I made my last visit to Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and once its commercial hub, now a deeply wounded and broken city, just four months before the Syrian uprising started in March 2011. It was my last long stay in Syria, and Aleppo was a stop in what later felt like a goodbye tour to some of the cities soon to be most grievously damaged in the Syrian conflict. Driving from Damascus, I stopped at Maaloula, an ancient Christian town where some inhabitants still speak the language of Jesus, Aramaic. From there, we drove all the way to Janoudiyah, between Turkey and Jisr al-Shughour. Along the way, we would stop and spend a day in Homs, Hama … and Aleppo.
The citizens of these areas now tell endless stories of the conflict. But just as Aleppo stood out then as a flourishing and developing city, it is now notorious as a witness to the unparalleled barbarism of the Syrian regime.
Over the past five years, many people have come to know Aleppo for its gruesome violence. But the city is deeply rooted in history. Shakespeare mentions the city in Macbeth and Othello in the context of a far-off exotic place, where Othello killed a Turk in vengeance for a slain Venetian and where a sailor in Macbeth , according to one of the three Witches, vowed to sink his ship, the Tiger. It is one of the most revered cities in the region, and its rich history invokes profound stories about victory and defeat, success and suffering. Traders from Aleppo carried their city’s name far and beyond, to the extent that it is often said many in Africa recognise the name Aleppo more than Syria.
Unlike other Syrian cities, Aleppo is the only one that has its own qudud, a traditional musical form that originates from the time when Muslims ruled Spain. It also has a nickname attached to its moniker, “al-Shahbaa”, or “white-coloured”, after the colour of its famous marble. Mosul also has a nickname that rhymes with Aleppo’s: “al-Hadbaa”, which means “hunchback”, after the shape of its Great Mosque or its landscape.
Historically, Aleppo was a kingmaker in the region; whoever took Aleppo could wage campaigns to take other cities, including Damascus. Despite its significance, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president who also destroyed much of the city, never visited Aleppo throughout his rule that lasted for 30 years.
I remember vividly when we arrived in Aleppo. We travelled to its eastern part, home to ancient monuments such as the imposing citadel overlooking the city and the Great Mosque. This was also the part into which the Syrian rebels swept in June 2012, and where they remained until a week ago. For as long as I remember, it has been the main destination for merchants and consumers for people from eastern Syria, where my home is. People from my region would travel to Aleppo’s industrial area to make their rickshaws before the three-wheelers became almost extinct. The products sold in Albukamal, my home town, mostly came from Aleppo. Aleppine merchants would come to invest in pomegranate orchards and livestock.
Aleppo’s trade and even demographic links predated modern Syria. Before independence, Aleppo was integrated into its natural hinterland of eastern and northern Syria, as well as southern Turkey and northern Iraq. During the Ottoman rule, Aleppo was more significant as a trade hub than Damascus. The company overseeing commerce between the Ottomans and the British, known as the Levant Company of London, had its headquarters in Aleppo until the 18th century.
To me, Aleppo felt like a “sister city” – as people in Mosul also refer to it. In the old city, near the citadel, we headed to a local and popular diner. A mere block away, the city looked completely different. It was vibrant, modernising and thriving. Four years after the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation named Aleppo one of three capitals of Islamic culture – alongside Isfahan and Timbuktu – the city was full of life, thanks to the influx of tourism and investment. Aleppo looked cleaner. New and fancy hotels were popping up across the city. Not far from the citadel was an old palace, which had been turned into a five-star hotel. A western-style nightclub we visited that night was further evidence that the traditionally conservative city was transforming.
Despite the obvious changes, a pattern emerged from my visits to Aleppo, Damascus and the rural areas outside them. As I left these cities, the modern and thriving atmosphere immediately began to give way to a not-so-happy story. The contrast between what I call the thriving pockets and the rest of the country was clear. Stories were common of young men taking small loans from their friends to afford hours of leisure time in the pricey cafes attached to expensive hotels. In hindsight, it is easy to see how a visitor to Syria would come away with the impression of a vibrant country led by a president who belongs to the 21st century. Living in a bubble was easy.
Aleppo’s history is crucial to the fate of a vast region that stretches from Iran through the Levant and down into Egypt. Nur al-Din Zangi was 30 when his father was killed in 1146 near Jaabar citadel, just outside Raqqa, in what is now Syria. Zangi, the second oldest son and the only one accompanying his father, took command of his father’s army and marched west from the Euphrates river towards Aleppo, which he conquered months later.
By the time he died 28 years later in Damascus, Zangi reigned over an area stretching from Mosul through Aleppo to Egypt. A brave and pious ruler, he was credited for reorganising the Muslim armies in the Levant and Egypt and laying the foundation for the Kurdish commander Saladin to defeat the Crusaders in Jerusalem at the battle of Hattin 13 years after his death.
Zangi’s conquest is part of the region’s distant past. But one aspect of his legacy has wide and ominous resonance in the two most significant events taking place in the region today – the battle that reached its bloody climax last week in Aleppo, and the other great struggle taking place in Mosul in neighbouring Iraq.
The Aleppo I saw six years ago was a world away from Zangi’s Aleppo. But that image belongs, too, to a distant past, thanks to the devastation caused by the regime’s savagery. Barrel bombs, a weapon perfected by Assad and his allies, have showered down on civilians on a daily basis for close to five years. The indiscriminate surrender-or-die campaign was designed to cripple the city and drive its population out. A functioning rebel base in Aleppo posed a direct threat to the Assad rule. Despite hopes of a ceasefire over the past few years, nothing weakened the regime’s determination to turn the city into hell on earth.
The regime’s attack on the city is no less savage than the destruction of antiquities by Isis. In addition to the indiscriminate and mass killing of civilians, the relentless air bombardment has turned the ancient city into what CNN’s Clarissa Ward, who visited recently, described as “an apocalyptic wasteland”.
The difference between the actions of Assad and that of Isis is only in presentation: while Isis advertises its savagery for the world to see and be shocked by, Assad denies it.
For outsiders, the conflicts in the two countries are very different. In Mosul, a carefully planned campaign – now in its third month – aims to end the medieval rule imposed by the Islamic State when it drove Iraqi forces from the city in 2014. In Aleppo, a vicious, four-year-long campaign by the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad culminated last week in the expulsion of rebel fighters from their final bastions in the city’s eastern half, dealing a blow to the popular uprising against the Syrian dictatorship which exploded across the country in 2011.
For the people of Iraq, Syria and the wider region, the raging fighting in the two cities at the same time invokes a shared history. Throughout the region, people have drawn parallels with their distant past and can trace connections between the two conflicts that are not apparent to outsiders. Shia militias, for example, are engaged in the two battles, while Iran appears to be a beneficiary of both. Both have attracted the attention of superpowers – the United States is assisting the attacking forces in Mosul, while another superpower is assisting the assailants in Aleppo.
It also does not help that the militias in the two cities deliberately confirm fears that the struggles in both are part of a region-wide conflagration, whose outcome will be felt across cities and states for thousands of miles. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Sunni jihadi movement Isis, ascended the pulpit of the Great Mosque in Mosul to declare an Islamic caliphate his choice was not arbitrary. The mosque, also known as al-Nuri, invoked the links between the two sister cities. Saladin preached from the same pulpit.
In a visit in September, Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of one of the main foreign Shia militias fighting alongside the regime’s forces in Syria, said that Aleppo was Shia, recalling the time before Zangi, when the city was controlled by the Shia Hamdanid dynasty.
Iraqi officials, including the former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, have also stated that Shia militias would move to fight in Aleppo once the battle in Mosul was over. In August, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi Sunni jihadist close to al-Qaida in Syria, made a fiery statement from the Great Mosque of Aleppo urging armed groups to unite to break the siege being spearheaded by Shia militias loyal to Assad around the city. Last week, Hosein Mortada, a Shia Hezbollah media activist, mocked the rebels at the same spot in the now largely destroyed mosque.
In the western media, such provocations are barely mentioned. The rebels’ loss of eastern Aleppo is framed strictly in the context of the Syrian civil war. Besides the humanitarian catastrophe, questions tend to focus on what the fall of such an important stronghold will mean for the rebellion against Assad. But such questions do not capture the depth of the psychological wound that the city’s fate has caused in the region. The tragedy in Aleppo runs much deeper and its consequences will be felt profoundly in the years to come.
The bewildering fact is that many people across the world still view Assad as a civilised alternative to jihadi chaos and a potential partner. “Yes, he is a bad guy, but ...” has become the phrase that justifies the unimaginable suffering he inflicted on millions of Syrians in the name of preserving the state and maintaining stability.
It is a moral issue that the late Christopher Hitchens described well. A quote by him describing such an attitude towards the removal of Saddam eerily applies to Syria. “Anyone who says that Saddam Hussein was ‘OK, a bad guy’ doesn’t know what they’re talking about. You hear that said a lot. They don’t know what fascism looks like. They don’t know what it’s like to see families forced at gunpoint to applaud the torture and execution, in public, of their family members. They don’t know what it’s like to see 180,000 members of the Kurdish people, at a minimum, killed in poison gas in the northern province. They don’t know what it’s like to see at least that number of Shia Arabs killed in southern Iraq.”
As a Syrian, it particularly pains me when I hear Iraqis who understand what it was like to live under Saddam, and welcomed outside support, preach the opposite to Syrians. They forget that the current Syrian president spent half a decade facilitating the flow of jihadis into Iraq to murder their fellow nationals. They spare no thought for the thousands of civilians being killed or trapped under the rubble by a regime that fits every definition of evil they once shared.
Syria’s opposition, to them, are agents of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism and the United States’ imperialism, rather than people who rose up against an oppressive regime. To them, Syrians opposed to the regime are jihadis, rather than civilians or legitimate opposition. On the other hand, they turn a blind eye to Shia jihadis travelling from Iraq to Syria to help the regime clamp down on dissent. They have no qualms with such state-sanctioned jihadis because they are imported by another government. They refuse to call them foreign jihadis, despite what these militias call themselves and how they present their role in Syria – as soldiers in a grand holy war.
But the victims of the regime and its allies are not jihadis. The walls of Aleppo can testify they are not. Jihadis do not leave behind them graffiti mourning their lost freedom and their home city that they are being forced to leave. Rasha al-Aqeedi, a writer from Mosul, put it nicely on Twitter: “If the residents of Aleppo were extremists, they would not have left romantic poetry and words from [female Lebanese singer] Fairuz’s songs on the walls of their city as they said goodbye to it.” As Hitchens said, those who secretly cheer Assad’s takeover of Aleppo don’t know what they are talking about. Or they forgot what it is like to live under a regime that kills and tortures in times of peace as it does when it is embattled. People in Syria rose up because they wanted their country to be free. What happened later, including the rise of extremism and lawlessness, was a product of the way the regime responded to the demands of young men and women.
Syrians raised under the current regime knew that taking to the streets to call for freedom was the very definition of audacity. They also knew that a return to life under Assad will mean that they, or another generation, has to do it all over again. But it is illusory to think that Syria will return to how it was before 2011. Syria as we know it will never be the same. The idea that Assad will control all of Syria and that the extremist forces that emerged as a product of his crackdown will disappear is a fantasy.
Many will focus on how the regime’s so-called victory might change the course of the conflict in Syria. Assad has fully recaptured the second city in which the rebels had established a base, after Homs was seized two years ago. The rebels face a real possibility that the world will turn to Assad as a victor and increasingly give up on them as militants fighting on the periphery. But that will be a mistake. The war is far from over. If anything, the manner in which Aleppo has been retaken will create an environment for extremism to fester and grow. The regime needed to recapture Aleppo to deal a final blow to any project for strengthening the Syrian rebellion against Assad, especially before the next American administration takes over. Reports emerged that Russia sent the same elite force that helped annex Crimea in 2014 to expel the rebels in eastern Aleppo. That has already been achieved.
But that does not mean the regime can now conquer all of Syria. On the contrary, the takeover of Aleppo will compel the regime to dedicate more resources to secure the city and prevent a transformed insurgency from infiltrating safer areas.
The forces that helped the regime capture eastern Aleppo include foreign Shia militias, which have already been accused of summary executions. The appearance of Shia militias spearheading the fighting in a predominantly Sunni city – with the assistance of an increasingly hegemonic Iran, the backing of one superpower and the eerie inaction of another – adds a layer of complexity to the already unimaginable suffering. Isis’s surprising recapture of Palmyra is a reminder of the long-term limitations of securing a country such as Syria. The destruction of Old Aleppo is an indictment of the world’s inability to prevent the regime from killing and causing mayhem with impunity.
And it destroys the dreams of young Syrians growing up amid the gleaming buildings and bustling crowds that I saw when I visited the city before the fateful months of 2011, when the uprising took hold. But the events that have been played out so graphically on the world’s TV screens over the past weeks will echo throughout a vast region across the Middle East, and the political forces that emerge from the rubble of mosques, hotels, offices, narrow alleyways and bazaars are impossible to foresee. The battle for Aleppo may be over for now. The war for hegemony in the region still has a long way to go.
Aleppo’s centuries of history
Aleppo is one of world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. Evidence of settlement goes back to 6000BC
In the 18th century BC, Aleppo thrived as the capital of Yamkhad, under King Yarim-Lim. Later, it became part of the Roman empire, then was captured from the Byzantines by Arab Muslims in AD636.
In the 10th century, the Hamdanid dynasty ruled most of Syria, with Aleppo as their capital. But it then became the subject of a power struggle, as the Byzantine empire, crusaders, Fatamid caliphate and Seljuk empire fought to gain control. In 1146 Nur al-Din Zangi conquered the city.
In the 1200s, the city enjoyed an era of stability under the rule of the Ayyubid dynasty, before it was captured by the Mongols in 1260. In 1516, it became part of the Ottoman empire, its geographical location seeing it become a leading trade centre. It would remain under Ottoman rule until the collapse of the empire in 1918, although its prosperity as a mercantile centre faded after the 16th century.
Syria gained independence in 1945, with Aleppo developing as a key economic hub. Its population grew from 325,000 in 1944 to 2.3 million by 2005. More than 70% of the population were Sunni Muslim, while 30% were Christian and other minorities.
War came to the city in July 2012, when opposition fighters captured several districts. It has become a battleground for government forces backed by Iranian troops and Russian planes against a coalition of rebel fighters. Ban Ki-moon has described it as a “synonym for hell”.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and co-author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror