’s left of his family next to the front line. They were once 31 members, three brothers, with wives and children and grandchildren. Eight are dead, seven refugees and 16 internally displaced.
They have moved next to the front line with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS’ headquarters is the only place here that has never been attacked. It is a place that, due to its rather isolated location, could be considered a lawful military target. Usually war journalists are advised to stay close to civilian areas like hospitals, bread lines and markets to avoid raining shells. Here you are told: stay close to ISIS.
These local rebels still refer to ISIS as al-Qaeda, despite al-Qaeda's leader Aymam al-Zawahri disavowing the group. Their latest atrocity — the crucifixion of seven alleged spies — has just been posted online. "They are on the regime payroll," says Abdel, 34.
Abdel sold his RPG to help cover the medical bills of a wounded comrade. "Not only have they (ISIS) pushed [US President Barack] Obama to view Assad as the lesser evil. But when we were taking over Aleppo, last July, when Aleppo was about to fall, they began to blame us for not being true Muslims and turned against us. They didn't liberate an inch of Syria. Look at Raqqa. They have only occupied what we gained."
Rumors of ISIS’ cooperation with the Syrian regime abound. And indeed, they enjoy a strange immunity from regime airstrikes. The only certainty is that all rebels are busy fighting against ISIS. "After all, … how could we really engage the regime? We have no anti-aircraft weapons. We have nothing. After 10 hours of fighting, you are just a hundred meters forward. And then you run out of ammo and withdraw." Ten hours, Abdel tells Al-Monitor, "and you have got nothing more. Only more dead."
We are in Sayf al-Dawla, a frontline neighborhood in rebel-held east Aleppo, with six fighters, including Firas, Abdel and 9-year-old Ahmed. The area has largely been reduced to rubble, and the streets appear deserted. Some of the thousands of Aleppo civilians stuck in this war ravaged part of the city emerge as you enter. Many of them are orphans, like Ahmed, who are looked after by their neighbors or a rebel unit. Though they belong to the Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist rebel brigades established in November against ISIS, Firas and Abdel introduced themselves as members of a small, local Aleppan quasi-brigade and NGO, whose name has been withheld for security purposes.
"Because our main activity now is taking care of the wounded, we do not get any aid from abroad. Nothing. The UN delivers their aid through the regime and we cannot knock at the regime's door for some flour. We fight in our spare time,” the commander, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor.
Despite much media talk about a rebel offensive in Aleppo, from here it is hard to be optimistic. You ask what their strategy is, only to receive a blunt, pessimistic reply: “Reaching tomorrow.”
"In theory, we are less fragmented than before. We are one and all against the ISIS: Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the foreigners of the Jaish al-Muhajirin. In the past, each of us had his own flag, his own logo, his own commander. But one only knows what's going on in Hama, in Daraa, only from Facebook: That's the true fragmentation. From Aleppo, Homs is like another country. There are just private contacts. No coordination,” the commander explains, echoing sentiments shared by his fighters.
The lack of weapons supply has halted the rebels’ advance in Aleppo. "The few weapons we have are so outdated, so basic that we cannot even properly select our targets. We are striving to cut off west Aleppo from its supply lines to Damascus mainly through mortar fire. It is a toy compared to barrel bombs,” Firas says. He concedes that mortars are fired indiscriminately into neighborhoods held by the regime, costing them popular support among Syrian civilians who are the casualties of their attacks. “It is as indiscriminate fire as the regime's. In this way we lose the support of Syrians, nothing else. Because what's the point? Whatever we take over, airstrikes hit and destroy. And what is still standing is at the mercy of criminal gangs that we cannot face. We aren't enough. Should we kick them out, they would be replaced by the regime," Firas laments.
These rebel fighters have become weary of the war effort, and are seeking ways out of the devastating conflict that has killed over 140,000 people and ravaged the country’s infrastructure.
"Let's admit it: Time has come for an agreement," Abdel says. "Without a US intervention, we cannot win, it's clear. But we can prevent Assad from governing and [force] him to compromise. This is the red line: Assad must go."
The model, he says, is Homs, where cease-fires are now beginning to appeal to weary rebel fighters in Aleppo. "We are not surrendering, because we will prevent Assad from staying in power, but through other means. Nobody can prevail with weapons. Do you know what is there, on the western side, in the direction of this mortar? Do you know what I am shooting at? There is my house. I am shooting at my house."