East and west Aleppo a microcosm of divided Syria
Rebuilding the country in the aftermath of the brutal civil war may prove impossible
Residents of a government-controlled district of Aleppo celebrate on Monday after regime fighters made major gains in their assault on rebel-held areas of the city. Photograph: EPA
The events in east Aleppo have provoked outrage across the world.
Yet just a few kilometres away, small crowds of people gathering in the rain have something to celebrate for the first time in years. Those living in west Aleppo have not suffered air strikes or barrel bombs, but shelling by jihadis frequently kills civilians.
There is access to food, though at massively inflated prices. From the perspective of many of those living on this side of the city, thousands of civilians in east Aleppo have been freed from the grip of terrorists and that peace in the city is finally at hand.
“People in west Aleppo are not celebrating the victory of the government, so much as they’re celebrating the end of war in their city,” says an Aleppo resident who uses the pseudonym Edward Dark, and who remained there during several years of the conflict.
“You have to remember, that in Aleppo in particular the rebels are not natives of the city, and include al-Qaeda extremists so they are not popular or supported at all,” says Dark. “All in all, people are glad to see the back of them after the huge destruction they caused to the city’s priceless heritage, and the suffering and death they brought about in the name of their cause, whatever that may be.”
The loss of territory in Aleppo may well mark a defeat that breaks the non-jihadist opposition’s back. Its Turkey-based political and military leadership knows that Washington and Europe are unable or unwilling to help, and that harsh statements by western ambassadors at the United Nations have no effect on the ground.
If the war in Aleppo against the Syrian regime has failed, some argue, it is because not all Syrians want to see the regime fall.
Those with families in government-controlled parts of the city say there are very few who haven’t lost a relative, a home or limb during the conflict. From the first days of revolt in 2011 many across the country wanted nothing to do with regime change, and some Syrians feel that the war has been forced upon them – even though the regime and its backers have been responsible for the majority of deaths and destruction.
For Harout Ekmanian, an Aleppo native and a former fellow at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, the sectarian aspect of the war has been overplayed.
“There has been a widely circulated rhetoric about the western neighbourhoods of Aleppo, that they are all minorities, which is completely false,” he says. He points out that the number of Christians in Aleppo was below 100,000 before the conflict, and most have left the city.
“It is unrealistic to claim that most of the celebrations in the west side were made by Christians and minority groups.”
But even if sectarian fears haven’t been a major underlying cause of the conflict, there are many other long-term concerns. The fact that Syria’s borders were first established as a western construct; that instead of being an organic function of society, Syrian identity has long been a political tool used by the regime to maintain power; and that a brutal war has seen kneel-or-starve tactics used against select opposition-held towns and districts, underline the extent to which Syria is a divided country.
The country as it was before the war is unlikely to exist again and is more likely to resemble a hotchpotch of warring regions and tribes tied, and divided, by familial allegiances, and overseen by the strongest, that being Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
Putting the country together again, a job that increasingly looks to become the work of the Syrian regime if it so chooses to do so, may turn out to be an impossible task.