Syrian war: agony of Aleppo

By Glen Johnson In Current Affairs

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Syrian war - an opposition gunman on a rooftop in Aleppo’s Salaheddine district.

An opposition gunman on a rooftop in Aleppo’s Salaheddine district, photo/Temoris Grecko.

Adel bounces along the broken street, singing quietly. The seven-year-old’s father, Mahmoud, walks ahead. Adel, her hair falling in curls around her face, struggles to keep up. They approach an underpass on the fringes of Aleppo’s Tariq al-Bab suburb, heading towards the Old City.

The carcass of a burnt-out bus – dragged across a side street and providing cover from sniper fire – sits beneath an apartment complex. All the building’s windows have been blown out. Mahmoud and Adel pass children picking through the mounds of rubbish that come in tides down the alleyways, choking the gutters. They walk past a crowd attempting to batter their way into a bread shop.

Mahmoud asks a passerby which direction is the safest. The man says to take the next left. They scurry past another bus, running low to the ground. They round a corner. Huge pools of water from burst water mains stretch in all directions. High above, the howl of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes can be heard. The crack of a sniper rifle rings out. Then another.

LIFE DESTROYED

Mahmoud is 37. He once had everything, he says. A wealthy Aleppan businessman, he owned property and cellphone stores and managed an upscale hotel. He had a family. Then the suicide bombings started, targeting state security buildings. Last July, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) swept into Aleppo. The ancient and cosmopolitan city – at the end of the Silk Road and renowned for its spice and dye trade – was consumed by war.

Within weeks, Mahmoud’s wife, Jasmine, was killed. Hit by shrapnel, which sliced into her neck on an Aleppo street as missiles hammered into buildings, she bled to death, surrounded by the dying and the already dead.

Aleppo had been largely unaffected by the revolt building steam in Syria’s rural areas and the Sunni heartlands of Hama and Homs. What began as a series of peaceful protests in support of human rights and democratic reform, as part of the wave of rebellion spreading through the Arab world in early 2011, became an armed insurgency as Assad’s troops responded with force.

The opposition soon took control of swathes of Aleppo. But the regime reorganised, and as the months wore on, a deadly stalemate ensued as both sides dug in. Territory was gained or lost a street corner at a time. It became both a sniper war and a war from the skies, with the regime becoming increasingly reliant on warplanes and attack helicopters.

Entire neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble. Twisted metal stretches upwards from the wreckage. Many building frontages are shorn off, providing an eerie view into homes.

Mahmoud and Jasmine first met almost nine years ago. Bashar al-Assad had recently inherited the Syrian presidency from his father, Hafez, in an unopposed referendum, establishing the Assad dynasty. Like his neighbour, King Abdullah of Jordan, Assad was seen as a potential reformer. Yet he faced a dilemma: how to improve Syrians’ lives while ensuring economic empowerment would not be converted into political capital.

Mahmoud had no interest in politics. His life was good before the war. “I had everything I could ever need.” Soon after he and Jasmine met, Mahmoud asked her father’s permission in the traditional way for them to marry, to which her father agreed. Jasmine was 19 and Mahmoud 28. They had a typically big Arab wedding with hundreds of guests packing a hall Mahmoud owned and rented out for such occasions.

“She had a very special heart,” he says of Jasmine. “She was so kind, so good with Adel.” Jasmine liked expensive dresses, which was fine, Mahmoud says, because he had money. Then Adel came. Mahmoud had hoped his first child would be a boy. “The doctors told us after eight months that we would have a girl. I was so disappointed. But when Adel came I couldn’t feel upset; I was so happy. I can’t describe how it felt seeing her for the first time.”

an abandoned apartment block in Aleppo, Syria

An abandoned apartment block, photo/Glen Johnson

OPPOSITION MANOEUVRINGS

Mortar rounds are coming in every few minutes. Mahmoud stands on a cobbled street in the Old City, knocking loudly on a door of a house he owns and lets to a woman. He has not been to the property in months, he says; the Old City is too dangerous. He asks a local storekeeper what has happened to the woman, who doesn’t come to the door. The storekeeper is unsure; she fled when the fighting got heavy. Maybe she is somewhere in Aleppo or perhaps she took flight to Turkey. She could be dead.

Mahmoud says when the war is over he will live with Adel in the house. But he does not know when that will be. “I think we will have a big problem if Assad goes, because of the religious sects.”

Syria is home to Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze, Christians and Yazidi, making a combustible religious mix. Although no group has managed to capitalise on the uprising at the others’ expense, the opposition, almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, has acquired an increasingly steely Islamist hue, raising fears that if Assad falls, waves of sectarian violence will grip the country.

A power struggle within the opposition has seen liberal elements pitted against more overtly Islamic factions. A new unified rebel force command, formed in the Turkish city of Antalya in December and dominated by Salafist Sunnis and the Muslim Brotherhood, indicates which side came out on top: Brigadier Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior officer known for his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, was reportedly excluded from the meeting, as were others.

On the Free Syrian Army-occupied streets of Aleppo, missionaries from Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation, a Salafist organisation) distribute pamphlets calling for the creation of a global Islamic caliphate. Fighters from the hardline al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra – recently designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US, angering many in the opposition camp – travel in reckless caravans through streets, sitting atop pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

The group has already started the grotesque practice of beheading its opposition. At rallies in Aleppo, members and supporters regularly work themselves into frenzy. “Our leader is forever the Prophet Muhammad,” they chanted at a gathering in Tariq al-Bab. Such chants are a far cry from the calls for “freedom, justice, bread and dignity” that defined earlier uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

THE WAR MUST END

Adel is carrying a torn rocket-propelled grenade rotor and singing again. Mahmoud tells her to put it down and stop being noisy. She ignores him and he slaps her across the back of the head. She starts crying, big tears rolling down her face and her breath coming in gasps. He shushes her and she stumbles along behind. A hovering helicopter can be seen half a kilometre away, menacing.

Mahmoud asks the still-crying Adel what’s wrong. She calls out that she needs a kiss. Mahmoud stops for a rest and plants her atop his knee. He gives her a hug and she says she asked for a kiss. He holds her hand and they walk, finding a street vendor selling baklava and chocolate slices. He buys a plateful and they walk down the street sharing the sweets.

Mahmoud says Jasmine’s parents are still alive, but it’s too dangerous to go to their house in one of Aleppo’s regime-controlled areas. He says the war must end but he supports neither the regime nor the opposition.

The day Jasmine was killed, Adel was with Mahmoud at the hotel he managed. He says they arrived home and he was surprised not to see her there. He waited a few hours for the sound of the door opening. “I called her mother and father. Then I called her friends.” Mahmoud searched for Jasmine for days with a mounting sense of despair.

He says she was beautiful. She had Adel’s green eyes – uncommon in the Middle East. She liked Turkish television dramas, particularly shows about life in Ottoman times. Cutting back across a frontline in the Old City, Mahmoud sees the cellular phone stores he owned. They are empty. Other shops on the street have been looted. “I have lost almost everything,” he says.

Syrian war - frontline

Aleppo in ruins. Photo/Glen Johnson

TERRIBLE TOLL

The human toll of the 22-month conflict has been terrible. The United Nations estimates 60,000 people have been killed, many of them women and children. Children have been caught in shelling, air strikes and sniping and have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture and rape, as reported by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria in August.

About 2.5 million people have been displaced within Syria’s borders; the World Food Programme recently warned that a million of those people are going hungry, with aid agencies unable to reach them because of a lack of security. A further 670,000 people are displaced in neighbouring countries, according to the UN’s refugee agency.

Looting has taken hold, with militiamen scrambling for the spoils of war. Kidnapping has become common, particularly in Syria’s northwest Idlib province.

In a January report, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) claimed rape is a “significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian civil war”, perpetrated, often, by armed men and made difficult to verify because of the prevailing stigma surrounding honour and chastity in the Arab world.

“Many women and girls relayed accounts of being attacked in public or in their homes, primarily by armed men. These rapes, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, often occur in front of family members.”

Such reports – while to be taken seriously – must be approached with caution in light of the largely debunked claims of rape in Libya during the early stages of the 2011 insurgency, which, in part, prompted Nato’s Libya intervention. The trajectory of Libya’s “transition” provides a cautionary tale that should diminish calls for Western military intervention in the much more serious Syrian context.

Doctors at numerous field hospitals complain of medical aid being commandeered as people fight for survival amid soaring food prices. Electricity supply is sporadic and gas prices have ballooned. In the winter cold, people warm themselves around small drums burning broken furniture and whatever other fuel they can find.

In one field hospital, the New Dar al-Shifa, blood stains the white walls. Fresh splatters cover the floor – a man has just been brought in with a bullet wound in the stomach – and surgical instruments sit in disinfectant. The doctors and nurses here are volunteers. Across the street, the old Dar al-Shifa is in ruins, hit in a November air strike that killed 15 people.

According to data released by the World Health Organisation in early January, more than half of Syria’s 88 hospitals have been damaged, with nearly a third rendered unusable. “When we order supplies from Turkey, they go through five or six people. Each one of those people steals something,” says Dr Abu Abdullah. “By the time the supplies reach us, there is little left.”

Given the scale of suffering in Syria, the question must be asked: to what extent do international powers share responsibility for sustaining and, worse still, stirring up the conflict?

The battle lines are clear: the US, France and the UK are in conflict – a proxy war – with Russia and China over Syria’s future, in part through their non-Arab regional clients Turkey and Iran. Iran – concerned it may lose its key Levantine ally and ability to easily open up fronts against Israel – is additionally drawn into proxy warfare with a geopolitically assertive Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which both have expansionist designs for the Middle East and have funnelled a lot of weapons to militia in Syria.

Long-standing identity disputes – Shia (Iran) versus Sunni (Saudi), in essence a battle over ownership of Islam – and the Arab regimes’ traditional distrust of outside meddling in their affairs are further fuelling the conflict.

The war is complex and looks set to persist for some time. A negotiated settlement, the only means by which to end the conflict, seems impossible at this stage: too much blood has been spilt, no one will – or, indeed, can safely – back down.

OLD LIFE IS OVER

Mahmoud approaches one of his properties, formerly rented out for wedding parties, now a militia base. The men are young and heavily bearded. Mahmoud introduces himself as the owner of the building and asks if he can quickly check on it. The militiamen eye both him and Adel.

The militants become suspicious and accuse him of coming to the property to plant a locator device so that the regime’s planes can bomb the position. They refuse him entry and become aggressive. There is a glimpse of the building’s ransacked interior as a young gunman comes out of the building. This was where Mahmoud and Jasmine celebrated their wedding. He leaves the property with Adel in tow, telling the brigade to stay as long as they want.

It wasn’t until July that Mahmoud tracked Jasmine down. Her body had been buried in a leafy cemetery with other unclaimed corpses. He says his life is ruined; that Adel is all he has left and he will do anything to keep her safe. He says he hasn’t told her that her mother is dead yet.

“I tell her that her mother stays with her parents and that it is too dangerous for her to come to us. I tell her that when the war is over she will come home.” Adel stumbles along the street, singing quietly.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist who has worked in the Middle East and Africa for the past four years. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Guardian. He was shortlisted for the 2012 Kurt Schork Awards for Excellence in International Reporting, which recognise journalists working in high-risk environments

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