There are military positions on all elevated terrain features. Now only the skeletons of burned out vehicles remind of the sad years when the “road of life” was not kept safe, so much so that the militant were able to cut it more than once. Aleppo’s isolation was so great that one could get there only by air, and even then there was heavy fighting both around the Damascus and Aleppo airports. Making the journey alive and without major adventures was considered a miracle.
In recent months the situation eased, but we still had to get into the city using a very roundabout route to avoid the regions held by militants. We expected to see something like the empty Lugansk of fall 2014, and we entered Moscow during the evening rush hour. We instantly got into a traffic jam in the midst of a row of dead, shattered houses. Streets going toward the center are blocked by barricades–militants are still holed up there. That’s how the so-called “Aleppo snail”, the frontline that’ss curled into a spiral, looks on the ground.
To the left of the traffic jam, somewhere in the middle of the city block, a shell explodes, then another. It has no effect on the city’s life, only women with children cross the street in greater hurry in order to escape the area. We go further, toward the border towns of Aleppo province where a coalition composed of the Syrian army, Kurdish detachments, and Lebanese Hezbollah has been conducting a successful offensive for the last several days. That’s the mix for which the Russian aircraft and air defenses are providing cover.
The Syrian army has completely changed its tactics. In the fall, after Russia started providing support which equalized the forces in the region, it attempted to storm build-up areas head on, suffering heavy losses and advancing very slowly. In the last few months, Russian aircraft have focused on destroying enemy logistics. By spring, this approach has borne fruit even though couch analysts find it difficult to understand.
Now comes the moment of truth. We stand on the broad federal highway leading toward the Turkish border. My phone starts to rink–the Turkish Ministry of Tourism has just welcomed us with an SMS. We keep going, toward the front lines, toward Turkey. The highest spot is the sand hill in the town of Kafin. We climb toward the top. The soldiers are happy greet us, only ask us not to take photos of weapons they set up on their positions. The enemy has recoiled far away, almost to the horizon. We are told that before the offensive against the last border towns, there was an effort to peacefully resolve the matter. Three local elders were sent to the to the city of Kafernaya to talk ot the militants. They asked the militants to leave peacefully and not destroy houses. They debated for three days, then took the elders hostage and occupied defensive positions.
They are pointing out the city to us–it is just behind the green olive plantations. Judging by the forces assembled for the assault, 150 militants won’t be able to hold Kafernaya. At the foot of the hill on which we are sitting there is a whole cemetery of “holy warriors”–graves without headstones. One is empty–it was either dug ahead of time, or they dug it but were forced to leave before the burial.
We keep going along the front lines. The central square in the town of Nubel, which is north of Aleppo, is packed. There is brisk trade in fruit and vegetables, dozens of motorcycles going to and fro. It boggles the mind how this chaotic traffic which is drowning in choking smog and the cacophony of sirens manages to avoid accidents. Nubel has recovered very quickly, as if a patient struck down a pneumonia who just got a dose of antibiotics. Even a few days ago this square was empty. There was nothing to trade.
Nubel and the nearby Az-Zakhra will no doubt enter Syria’s modern history as an example of desperate bravery bordering on self-sacrifice. They spent almost four years under a strict al-Nusra siege with no possibility of normal existence. There was no “lifeline” connecting them to the rest of the country. Supplies were delivered by air, with munitions dropped by parachute. For three long years and eight months.
–There were no medications, no medicine, electricity, or water, only constant shelling, –the local inhabitants tell us.
The arrival of the first Russian journalists in the liberated Nubel causes genuine excitement. We are instantly surrounded by masses of people. The city’s inhabitants can’t believe their town was visited by representatives of a country which they owe their survival.
–We were in cellars and bomb shelters nearly the whole time. But no international human rights organizations knew about us or visited us. We began to live again only after the army opened the road.
When the Islamists reached Nubel and Az-Zahra 3.5 years ago, the local inhabitants did not run. But they also refused to let the jihadis enter. The entire population of these towns, some 70 thousand people, is Shia. They knew perfectly well what fate awaited them should al-Nusra enter the city. There are plenty of videos on the internet showling how the jihadis deal with “cultists.” Only a few thousand women and children were evacuated. The men got busy fortifying the town. The two towns are still encircled by this powerful defensive line. Deep entrenchments with concrete pill-boxes. Surrounded by fields pockmarked by shell explosions. The militants made regular efforts to break the “Shia fortress” defenses. But they failed every time. Now children play on the empty positions. They tell us the adults never let them go there during the fighting…