Aleppo's rebels await the storm - and dream of American arms Syria's second city is gripped by defiance and quiet desperation, writes Richard Spencer in Aleppo
It was long after dark when the rebel fighter saw something through his night-vision goggles. In the past, the regime had made its moves openly, by daylight, but this seemed different. There were figures flitting across the end of the street ahead of him, perhaps 150 yards away, one by one.
Then he realised that there were others, already much closer, half the distance. He called the alert, and within minutes reinforcements had arrived, 1,000 in all, such was the panic, and so overcrowding the front that some had to be withdrawn again.
In the battle that ensued, half a dozen rebel fighters were killed before they beat off the incursion, sending the regime's troops "fleeing, leaving their weapons behind", said the fighter, known as "Bushi", and his friends, boasting.
The attack on the eastern suburb of Sakhour had turned into another skirmish in Aleppo's long war, leaving the front lines just where they were before, but it gave food for thought. Was this the start of the regime advance on Syria's biggest city, promised since the fall of Qusayr 10 days ago?
Was it an attempt to seize the flyover the checkpoint was protecting, which if overrun would cut off rebel supply lines around the city? Or was it just a test of their defences?
Aleppo this weekend is waiting for two things: the enemy onslaught and American weapons. It is more confident of the first. The fall of Qusayr, 120 miles to the south, has changed expectations in the Syrian war.
The regime promptly said it would move troops north to take the fight to Aleppo, half of which has been in rebel hands since July. With them came Hizbollah, whose thousands of reinforcements turned the tide in Qusayr and are now said to be massing on the north side of Aleppo.
"Bushi" and his friends believed Hizbollah were also among the Sakhour attackers, and even Iranians, given the accents they heard. On Thursday night, the United States gave its own response to Qusayr: it would be putting its might behind the rebel cause.
President Barack Obama had suddenly decided that, as France and Britain have been insisting for weeks, President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons, and could not be allowed to win.
He is still set firmly against sending in the cavalry, and there will be no "boots on the ground - nor much else, on the record at least. But officials were quietly briefing that anti-tank weapons and command-and-control vehicles were on the list.
They are also mooting the possibility - played down in other quarters - of limited no-fly zones on the southern and northern borders, with US bases at Incirlik in Turkey and Al-Mafrek in Jordan and Patriot missile defence systems handily placed.
A military exercise, Operation Eager Lion, with 5,000 US troops including 300 US Marines, is conveniently also under way in Jordan.
The opposition will be rescued one way or the other, is the implication. In Sakhour, the rebels claim they do not see it as a rescue.
"Morale since the fall of Qusayr has been higher," said Abdulmajid Malah, a Free Syrian Army fighter, over a plentiful lunch yesterday of hummus, bean stew and salad in a rear base.
"Why? In one word - Hizbollah." The public involvement of the Lebanese militia had galvanised the opposition, he said. Moreover, the losses the outgunned defenders of Qusayr had inflicted, with more than 130 Hizbollah fighters killed by most counts, was itself a victory.
Meanwhile, less noticed, the rebels were still advancing on a number of smaller fronts in the north. "Whether you in the West support us or not, we will defeat Assad. That's my last word," said another fighter, Ahmed Eissa.
Their confidence had an air of desperation. They had been waiting for more than a year for American help, they said, but it had never come, and they still did not believe it was on its way.
"It is all lies, lies built on promises," a former fighter, Abu Ahmed, who lost a leg in battle last autumn, said. At the flyover, they did not even pretend. Standing next to "Bushi" when he spotted the regime "trying to sneak in" was Mohammed Shamma, a bearded fighter from the Tawhid Brigade, Aleppo's largest.
"I used 300 bullets in one fight," he said of that night, Thursday. "All that ammunition, gone. Our need is now urgent. When they come, you need to have your supplies right next to you. You need to have them there the next day, too, to be ready when they attack again. One or two magazines isn't enough. What if they attack two or three times? Then we would be right out. If help is coming, let it come."
He said demand was such that a single bullet for a Kalashnikov now cost the equivalent of a euro. Mr Obama's hesitation over providing weapons comes from fear of sophisticated equipment landing in the hands of radical jihadists such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the rebel group affiliated to al-Qaeda.
In particular, he has vetoed high-end, heat-seeking portable surface-to-air missiles - MANPADs - which could be used against civilian airliners. Rebels say they want them because whenever they order advances of their own, the regime retaliates with air raids against civilian areas.
But evidence from Aleppo and Qusayr suggests that even lower end resources would make a significant difference. Besides ammunition, rebels particularly want anti-tank missiles, the value of which they have discovered after seizing Russian Konkurs weapons from regime bases and turning them against their previous owners.
In Sakhour, they have dug a tank trap across the approach to the flyover. But a major offensive by high-end Russian T82 tanks, impervious to rocket-propelled grenades, would be a big challenge. There are significant differences between Aleppo and Qusayr, and not merely of scale.
Qusayr, a small Sunni town, was surrounded by regime-held areas to the east and south and by loyalist Shia villages and Hizbollah territory in Lebanon to the west. Aleppo is not only larger but in the Sunni heartlands where the Assad regime is most detested. It is also 30 miles from Turkey, the rebels' closest ally.
The challenge facing the regime if it makes a serious attempt to retake it is immediately visible on the city's streets, where shops are full of supplies, vegetables and spit-roasted chickens from the farms to the north and east.
While Qusayr's women and children had largely fled in advance of the final battle, Aleppo has been a magnet. Civilian officials believe more people are living in the city now than before the war.
The Assad regime has not been squeamish about civilian casualties, but the potential slaughter from an all-out battle would be on an altogether different scale.
The obliviousness to the impending storm is perhaps more shocking than the conditions in which people are living in Sakhour, a working class neighbourhood crumbling from gunfire where windows of upper floors of houses even far from the fighting are shattered by sniper fire. At a maternity unit just half a mile away, mothers are still giving birth.
Abu Qasem, the anaesthetist, said he did not think residents would leave when the attack came, whatever the danger. The city was in quiet despair, he said, adding that every woman who gave birth told him they did not want to bring a baby into the world.
"We are living in a time of catastrophe," he said. "But nobody will leave. In any case, most people wish they were dead already."