But four years later, the tables have turned.
Assad's forces have recaptured the whole city, shattering rebel dreams of toppling the regime and putting the brutal war on a new trajectory.
"When I heard Aleppo had been secured, I thought the war was on the brink of ending, so I brought my family back," says Baqdul, speaking to AFP in the once rebel-held quarter of Shaar.
The devastation in Shaar is striking: its dusty streets are flanked by flattened buildings and piles of rubble.
Baqdul stands proudly with his young daughter in front of his new brick shop, welcoming residents who are buying materials to fix up their homes.
'People are tired'
Syria's war erupted on March 15, 2011 with peaceful demonstrations that, after a violent crackdown by government security forces, transformed into an armed uprising.
In six years, the multi-front war has become one of the most destructive conflicts of the 21st century.
Backed by Turkey, the Gulf and some Western nations, Syrian rebels were at their strongest in 2012 and many thought they would march to Damascus.
But Assad's powerful allies came to the rescue: Iran sent military advisers and fighters, Lebanon's group Hezbollah joined forces and Russia began a deadly bombing campaign in support of Damascus in 2015.
That support was key to retaking Aleppo, allowing the government to consolidate its upper hand by seizing other strategic territory, including from ISIS in northern Syria.
While swathes of the country remain embroiled in violence, Syria's government has decidedly won the crux of the conflict.
Aleppo, meanwhile, has become a symbol of the most destructive streak of the war - but some have found a silver lining.
"I think the war is heading toward an end, because people are tired and they prefer to stay where they are instead of being displaced again," said Ibrahim Amoura, a 35-year-old labourer.
He spoke to AFP while working on a ceiling in the formerly rebel-held district of Karm al-Jabal.
For years, residents of Karm al-Jabal had only heard the sounds of gunfire and bombardment. Now, the nearly-incessant whirring of generators, cement mixers and pounding hammers fill their days.
'Reconstruction will take time'
A larger-than-life portrait of Mr Assad with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the background looks over what was once Aleppo's front line, teeming with military vehicles and Russian soldiers.
But the divide is powerful: buildings in the west were indeed damaged by rebel rockets, but the east has been totally ravaged, reduced to rows of crumbling buildings nearly indistinguishable from each other.
Water remains a precious commodity in Aleppo, cut off for almost two months by ISIS who controlled the main pumping station further east.
Government forces recaptured the pump at Khafsah last week and have pledged to repair the lines. For now, residents still queue up at local distributors with tanks to fill up.
State electricity is equally rare, and generators are cropping up across the city.
For Aleppo's deputy governor Abdulghani Kassab, "reuniting Aleppo is a turning point in the Syrian crisis because it's our second city, the economic and cultural capital."
"Residents are full of energy and optimism... Reconstruction will take time, but we will work hard," he told AFP.
'Mother of all revolutionaries'
For rebels living just outside the city, Aleppo's fall was indeed a turning point - but instead of a harbinger of stability, it was a death knell for their dreams of Mr Assad's ouster.
"Aleppo was the mother of all revolutionaries. Losing her really was like losing our mother," said Abu Maria, a 30-year-old rebel.
Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh, told AFP that "Aleppo symbolised hope for the opposition that it could position itself as an alternative to the regime."
"It's this same hope that was shattered in December, that reduced the uprising to a peripheral insurrection," Mr Pierret said.
The opposition "dreamt of building an administration that could compete with Damascus", said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute.
"But the defeat (in Aleppo) shattered their morale. Around Damascus, the surrenders are multiplying," he said.
According to Balanche, regime forces now control 36 per cent of Syria's territory, with ISIS at 29 per cent, Kurdish forces at 23 per cent and rebels with only 12 per cent.
Back in the devastated northern city, Aleppo's municipal council has planted rows of lemon and orange trees by a bridge.
Mohammad Jassem Mohammad, a 43-year-old municipal employee, is watering them patiently.
"This is the sign that life is returning," he says.
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