Aleppo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Taking tea with Hajji Marea is not easy. The leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s Tawhid Brigade calls at nine o’clock in the evening to say he has one hour to talk. But before he can sit down at the Brigade’s headquarters he is called away again. When he returns an hour later, he apologizes. “I had another meeting,” he explains. It’s almost midnight.
Two years ago Hajji Marea was a merchant. Now he is now the most powerful man in opposition-held Aleppo, with over eight thousand men under his command. Even he is not quite sure how it happened. “I have no idea how I ended up in this position,” he says, “because before the revolution I’d never used a gun. I’d only ever picked one up during my military service.”
Hajji Marea’s story is also the story of the uprising in Aleppo. When the protests started in the city, he was one of the first to join them. “I thought that Bashar Al-Assad would be like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt,” he says. “I thought that when he saw that the people didn’t want him, he would go. For seven months we protested without weapons.”
But Assad did not go, and Hajji Marea—reluctantly—picked up a gun. “At first we used shotguns,” he says, “just to protect ourselves and our families. We didn’t want to at first, but the regime’s soldiers had killed so many of us. Then we joined together into groups, and those groups became battalions. Day after day, we came together.”
Tawhid means ‘unity’, and today Hajji Marea’s brigade is the biggest, and best organized, in Aleppo. In the first days of fighting in the city the FSA was a chaotic force. Now, he tells me, they have established internal systems to police their fighters’ conduct. Two weeks ago they expelled three battalions. “They were not properly organized and they were abusing their position,” he says. “So we took back their weapons. And if someone does something wrong, we have a prison that we can take them to.”
From their base in an abandoned school the Tawhid Brigade now control around sixty percent of the city, and are currently fighting to take control of Aleppo airport, the main police station, and the prison. “We have the airport under siege,” says Hajji Marea. “We have completely surrounded it, and that means that the regime can’t fly their fighter jets from there. If we can take the airport, the government is finished in Aleppo.”
But the Tawhid Brigade does not—and cannot—fight alone. Next door to Hajji Marea’s headquarters, Jabhat Al-Nusra—Al Qaeda’s fighting force in Syria—have established their own base in Aleppo. He acknowledges their contribution to the opposition’s campaign in the city. “They are very brave fighters,” he says, “and we are working together with them on the front line. But the agreement between us is military, not political. Our ideologies are different. After the fighting I do not know what will happen between us.” When asked about the problems that the group may cause in the future, in Syria and the wider region, he waves away the question. “The West did not come to help us,” he says. “No-one came except Jabhat Al-Nusra. So of course we will fight alongside them.”
The backdrop of shellfire, coupled with the constant column of smoke rising from the airport, is testament to Hajji Marea’s description of the present situation in Aleppo. Day and night, the Tawhid Brigade bombards the airport with mortar fire. But on the front line the opposition troops are hand-tied. “We are running out of ammunition,” he explains, “so at the moment we are in stalemate. We are trying to work out how many fighter jets the government have in there, but even when we take photos and make videos we can’t see much. So we can’t predict how long it will take us to win the airport.”
The people living in the opposition-held neighborhoods of Aleppo endured months of shelling before the focus of the fighting shifted to the airport. But their ordeal is not yet over—if anything, it has intensified. In the past week Assad’s forces have started to attack the city with scud missiles, each one killing dozens of people at a time. “They are doing this because they can no longer use their jets to bomb Aleppo,” Hajji Marea says. “It’s their last resort. The only thing they can use after the scuds is chemical weapons.” He also believes that the regime is using the scuds as a psychological weapon. “They want to turn the people of Aleppo against the revolution. They will say that they are only attacking civilians because we are terrorists. But I know that the people of Aleppo support us.”
In recent days there have been signs that both the government and the opposition are ready to negotiate to end the conflict in Syria. But Hajji Marea insists that it is too late for talking. “Until now I have made no comment on this,” he says. “But I will tell you that it is impossible to negotiate with Bashar Assad and his regime. Things have gone too far.”
As he finishes his tea, he starts to talk about what will happen in Syria once the war is over. It is impossible, he says, for life to be the same as it was before—for himself as well as for his country. “Even after the fighting is finished the revolution will not be over,” he says. “We will have to keep working to build a new government, and a new country.”
“And as for me, maybe I’ll go back to a normal life, but I think now that will be impossible. When all this has finished I will sleep for one month. Then I’ll take my wife and my son and we’ll go to an island to relax.” But as soon as he has finished his sentence he laughs. He knows it won’t be possible.