Syrian rebel-fighters from the National Liberation Front inspect the rubble of a building destroyed by a reported air strike from the day before in the rebel-held Al Rashidin district of western Aleppo's countryside near Idlib province, on November 26, 2018. Image Credit: AFP

Aleppo International Airport, the second largest terminal in Syria, will re-open on Wednesday after a nine-year closure. The development comes shortly after Syrian government troops, backed by the Russian air force, recaptured the entire countryside of Aleppo this week, defeating members of the Turkish-backed opposition who have been based in the Aleppo suburbs since 2012.

In addition to the airport, government troops also retook the main Damascus-Aleppo Highway, also held by the opposition for nearly a decade, in addition to the strategic towns of Saraqib and Maaret al-Nouman in the vicinity of Idlib. The military developments triggered city-wide celebrations in Aleppo on February 18, followed by a televised victory speech by President Bashar Al Assad.

Aleppo City was recaptured by the Syrian and Russian armies in December 2016, but militias continued to fire mortars from the countryside, making life in the city—and airplane travel—very unsafe.

The first flight

The first flight out of Aleppo will be headed to the capital Damascus, who is also witnessing revived traffic at its terminal, after years of semi-closure. Damascus International Airport currently receives flights from Dubai, Cairo, Beirut, Doha, Khartoum, Moscow, and Tehran, and according to Syrian authorities, upcoming destinations for Aleppo will include Beirut, Dubai, Cairo, Moscow, and Erevan (due to the large number of Armenian Syrians originally from Aleppo).

Syrian pro-government forces walking in the ancient Umayyad mosque in the old city of Aleppo on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

The Aleppo Airport has a capacity of 1.7 million passengers per year but has been shut since December 2012. For now, the only airlines that will be doing business with Aleppo Airport will be Syrian Arab Airways, Cham Wings, Iran Air, and the Russian national carrier, Aeroflot.

Oxygen for Aleppo

“Aleppo residents have endured tremendous hardship” said George Saghir, a New York-based economist and Aleppo native.

Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “The opening of the airport is the oxygen that the city has been starved of for years,” noting however that the city will not witness a real recovery before the nearby city of Afrin is liberated from Turkish control.

The city of Afrin, located west of the Euphrates River, fell to Turkish-backed forces in mid-2018.

Veteran Middle East journalist Elijah Magnier tends to agree that its too early to celebrate an economic recovery in Aleppo, due to continued Turkish threats to its environs and standing EU and US sanctions on the entire Syrian economy. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “The liberation of Aleppo Airport means that the battlefront has moved away from Aleppo and that normal life has returned to Syria’s second largest city.”

Re-opening the airport is “morally satisfying” for Aleppo said Alaa Al Sayyed, an Aleppo-based lawyer, who also spoke to Gulf News. “But can a regular Aleppo resident pay for the price of an airplane ticket, even if its for a domestic flight?”

Economic decline

In recent months, ordinary Syrians have witnessed a major economic decline as the value of their currency plummeted against the US dollar, down from 600 SP in September to 1,000 SP this February.

Much of that was linked to the dollar shortage in neighboring Lebanon, which consumed the very little reserve of American dollars that were still available in the Syrian market. That shortage devoured the already razor-thin savings of all Syrians, reducing what remains of their money to comically low-levels.

Gulf News tried to get the price of airplane tickets from Aleppo to Damascus, but they were still unlisted at the main offices of Syrian Arab Airways.

Even commercial activity will not benefit from the re-opening of Aleppo Airport, added Sayyed, “because freight prices remain extremely high” due to long destinations that airplanes have to take in order to avoid flying over Turkey. Only the wealthy business elite will reap fruit from the re-opening of Aleppo Airport, along with those seeking medication outside of Aleppo. They had to travel to Damascus by car, using roads that were unsafe and cold during the winter.

Before the Syrian war broke out in 2011, Aleppo was considered the “industrial capital” of Syria. It was internationally famed for its boutique hotels, entertainment, and industry. Most of the country’s high-end products came from Aleppo and were regularly sold to all four corners of the world. The eastern part of the city fell to the armed opposition in 2012, who dismantled all of its factories and shipped them off to Turkey. Since then, the city has been in steady decline, with irregular electricity, contaminated water, and chronic shortage of drugs and medical supplies at its hospitals and clinics.