ALEPPO, Syria — They are short on ammunition, pounded daily by artillery and aircraft and facing a sometimes hostile population.
There are persistent rumors that they are about to retreat. But six weeks after launching an offensive aimed at capturing Syria’s most populous city, rebel commanders who oppose the government of President Bashar Assad insisted there would be no withdrawal.
“We plan to keep fighting, to bleed them out,” said a thick-set, bearded front-line officer who gave his name as Hosam abu Mohammed, one of a quartet of field commanders who spoke Wednesday in an apartment-turned-headquarters not far from the battlefront.
Outside, shells from government howitzers landed every few minutes with a thunderous crash, shaking the earth and adding to the mounting destruction of Syria’s commercial hub.
The fight for Aleppo has become a grueling battle of attrition in which parts of the historic city are gradually leveled amid mounting numbers of casualties — many, if not most, of them civilians hit by shrapnel and sniper bullets.
At least 200,000 people have fled the city, according to the United Nations. Vans and pickups filled with furniture and fleeing families continue to exit town.
The two sides are arrayed across a nearly 4.5-mile front, rebel commanders say, marking the approximate boundaries of a horseshoe-shaped series of mostly working-class districts that opposition forces seized in late July. Despite some fluctuations, the front lines have remained relatively stable.
Government forces, with vastly superior firepower, apparently have no intention of launching a block-by-block clearing operation that could expose already overtaxed troops to even higher casualty numbers. The Syrian military prefers artillery and airstrikes.
Rebels, however, are often ensconced in the lower floors of apartment blocks, more or less immune to the bombardment. Many buildings have heavily damaged roofs and upper levels but relatively intact lower floors.
From the opposition perspective, the fact that rebels have held out this long is a major accomplishment, considering how badly they are outgunned.
“The fact that we have been here for [more than] 40 days is a victory,” said Abu Mohammed, who says he was a colonel in the Syrian military who defected eight months ago.
Several opposition fighters complained that they had been led to believe at the outset of the attack on Aleppo that arms deliveries would arrive regularly from neighboring Turkey, but that the anticipated shipments never materialized.
“We would have had an entirely different strategy had we known the weapons we were promised would never arrive,” asserted another commander, who gave his name as Abu Omar. He said he defected two months ago.
In retrospect, he says, the strategy in Aleppo should have been geared more toward classic guerrilla tactics, such as hit-and-run attacks, rather than trying to hold and defend territory.
The front-line commanders seem to have an open disdain for their erstwhile superior officers in the Free Syrian Army, whose hierarchy is based across the border in Turkey.
“I will obey orders from a senior officer here on the ground, but not from someone sitting in a five-star hotel or in a camp in Turkey,” Abu Mohammed said.
The commanders put the number of rebel fighters in the city at 4,000 to 5,000, an estimate that appears exaggerated. One military analyst on the scene put the number at considerably fewer than 1,000.
Among them are at least a small contingent of Islamic militants. The Al Nusra Front, a group reportedly linked to Al Qaeda, has a banner proclaiming its name hanging from a building that appears to be its headquarters in the Kalaseh district. On Wednesday, a menacing-looking guard with an AK-47 and a black head scarf covering his face waved off inquiries.
Despite the war, Aleppo seems to have no shortage of food. Business was brisk at Alshafi, a popular ice cream shop, and the other day, someone was selling goldfish from a tank on the same street. A few blocks away is a bustling produce market where stands are overflowing with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and other produce from surrounding agricultural districts.
Many people appear to go about their business normally even as the fighting rages, though for many, a resentment against the rebels seems to lie just below the surface.
“They are terrorists and vandals,” said one man, who declined to give his name, fearing retribution. Most rebel fighters are not from Aleppo. Many are from villages and towns hit hard by the fighting. Some express a muted resentment that Aleppo residents have not, in their view, embraced the rebellion with sufficient enthusiasm.
Given the city’s relative affluence, the bread lines and piles of uncollected garbage have been major irritants for residents. Trash has been left to smolder at numerous street corners, giving off an acrid smell that permeates the city. On Wednesday, to the delight of some residents, a bulldozer was finally collecting piles of garbage in one district.
In a bid to consolidate control, rebels have begun setting up a police force and justice system. Commanders working out of a former kindergarten building boasted of a major coup: a feared shabiha, or government militiaman, had been captured. A tribunal had sentenced the alleged militiaman, Ahmad Assab, to death. The execution was to be a public event, to be held Wednesday at 4 p.m in Sukkari Square. Word soon spread.
Several thousand people gathered at the square. Rebels in all style of revolutionary garb and brandishing various arms arrived on motorcycles and in vehicles; some fired their weapons into the air. A festive atmosphere prevailed . But crowds in a war zone can attract trouble.
Soon, mortar shells were falling nearby, sending people and cars scrambling away in panic. The crowd and the fighters scattered. The execution was postponed. The thud of incoming mortar rounds echoed across the square, a soundtrack now all too familiar to the people of Aleppo.