Tawhid Brigade fighters
The area around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is famous for the Dead Cities, a group of about 700 abandoned settlements, empty since the 10th century. These were once of great interest to archaeologists. Today, Bashar al-Assad is trying to turn Aleppo into another city of the dead.
I entered Aleppo governorate in broad daylight, crossing through an olive grove on the Turkish border. Once over, I was picked up by a driver affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, and we continued on our peaceful way, taking the highway to the warzone of Aleppo city. The Assad regime no longer exists as a functioning presence in the surrounding countryside. The FSA, in its various local manifestations and with its various political allies, has the final word.
As we made our way through villages and towns, we passed through a line of FSA checkpoints. Bored rebel soldiers waved us on, after a couple of perfunctory questions. The differing quality of the FSA units was immediately apparent. The frequency of checkpoints and the military bearing of the men crewing them grew more serious as we got closer to the city.
At the entrance to Maare village, the checkpoint was maintained by fighters of the Tawhid Brigade. These uniformed men have an obvious élan that distinguished them from most of the other fighting units in the opposition. Still, the coordination and governorate-wide organization of the rebels revealed by the system of checkpoints was impressive.
The relative tranquility in the villages between the border and Aleppo city is deceptive, however. Assad’s power is not manifested in the few remaining points on the ground he controls but in his near-complete mastery of the air. This enables the dictator to maintain a reign of terror even over areas physically held by his opponents, as we would discover.