Under Hafez al-Assad the city grew from 600,000 in 1970 to 2 million residents in 2000. Around eighty percent of the inhabitants were Sunni Muslims and many of the rest Christians. Much of the Jewish population of Aleppo, which once numbered 6% of the city, fled after a pogrom in 1947. The elder Assad dealt brutally with any opposition. In 1982 he crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama by destroying parts of the city. When Bashar al-Assad came to power some thought he would liberalize the country, but he eventually embraced the same dictatorial policies of his father. Nevertheless, when the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011 it seemed as if Assad would fall the same way Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had.
When Assad’s soldiers began shooting protesters the rebels picked up arms. “I’m a secularist, an atheist…at the start I was totally against militarization. Now I support it. I realize the regime can’t be toppled by peaceful means,” Basel al-Junaidi told Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami in their book Burning Country. “I was there in 2012,” recalls Mohammed Ruzgar, a Syrian writer. “The neighborhoods under opposition control were the poor ones.” Jonathan Spyer who visited Aleppo in September 2012 wrote at The Weekly Standard that the rebels may have been successful in capturing part of the city but they were fragmented. “The rebel forces in Aleppo consist of a large number of independently constituted battalions, each gathered around a particular neighborhood and a particular commander.” Many of the fighters were from the surrounding countryside. “Thee are many non-Islamist fighters and commanders among the rebels. But the best-organized and the only ones with a clear vision of Syria beyond Assad in the crucial Aleppo front, are the Islamists.”
Aleppo was one of the best-documented parts of the Syrian war because it was easily accessed by journalists and aid groups from Turkey’s border-crossing at Kilis, only 57 kilometers away. As the war continued, with its multiplicity of rebel groups, some Islamists in and around Aleppo began kidnapping foreigners, especially journalists. In June 2013 French correspondent Didier Francois and photographer Edouard Elias were kidnapped on their way to Aleppo from Turkey. John Cantlie was kidnapped the first time in July 2012 near the Bab al- Hawa border crossing. On August 4, 2013 Steven Sotloff was captured on the way to Aleppo. He was beheaded by ISIS in September 2014. More than two dozen westerners, including aid workers and journalists were held at the Aleppo Children’s Hospital alongside Theo Padnos, James Foley and Cantlie. They were traded between groups such as the Nusra front (Al Qaeda in Syria) and some ended up in the hands of Islamic State. Many of those who tortured them and executed them were foreign Jihadists, ostensibly opposing Assad, but in fact seeking to turn Syria into another Taliban-like hellhole.
“The revolution died in Aleppo,” Charles Glass titled one of his chapters in the book Syria Burning. In many ways the attack on foreign journalists and aid workers was symbolic of this slow death. Those abducted were mostly men and women who were sympathetic to the rebellion, telling its stories, even raising money for hospitals, and then held in a hospital-turned-prison.
In 2013 an emboldened Assad used chemical weapons in Damascus and the British and Americans threatened airstrikes. But reticence to get involved in yet another foreign war tied the hands of David Cameron and Barak Obama. The West would only use diplomacy to confront Assad. The regime correctly understood the threats by those like John Kerry would not be backed up by force. For instance when Kerry claimed in September 2016 that “if the Assad regime decides to break this cease-fire, then that’s their last shot,” Syrian government airstrikes kept rolling ahead.
The rise of ISIS in 2014, the brutalities it inflicted in Iraq and the beheadings it carried out helped seal the fate of Aleppo. Western attention, which already had decided not to remove Assad by force, shifted to fighting ISIS. The US did embark on a program to train Syrian rebel fighters, some of whom also received support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. But this effort was never on a large scale and the forces that were trained were small and incompetent. In the most embarrassing incident 70 rebels from a group called Division 30 surrendered to Nusra and handed over their weapons after crossing from Turkey toward Aleppo.
“If there were not Shia militias the regime would not be able to progress through neighborhoods in Aleppo,” said Ruzgar in an online message. Assad received key support on the ground from Hezbollah, Iran and a recruiting network of Shia militias that stretched as far as Afghanistan. The Iranian-backed fighters in Aleppo were well trained. This gave Syria’s demoralized army breathing space after years of war. He was bolstered especially by Russian airstrikes beginning in the fall of 2015. Once Russia understood the West would not intervene, it began its intervention in full, with air forces, an aircraft carrier and special forces.
Turkey also read the future and realized that only its own intervention could shore up the rebel groups it supported. Turkey was strained by hosting millions of Syrian refugees, many of whom used it as transit to Europe. Its intervention along the border in August 2016 however was not designed to save Aleppo, but to frustrate attempts by Kurdish backed groups from increasing their presence on the Turkish border. The rebellion might survive in some minor form, but its beating heart in Aleppo would be sacrificed.
By early 2016 the Syrian regime was able to spread its message that in Aleppo it was fighting “extremists, terrorists and al-Qaeda.” Turkey’s border had been the main transit point for thousands of ISIS volunteers. Turkey’s initial unwillingness or inability to regulate the kind of support going into Syria between 2013 and 2015 helped feed the chaos and extremism that ate away at the rebellion. Assad had a well-oiled support network abroad of commentators who supported Syria’s “axis of resistance” and “anti-imperialist” stance, asserting that the Syrian regime was the last Arab nationalist country standing against Israel and Damascus was portrayed as a secular regime in a sea of Islamism.
The reality is that Aleppo has been bombed into submission. By July the regime and its allies had cut off Eastern Aleppo and its 300,000 residents. “Aleppo is our Guernica and some are cheering on the Luftwaffe,” wrote Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer at Stirling University. The siege tightened this December and now it appears all that is left is to evacuate the last rebel fighters and the civilians. It will never be known how many have died in the city, tens of thousands certainly is not an unfair estimate. They are just some of the 11 million Syrians displaced by war and the 600,000 or more killed.
“It is a victory for the regime’s morale more than a military one,” says Ruzgar. Like many others he is waiting for the next US administration. But Donald Trump said in one debate with Hillary Clinton he was skeptical of the rebellion. “We don’t know who the rebels are and we’re giving them lots of money…If they ever did overthrow Assad, you might end up as bad as Assad is, and he is a bad guy.”
What Aleppo has proven is that in the 21st century a regime like Assad’s can get away with any human rights abuse, even the scorched earth of most of it’s own country, while the world watches on Youtube and Twitter and does little. We have also learned of allowing Islamists to become fellow-travellers in populist causes. Eventually the Islamists hijack them, besmirch their image and can turn them into the kind of horrors ISIS unleashed. Supporting a free Aleppo was a worthy cause, its fall to the regime and the extremism that was allowed to grow there are symbolic of the tragedy of the Middle East in general, cementing Russian power and Iranian influence, and putting another nail in the coffin of diversity that was once the region.