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That doesn't mean the danger isn't there. Crossing the length of Rawand Street involves running a gauntlet of sniper fire. Blue-and-white canvas curtains have been strung up at several intersections along the street, while bullet-riddled school buses have been dragged across other junctions in a bid to block the view of the regime's sharpshooters. Rebel snipers are always on the lookout for new positions to establish.
They have punched holes through thick apartment walls, creating mazelike safe passages they traverse in the dark. They shout "Allahu akbar" as they approach the holes, lest one of their comrades mistake them for the enemy and open fire. The two sides are so close to each other that it's a possibility.
Some rebels are clearly growing impatient, itching to move to other more active fronts in other areas. Others reflect on why their push has stalled. "It wasn't the time to enter Aleppo, honestly," says Abu Sadek. "I'm not saying this with regret, it was a battle that had to happen, jihad for the sake of God, but the lack of coordination between the brigades hurt us. We weren't ready for it." Liwa Suqoor al-Sha'ba says it's planning a major push in the following week or so to try to break the stalemate.
The group is an Islamist brigade under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The other two rebel units in the neighborhood are Liwa al-Fateh, which is part of the FSA but is not as religiously conservative, and Ahrar al-Sham, a nationwide miniarmy of adherents of the conservative Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Ahrar al-Sham is not part of the FSA.
Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa Suqoor al-Sha'ba partly blame Liwa al-Fateh for the rebels' misfortune. They look derisively at the group, not because of its weak Islamist credentials, but because it has allegedly been looting homes and harassing citizens. It mans a checkpoint that stops cars arriving from the adjacent Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood. "Look at those shabiha," says a member of Liwa Suqoor al-Sha'ba, using the term for the marauding paramilitary gangs of thugs associated with the regime. Abu Tayeb, a member of Liwa al-Fateh at the checkpoint, concedes without prompting that "our reputation isn't good." Still, he says, "this is war, and things happen in war. I'm still proud to be a part of this group."
Other rebels say it's that kind of attitude that has stalled their push into the city, just as much as the lack of heavy weapons and regular resupply of ammunition. Any insurgency needs the support of the local population, and looting homes and harassing citizens obviously don't help. "The problem is: How can you hold a man with a gun accountable?" says Khaled, a second-year history student at Aleppo University who now totes a Kalashnikov. "You must raise your gun against him. It isn't the time for this now, we don't want to open another front among ourselves. We can't afford to do this now."
The way forward, say the two Islamist groups, is to become more religious, more like the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra units that operate in other parts of Aleppo and across Syria. "You have seen the destruction to homes and the looting that is happening. How are we supposed to win this fight when some people are stealing, how will we win if the boots we are wearing are stolen?" says Abu Sadek. "How will God make us victorious? He won't. We don't have the power of weapons, so we must return to God to win this fight."
These rebels speak admirably of Jabhat al-Nusra, of their fearlessness on the battlefield that they say stems from their strong faith. Many say they aspire to either join them or to become more like them. Toward that end, a significant number of Liwa Suqoor al-Sha'ba fighters in Aleppo have taken to wearing black shalwar kameez and black headdresses. "Yes, this is Pakistani, but they are strong mujahedin [holy warriors]," Ammar, a young fighter, says. "We are an Islamic brigade, we take inspiration from them," he adds, "besides, it's really comfortable, it's good for fighting in." Others say they have discarded their mismatched military uniforms in favor of the Islamic dress because they believe it is similar to that worn by the sahaba (companions of the Prophet Muhammad), not because it is from the subcontinent.
"Faith," says one of the rebels. "Faith will make us victorious, not weapons or ammunition or large numbers of people." The problem is, in cosmopolitan Aleppo and Syria at large a religious solution may be part of the problem. On a recent night in one unit's headquarters in the city, fighters pealed with laughter when they recalled an encounter between a member of Jabhat al-Nusra operating in Aleppo and a secular FSA commander. The pair were in a meeting when a mortar landed nearby. The FSA commander jumped up to leave, according to several men who were present in the meeting. The Jabhat fighter grabbed his companion's knee, saying excitedly, "Heaven awaits." "Go by yourself," came the reply.