Aleppo: before and after
All living cities are unique. All destroyed cities are similar to each other. The story of the destruction of Aleppo began in the same way as in other parts of Syria: with peaceful protests against the regime, which responded with fire, arrests, torture, beatings and disappearances of the protesters. The early period of the war was characterized by the use of collective punishment tactics by the Syrian regime: for example, in three weeks in the summer of 2012, Syrian aircraft attacked ten different bakeries where civilians were queuing for bread. Between 2012 and 2016, the population of the city experienced active hostilities, bombardments, famine and blockades, which resulted in the destruction of urban infrastructure and the death of tens of thousands of people.
The story of the destruction of Aleppo began with peaceful protests against the regime, which responded with fire, arrests, torture, beatings and disappearances of the protesters.
Before Syrian shelling and Russian airstrikes razed entire areas to the ground, forcing most of the inhabitants to flee their homes, Aleppo was the most populous city in Syria and the economic center of the country. In 2011, before the outbreak of the conflict, the population of Aleppo province was about 4.6 million people. According to the UN, by August 2016, its number was just over 2 million people. Estimates of destruction converge on a figure of 45-57% of the city, 36 thousand broken and damaged buildings and 15 million tons of rubble .
Aleppo is one of the most ancient cities in the world. Tourists flocked to see its UNESCO-listed old town, with its 4000 BC architecture, contributing about 12% of the country's GDP. Here the flows of raw materials and wholesale trade intersected, city businessmen and provincial entrepreneurs. The city's strategic geography near the Turkish border and the Mediterranean ports, themselves a large part of the Syrian economy before the war, facilitated import-export. Most of the exports were the textile industry, as well as traditional crafts – soap, silk, gold. The largest university in the country produced doctors, lawyers and engineers.
In the summer of 2012, the territory of Aleppo became the site of armed clashes between the forces of the "Free Syrian Army" and the troops of the Syrian government. Subsequently, the city was divided into two parts: western Aleppo, which was under the control of the government, and eastern Aleppo, which came out of its control. The eastern part was governed by the local councils formed there. The opposition's success in this part of the city has become an example for allies across the country on how to win back territory from the Assad regime and hold on to it. Because of these achievements and its economic and social importance, Aleppo has become the main hope of the opposition. The further the rebels advanced through the province of Aleppo, the harder the regime fought to maintain its position, trying to regain control of the eastern part of the city with artillery shelling and bombing. The battle for Aleppo became decisive in the course of the war.
Russia training in Aleppo
Russia launched a military operation in Syria in September 2015. According to various sources, at that time the Syrian government controlled only from 8 to 30% of the country's territory. It seemed that the regime would fall any minute. According to the official version of the Russian authorities, they needed to defeat the Islamist militants, including the Russians who joined them, precisely on the territory of Syria. In reality, Russia sought to increase its influence in the Middle East and on the international stage in order to avoid isolation after the start of the war with Ukraine in 2014. Also, her plans included protecting Bashar al-Assad, her ally in the region, stopping the wave of Arab revolutions, maintaining and expanding her military presence in the country, gaining access to the natural resources of Syria, giving combat experience to the Russian army and testing weapons.
More than 300 weapons have been used in Syria, accordingto Defense Minister Shoigu. International, Syrian and Russian human rights organizations have repeatedly declared the actions of the Russian and Syrian armies to be classified as war crimes. However, they remained completely unpunished. Under the slogan of fighting terrorists, Russia carried out systematic attacks against hospitals, schools and residential areas. Russian tactics of air and missile strikes were almost identical to the current offensive against Ukrainian cities. Cluster and incendiary munitions, barrel bombs, indiscriminate weapons prohibited by international humanitarian law were used. Even search and rescue groups, the White Helmets , whom Russia called accomplices of both terrorists and NATO, and accused of creating fakes, were targeted. This is how the double tap technique was developed, which is used by Russian troops in Ukraine: the first blow is followed by the second – on people who have gathered on the spot to help the wounded. Many Russian military personnel participating in the war in Ukraine served in Syria and have appropriate awards.
Under the slogan of fighting terrorists, Russia carried out systematic attacks against hospitals, schools and residential areas.
In this war, Russia and Syria also used hunger as a weapon. “Surrender or starvation” is how the UN describes the tactics of the Russian-backed Syrian military in relation to the besieged cities. In July 2016, eastern Aleppo was surrounded by the armed forces of the Syrian government, a siege began, which consisted of sharply restricting the supply of clean water, combustible food and medicine. Between 250,000 and 275,000 people remained in besieged areas. The main goal is to break the spirit of the civilian population in opposition-controlled areas and weaken their resistance. Russian air support set the stage for a regime counterattack on the ground, and on November 15, 2016, the Syrian army began its final assault on the city. Aleppo fell a month later.
With the help of Russian military support and Iranian technical advice, the Assad regime pushed the rebels out of Aleppo in December 2016 and reclaimed the key city. After the military defeat of the opposition, Russia became a mediator between the armed groups and the regime, giving the former the opportunity to lay down their arms and conclude a truce with the regime or evacuate to the opposition-controlled neighboring region of Idlib and the western region of Aleppo, thus ridding the regime of unwanted elements.
The illusion of a normal life
As soon as possible after the capture of Aleppo and the end of active fighting, the Assad government embarked on superficial reconstruction projects aimed at creating the illusion of a return to normal life after victory. The authorities are not taking any systematic steps for a full-scale reconstruction, except for establishing the number of destroyed buildings. Syria is concentrating its meager resources on projects to restore its image abroad, promoting its version of events – the noble struggle of the legitimate government against religious extremists.
The Syrian authorities are concentrating their meager resources to restore their image abroad
Over a decade of war, Syria has turned from a middle-income country into a failed state, where 90% of the population lives below the poverty line. A war economy developed, vivid examples of which are extortion at widespread checkpoints, the trade in hostages and corpses, false documents, and the release of prisoners for ransom. These are schemes to profit from the situation that has developed due to hostilities, from businesses close to the Assad government, armed groups that oppose the Syrian regime, or local authorities. Experts note that the war economy in Syria in its current form has its origins in the pre-war period, when first Hafez al-Assad's father and then his son Bashar al-Assad privatized and liberalized the economy, but at the same time created a system in which big business was closely connected with power or incorporated into it and was under its control.
Housing was restored at their own expense by those who could afford it. The rest returned to dilapidated houses, uninhabitable, under the constant threat of collapse. An entire generation of children grew up without access to schooling. Basic services previously provided by the state, such as electricity, water supply and waste disposal, are almost non-existent. For this reason, residents spend most of their income paying for these services from private providers, such as generator owners. Before the war, Syria was an exporter of electricity, but now it cannot meet its needs.
Before the war, Syria was an exporter of electricity, and now it cannot meet its needs
Survival industries, essentially associated with the sale of one's body, have grown in the country – international and local mercenary for men and sex work for women. The black market for currency and gold is functioning despite the harshest penalties for any use of dollars. Many who left the city have not returned and are not going to, including entrepreneurs who have moved their companies to neighboring countries. Former business owners in Aleppo cite labor, fuel, electricity, equipment shortages and the inability to import and export goods due to sanctions among the reasons they are unable to rebuild their businesses. Factories and workshops were destroyed or looted. Also, as a result of the hostilities, agricultural land was rendered unusable and livestock died.
In 2018, the Syrian government passed a new real estate law that allows de facto any action on the property of Syrians without any compensation and the ability to resist the demolition or development of their property.
Those who were associated with the opposition, participated in protests or worked as a journalist, fear for their safety and cannot return to the country. What many Syrians have fled from remains unchanged: in recent years, human rights organizations have documented dozens of cases of disappearances, arrests, torture, killings and forced conscription of returned refugees. Thus, the authorities not only do not facilitate, but actively prevent the return of Aleppo residents to the city and prevent any semblance of a peaceful life.
Syrian authorities actively prevent the return of Aleppo residents to the city
Restoration of material destruction is possible , but the parties to the conflict and the international community are not interested in it. And all this despite the fact that a stable and prosperous Syria is in the interests of the whole world. The Assad government, together with Russia and Iran, could help the people of Aleppo by limiting the lawlessness of the militias and security forces and stopping the persecution of people accused of having links with the opposition. However, this is an absolutely imaginary scenario. It is easier for the regime, together with its allies, to control the city, to force it to survive rather than live.
EU countries have said they will not sponsor reconstruction until they see signs of a real political transition. The US and EU sanctions against Syria are an obstacle to major Western investment in the reconstruction of Syria. The “Caesar Act” signed by Donald Trump in 2019 prohibited transactions with the Syrian government not only for Americans, but for any persons. The breadth and uncertainty of these sanctions have created a situation where donor states, businesses and NGOs are refusing even small projects. Russian entrepreneurs are not interested in investing in reconstruction, but in extracting resources. Businessmen themselves admit that it is impossible to do business in Syria because of the sanctions and the consequences of the war.
Recovery prospects amid fragile truce
Today, tourists come to Aleppo, the streets and parks of the historical center are filled with walking people, shops, bars and galleries are open. For the first time after 11 years, Bashar al-Assad and his family visited Aleppo – for the official opening ceremony of a thermal power plant. Since 2020, the conflict has actually been frozen and there are almost no hostilities. But in the absence of a political settlement, the war cannot be considered over.
Despite the cessation of hostilities, a return to pre-war living standards is not expected. The current regime does not regulate the pro-Assad groups that exploit the Syrians, but, on the contrary, sanction their robbery. The Syrian authorities are trying to control society with the help of these elements, simultaneously strengthening their influence.
The Assad regime is subject to external shocks and exists in a state of constant crisis – food, energy, currency, responding to all this with a huge number of random, exploitative and chaotic measures. Russia's war against Ukraine was another such shock, since since the invasion began, the government has slashed food subsidies that hundreds of thousands of people relied on and raised fuel prices. The shortage of grain is especially dangerous: wheat prices were rising before the current crisis, and due to an unprecedented drought last year, the Syrian crop fell by more than 60% compared to 2020.
The Assad regime exists in a state of constant crisis – food, energy, currency, responding to all this with a huge number of random, exploitative and chaotic measures.
The economic shock is far from the only threat to the fragile truce. From May 2022, Turkey promises to launch another military operation in northern Syria, the fourth since 2016, in order to create a 30-kilometer buffer "safe zone" along the Syrian-Turkish border, which includes Tell Rifat, a city in the north of Aleppo province. The region is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a broad alliance that includes the Kurdish YPG, an important US ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and an existential threat to national security. Russia, Iran, the US and EU countries have publicly expressed their objections to this operation, but are not going to confront.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine affects the situation in Syria in various and not always obvious ways. Turkey uses its position as both a NATO member and an ally of Russia at the most opportune moment, when neither the Russian Federation nor Western countries are ready to spoil relations with Erdogan. A few days after the summit in Tehran between the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces attacked the positions of the Syrian army in northwestern Syria. Russia responded with an airstrike. The autonomous administration of northern and eastern Syria declared a state of emergency, and the inhabitants of the region froze in nervous anticipation.
The fates of Syria and Ukraine are connected by complex global chains of cause and effect. Turkey's actions are a timely example of how only one of the many parties to the conflict in Syria is adapting and acting on the basis of the changing international status quo due to the war in Ukraine. Watching the global consequences of this confrontation in real time, it is impossible to accurately predict the further actions of several dozen countries and non-state formations participating in the war in Syria. But with a high degree of certainty, we can say that it will only get worse.
Turkey's actions are a timely example of how only one of the many parties to the conflict in Syria is adapting and acting on the basis of the changing international status quo due to the war in Ukraine.
More than a decade of war in Syria has brought devastation beyond the reach of satellite imagery and humanitarian data. A deeply divided society, human losses, psychological trauma, destruction of social ties are incalculable. No less an obstacle to the return to normal life is the destroyed urban infrastructure. Rebuilding Aleppo is essential to the long-term stability and prosperity of Syria. If the country's most important city cannot return to life even remotely reminiscent of pre-war life, then the future of other war-ravaged cities in the country looks even bleaker.
Powerlessness – this word can succinctly describe the situation in which Syria finds itself. Assad enjoys political and economic normalization with the Arab countries, despite the fact that they recently wanted to get rid of him. He cannot take back the lost territories in the north. The Kurdish-Arab "Syrian Democratic Forces" cannot return the territory occupied by Turkey. America, Russia, Israel and Iran accept this stalemate. The Syrians continue to suffer.