Coming days likely to be decisive as Syria army reinforcements rumoured to be making their way towards city
Martin Chulov in Aleppo
A Syrian woman carrying bread in Aleppo: nearly all of the city's 30,000 residents have left. Photograph: Vedat Xhymshiti/AFP/Getty Images
From where he sits behind the headmaster's desk in an old school house, the battle for northern Aleppo is going better than expected. But as artillery shells and heavy rounds from a circling helicopter thundered ever closer into nearby buildings on Sunday, Abu Suleiman, the commander of rebel operations in the city's north, seemed to waiver.
"I expected that we'd get to this point in close to two weeks," he said. "But the coming days will be the most important of the revolution."
Aleppo is now undeniably a city at war. Crippling petrol shortages have whittled traffic flow by around 90%; festering garbage bags are now teaming so high that they resemble road blocks and the few people who brave the city's foreboding streets do so with one eye to the ground and the other tilted towards the ever present attack helicopter as it circles.
The rigid order that has helped make this city a tenant of regime power for more than four decades is no more – for now. Most police stations have been overrun, their vehicles are now being used to ferry fighters to one of two front lines – a small enclave called Sarhour near the centre of the city.
The government hospital in the east of the city, which was commandeered by regime forces until last week is now in rebel hands. So too part of the central city near the citadel, which has towered above this ancient city throughout the ages and appeared resolute under floodlights as fighting raged nearby on Saturday night.
In the Salahedine district in the city's south-west, where it all began in late July, there has been no let up in daily battles which have reduced large parts of the suburb to a crumbling wasteland. All 30,000 or so residents have left. Only guerillas remain here. Even the canaries have died.
"We were feeding 20 canaries that the people has left behind and only one has survived," said Sheikh Abu Omar, who brought rebel reinforcements to Salahedin from the nearby city of al-Bab on Saturday. "Haram. I am taking the last one with me. He's like a refugee now."
The battle for Salehedin has now settled into a violent rhythmn. Rebel snipers perched behind sand berms shoot down streets towards regime positions around 200 metres away. Cars that still have petrol in their tanks – there aren't many – are used to drive behind the berms and tempt regime snipers to expose themselves.
All the time a jet hovers menacingly above, dropping bombs when it chooses and strafing rebel positions. The jets are a constant reminder that no matter their gains on the ground, the rebels cannot match the regime's firepower.
Even getting to the fight is becoming more difficult by the day. Petrol – or the poorly mixed sludge that passes for it – now costs around $4 per litre. All petrol stations have closed and roadside vendors have mixed the remaining fuel with other things like cooking oil to keep the guerilla force moving.
As two fighters waited in Abu Suleiman's office for him to give them fuel coupons, the helicopter's cannon again thundered to life, causing both to wince and the overworked commander to pause.
"We have many more weapons than we used to have," he said. "The regime is running away and they are tired, so tired. Even more than us. I would say that of the force they are bringing to fight us, only 20% are brave and committed to battle.
"We had around 120 defectors this morning alone."
If the consistent rumours among rebel ranks are right, the Free Syria Army will need many more men to defend its gains in Aleppo in the coming days. Rebel commanders across northern Syria say the rump of the regime army, including all its key divisions and units, is travelling north from Damascus, Hama and Idlib to join the battle.
"We are expecting them on Tuesday," said a rebel colonel from Idlib, who has sent spotters to monitor the progress of the regime reinforcements. "They are sending the Republican Guards."
Word of the loyalist advance is everywhere in Salahedin. At dusk on Saturday, spotters on the rooftops of abandoned apartment blocks mistook the movement of three tanks on a nearby highway for the arrival of the advance guard. One spotter sent a frantic radio message and commanders preparing for the iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast, sent a runner to report back to them. The 16-year-old rebel volunteer grabbed a nearby rocket-propelled grenade – captured from regime forces – and rode in the gathering dark through broken glass and masonry that littered the empty street.
Minutes later, he reported back: three flashes of his torch through the gloom to indicate the number of tanks on the move.
Behind us, the tangerine glow from a massive fire ignited three days ago by regime shells, helped illuminate the evening feast, which was brought to the fighters in a cardboard box by a tired rebel in flip-flops.
The men circled round an eggplant and tomato stew served on containers on the kerb. A gust of wind buffered patio awnings above, which filled like spinnakers and showered the men below in concrete dust that had gathered over days of explosions. The wind also stirred the unmistakable smell of death; the foul scent of six nearby corpses – all civilians – who have lain there since they were killed 10 days ago.
As Abu Suleiman continued to give directions, the jet made its closest strike yet, sending bombs into a factory near the entrance to the city and sending fighters scrambling from the building firing wildly into a vacant blue sky.
Back in his office, he said: "We have anti-aircraft rockets, you know. We will use them when the time is right. They can't win, because they are not fighting for the right reasons. God is with us and so are the people."
The latter remains to be seen. Aleppo locals seem yet to fully embrace the rebel army, preferring to wait to see who can fill the vacuum.
Abu Sleiman is trying to change that by preparing a letter for locals calling for volunteers to help with civic services and explaining what role the new sheriff in town intends to play.
But as another day ended in war-ravaged Aleppo, the city clearly remained in play. The next week will go a long way towards telling who gets to call the shots.