Syria: Love and power across Aleppo's front lines

By Rami Ruhayem
BBC News, Gaziantep, southern Turkey

  • Published
Man fixing electricity in Aleppo (file photo)Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Aleppo's al-Zarba power station is under rebel control

For several hours a group of Syrian activists gathered in a flat here, chatting about the situation in rebel-held areas of Aleppo, about 60 miles (100km) south.

Among them was Bakri, who was consumed by his smartphone throughout the evening. As far as he was concerned, the most important development in Aleppo was taking place behind enemy lines.

The power supply was back, and he could finally chat to his girlfriend who lives in a government-held neighbourhood.

I asked him what exactly determines the supply of power in Aleppo.

"Can we talk about this when the electricity's off again?" he suggested.

I eventually got him to myself for a few minutes, and he told me the story of a brief but telling game of power between Aleppo's rebel factions and the Syrian government.

Bargaining chip

On 18 April, the Syrian ministry of electricity issued a statement saying that gunmen had broken into al-Zarba power station in Aleppo's western countryside, cutting off supply.

Bakri said it was a stray barrel bomb dropped by government helicopters on the station which caused the blackout.

Either way, almost all of Aleppo was plunged into darkness until the government did something revealing.

Within three days, they had sent spare parts across enemy lines so the technicians at al-Zarba, which is held by the rebels, could fix the station.

"There was popular pressure from the regime's areas, including possibly from security branches which didn't have generators," says Bakri. "The liberated areas are used to regular cuts anyway, because the regime bombs local substations."

Rebel factions thought they had detected the regime's weakness in Aleppo. A few days later, the Ahl Al-Sham Operations Room, an umbrella group which includes the main rebel factions in Aleppo, threatened to cut off supply unless the government agreed to an ambitious list of demands.

They said they wanted a halt to barrel bombing, shelling by artillery, Scud missile attacks, and air raids, as well as an end to the siege on rebel-held areas in different parts of the country.

But the government agreed only to stop the barrel bombs.

Economic cost

According to Bakri's friends in Jaysh al-Mujahideen, one of the factions involved in the indirect talks, the government delegation insisted that the air raids, artillery, and Scuds were not indiscriminate.

"It was an implicit recognition on their part that the barrel bombs are in fact indiscriminate."

The government also refused to put the agreement in writing, prompting the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate and one of the main negotiators, to cancel the deal and cut off supply.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Rebel parts of Aleppo have been repeatedly hit by barrel bombs

The move had an immediate impact on the price of oil products - as well as on Bakri's love life.

"The price of a litre of benzine jumped five-fold and sometimes more because most generators operate on benzine," he told me.

"I started calling her instead of chatting over the internet. Her phone uses less battery power than her laptop, but it costs a lot more. I also started co-ordinating benzine deliveries to her place."

Meanwhile, the Nusra Front was coming under pressure from other armed factions to agree to the government's terms.

They argued that if the government did not abide by the agreement, they could always cut off supply again.

Eleven days later, the Nusra Front relented; the deal was agreed, and Aleppo was plugged back into its power supply.

"Unfortunately, the barrel-bombing only stopped for less than 48 hours; the government did not abide by the agreement. The rebels cut off the power supply again, but the regime still wouldn't relent," said Bakri .

The rebels had overestimated their bargaining power. I asked Bakri what they were going to do now.

"They've decided to look for some other way to put pressure on the regime. There are many things that could hurt them, but the problem is they also hurt civilians. Even now there are still moral considerations."

Contrasting realities

The activists who go back and forth between northern Syria and southern Turkey describe two opposite realities in Aleppo, which has been divided for nearly two years.

Outside government control are mostly low-income neighbourhoods which were underdeveloped before the war, and which were the quickest to rise up against the regime when the revolution started.

Most of the more affluent neighbourhoods remain under government control.

Rebel areas are under intense and sustained attack from the ground and the air, leading to an ongoing mass displacement from Aleppo to the countryside and to Turkey.

Only the most fervent activists insist on crossing back inside. One of them explained how deeply divided Aleppo had become.

"We'd be thanking God we only received 16 barrel bombs on the day, while on the other side they'd be complaining on Facebook about the price of tomatoes."

Debates about morality have come a long way since the uprising began, when any form of militarisation was frowned upon.

Today, while many activists are opposed to shelling civilian areas under regime control, they see actions such as cutting off electricity or water as mild punishment compared to their suffering.

As for Bakri, he remains separated from his girlfriend by Aleppo's front lines. He spends his time between southern Turkey and rebel-held territory in northern Syria, where he is active in aid delivery.

Wherever he goes, he is glued to his smartphone.

"We've sent each other more than 122,000 Facebook messages, not to mention all the conversations on WhatsApp," he told me.

"I want to talk to her all the time."