Aleppo. Carnage. Death. Destruction. A deserted wasteland. A war zone. All very true. Words that bite and semantics that sting. Worse still, everyone is watching as ghost-towns and pocket-holed buildings stand dilapidated, waiting to come crushing down by a missile, a barrel-bomb or such penchant trajectories. People are helplessly waiting to see how they will survive the next day, they see death in their eyes.
When historians start writing the history of the Syrian civil war, when and if it peters out, now in its sixth year, at more than 300,000 killed, and shows no sign of abating, they will find the bloodiest and ugliest of conflicts and battles were arguably in Aleppo. This is simply because of the scale of the destruction, mindless killings and the total obliteration of one-half of the city that was blown into smithereens.
The people have unwillingly become embroiled in the destruction waged by Baath regime forces and fractious opposition groups that are fighting for the heart, mind and soul of Aleppo. They want to alter the balance of forces and keep the city in their hands, come what may. As Al Qaida-affiliated extremists and so-called “moderate” opposition factions dig deeper into the eastern part of Aleppo, government forces are unleashing whatever powers they have at their disposal to achieve their nefarious objectives.
The sad part is that although estimates show that there are 8,000 fighters in the east, the civilian population in the city stands around 300,000 — sandwiched and unable to get out of an area besieged by government troops and their proxy allies since the beginning of the year. Since July 7, Aleppo has been hermetically sealed, nobody gets in, nobody gets out. United Nations food aid trucks have not delivered since then, with the population left to scrounge and scavenge — as is the situation in most other Syrian towns. In Aleppo, however, it is all the more deadly.
Aleppo has become a battleground. For the regime, its make-or-break, a way to stamp its foot on whether to continue to rule Syria, as is, or to lose it. This is a strategic area, facing Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and further onward to the Turkish borders. By hook or by crook, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and the rest of the Baath regime have long decided not to lose Aleppo under any circumstances, even if that means scorching it. “Take no chances” has become the mantra. Under the strategic halo of dominion, Al Assad has invited his friends Hezbollah of Lebanon to guard his seat of power. They came in droves — around 8,000 — but the number could be much higher. And 2,000 of these Hezbollah fighters are stacked in Aleppo and are probably helping in keeping the siege intact. They are buttressed by supporters from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have come to Syria to fight for the cause of an Arab-Baathist variety of nationalism — a misleading term if ever there was one. And it keeps getting worse because Al Assad is being propped up by Iranian military strategists and experts to further fuel the fire that’s raging through Syria.
A truly ruthless band of fighters, they are being supported by Russia, which entered the war on September 30, 2015, on the side of the Baath regime and has continued to provide air cover for the regime. This intervention has changed the fortunes of Al Assad, provided him with a lifeline and an ability to continue to pound all of Syria, including Aleppo.
However, the fortunes are not being realised the way they were intended — to end the opposition and the different faces of extremism. The Russian intervention has only raised the ante as the guerrillas have been matched by the regime forces.
Just in Aleppo alone, and mostly in its eastern part, there are 8,000 anti-regime fighters, who are unable to get out. Many of them are divided into factions, including the Free Syrian Army, Failaq Al Sham, Jaish Al Fatah, Ahrar Al Sham and Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, which has split from Jabhat Al Nusra — an arm of Al Qaida in Syria. It was suggested from the start that Jabhat Al Nusra controlled Aleppo, but it is difficult to ascertain that at this point because a United Nations estimate says that it is a 900-strong group, whose members are now fighting among 22 different opposition entities.
The picture becomes all the more mind-boggling when one realises that there are significant numbers of fighters among the civilian population — men, women, even children. These fighters belong to different factions, have different ideologies and have different weapons from various regional and international sources. They are stuck together in a very small area in Aleppo. While we continue to harp on Russian support for Al Assad, one ought to understand that there is support, albeit a small one, from the United States for the Free Syrian Army. To complicate the picture further, the US sees Jabhat Al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah Al Sham as a legitimate target for the 60-odd-member international coalition it had formed in 2014 to counter Daesh.
Aside from the local/national/international dimensions that Aleppo has been sucked into, the divided city has become a staggering “tale of two cities”. The eastern side is still in the hands of the government, with life reportedly going on as normal. That’s the rich part, comprising merchants and the Syrian professional classes. The eastern part used to form the industrial hub of a once-thriving metropolis with factories and workshops.
Opposition factions came to assemble in this part of the city as early as 2012 — a year after the Syrian crisis started as part of the Arab Spring. People came to this part of the city from the rural areas, blaming the central government that had started pulling out its reinforcements from the north and concentrated on Damascus and the surrounding areas. Before the regime realised what was happening, it was too late.
It is difficult to know and foresee how things will unfold in the near future. The siege of this part of the city is biting, with civilians grappling with hunger, bombs and missiles, even as truces are made and unmade. The opposition forces keep saying that they will break the siege and the regime is unashamedly reserved in enforcing it. In the meantime, one thing is certain: Aleppo will never be the same again. It has already been bombed back to the middle ages. Will the warring protagonists continue till they get back to the first century?
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.