Syrian troops are massing for a major assault on Aleppo, and hundreds of rebels hunkered down in the strategic northern city’s Salaheddin quarter are steeling themselves to fight, and probably to die.
Syria’s most populous city, which is also the country’s commercial hub, has been rocked by fierce fighting between rebels and the troops of President Bashar al-Assad for a week now.
For five hours on Wednesday night, without let-up, government forces bombarded the southwestern quarter of Salaheddin, which is almost entirely under rebel control, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
More shelling is expected on Thursday night, as troop reinforcements pour into the area in preparation for an assault everyone knows is coming, and many of the fighters share with an AFP correspondent their certainty that they will die.
The odds are certainly not in their favour.
Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and some home-made bombs, they know they are no match for the military with its tanks, helicopter gunships and even jet fighters, which swoop ominously overhead.
But they shrug it off and insist they are not afraid, while hoping for reinforcements of their own, who can either make it into the city to help with the defences or at least slow the army’s advance.
In the meantime, they occupy themselves with guerrilla-style attacks on police stations and offices of the “mukhabarat,” or intelligence services, and with marking, as best they can, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
On Wednesday, after the day’s fast ended at sundown, they shared food with two young men, their eyes blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs.
A few hours later, the two men, accused of belonging to pro-government “shabiha” militia, were summarily dispatched in the street, each with a bullet to the head.
Residents of Salaheddin, particularly the women and children, have been fleeing the fighting.
The rebels, organised into small groups each led by someone who acts as both military and religious chief, prepare themselves as helicopters swoop overhead, firing into the neighbourhood.
Sandbags are filled to erect barricades, and a bus is moved into position to block the street.
As they prepare for the battle they know is coming, the rebel fighters train and they chant slogans to give themselves courage.