A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab al-Salam border crossing to Turkey.
Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters

"Don't even think about going to sleep tonight."

My fixer, Mahmoud Elzour, shot me a wry smile from the corner of a rooftop patio in a safe house in al-Bab, a town about 27 miles north of Aleppo that was recently liberated by Syrian rebels. It was already two o'clock in the morning, and the predawn meal that was supposed to get us through the Ramadan day ahead was being served by our host, Abu Ali. With his large frame and close-cropped brown hair, he could easily have been mistaken for a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. We were surrounded by a gracious fraternity of activists, relatives of Abu Ali, and rebel fighters, among them one military defector and about four civilians. Earlier that evening, we had made a touch-and-go border crossing from Kilis, Turkey, and then drove for an hour along the completely quiet roadways leading from the border to al-Bab. The only military presence we encountered was a single Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint. So after all this, sleeping had never occurred to me. "We will go to Aleppo at four and leave at noon," Mahmoud said. Was it safe? "Of course. I would not take you there

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  • MICHAEL WEISS is Research Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.
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