Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: 8 September, 2012

War of words on the streets of Syria’s Aleppo

At Sayyed Ali Square in central Aleppo, rebels cry out “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) to which Syrian government troops respond “You will soon join him,” before the shooting starts up again.

Since the regular army recaptured the city’s Christian district of Jdeideh from the rebel Free Syrian Army on August 22, the frontline has come to a virtual standstill in the area despite intermittent outbursts of violence.

Hidden in buildings, snipers await their prey, on the lookout for any blunder by their foes. But most victims are civilians, mowed down as they try to rush across the street.

Less than fifty metres (yards) separate the rival fighters, leaving them within hearing distance.

“They treat us as apostates who deserve to die and we scoff that no virgin will want them in heaven,” says Ahmed, a 22-year-old conscript.

According to Muslim tradition, men who die as martyrs defending Islam are entitled to 40 virgins in heaven.

Some soldiers say they have captured Islamist fighters who had women’s lingerie hidden in their pockets that they intended to offer their “brides” in paradise.

They swear that some of their enemies go to battle carrying a “passport to paradise” issued by a sheikh of the radical Salafist branch of Sunni Islam.

“With our bullets, we are ready to help them find the gate of heaven,” jibes a soldier.

In turn, the Islamists promise them the “fires of hell”.

“They say they’re fighting to eat at the table of the Prophet. But do you seriously believe Mohammed wants to share his meals with them? I think it would make him lose his appetite,” a general in the elite Republican Guards scoffs.

The general, heading operations in western Aleppo, says his men had arrested an Islamist who attacked a tank with a sword after having been told by the sheikh that if he struck three times, the tank would fall apart.

It is impossible to verify such tales but they highlight the religious connotations of a conflict in a country ruled by a secular regime.

Since the beginning of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, the regime has asserted it is fighting religious extremists funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar out to destroy religious coexistence in Syria.

Some 80 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim but the state is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiism, to which Assad belongs.

Jdeideh, once the most frequented area in Aleppo for its old stone houses, restaurants, souvenir and antique shops, is nearly deserted. The tourists vanished a year and a half ago and residents have deserted the area.

Until a rebel takeover in July, Aleppo remained isolated from the protests which broke out in March 2011. But now weapons do the talking in Syria’s commercial capital.

Despite the volley of insults that fuel the fighting, neither side has tried to advance for several days.

“The gunmen are particularly active today. I guess they received ammunition to go on a new shooting spree,” says a 23-year-old soldier Issam, wearing a bandanna to shield himself from the scorching sun.

Sissi, the most famous restaurant in the city, closed its doors two months ago, and Mohammed Sabbar, 37, sits alone in his women’s clothing store.

“I have not sold a single dress for a month because the street is dangerous and no client is foolish enough to come here. I’m in my shop just because I’m bored at home,” he says.

One person not complaining was Joseph, 46, who makes kitschy purses that have become popular in Libya. “I sell to women in Libya while they send their unemployed men to fight our soldiers,” he says with a smile.