Syria’s Stalingrad has seen more destruction than any warscape is entitled to. Barrel bombs, hell cannons, the deliberate targeting of schools and hospitals, civilians as human shields, damage to UNESCO heritage sites, failed truces, deprivation, suicide, rape, and the murder of thousands of women and children. A friend of mine who survived the Lebanese Civil War told me he had never seen anything as violent as what was happening in Aleppo. “This is the most brutal war in history.”
The battle for Aleppo first started in the summer of 2012, before nearly anyone in the West cared about the rising conflict in Syria. Before the influx of refugees became a blockbuster news story.
On the first day of 2013, Aleppo’s airport stopped flights. At that time—at least in the Western media, which often played to a pro-rebels narrative—it seemed the opposition forces had an edge in the city. They were scoring victories and regime forces were, at times, on their heels.
In 2014, the Free Syrian Army, the rebel standard-bearer, was encircled in a shrinking quadrant of Eastern Aleppo, and in the following year, territory shifted hands slowly, then in short bursts. New forces, including Isis and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, entered the fray around Aleppo, as it became the centerpiece of the world war in miniature.
Then the Russians came.
Since Moscow entered the conflict from the skies, the tide turned in favor of desperately depleted regime forces. With the help of Putin’s jets, seen endlessly patrolling the clouds, the regime captured prominent and strategic landmarks. Slowly, with Russia’s sleek steel falcons circling overhead, the four chief combatants of the war—the Syrian army, the Free Syrian Army and its various militias, the Islamic State, and the Kurdish Peshmerga—went along vying for territory in the Syrian northland. The knowledge was always there, written in a million minds: Whoever controls Aleppo controls the most important city in Syria. Damascus is the face of the country, but Aleppo is the backbone.
With armies closing in from all sides, tens of thousands of Aleppians went fleeing. Thousands collected on the Turkish border, scurrying for their lives, displaced for now, maybe forever.
Those who couldn’t get out, or who dared to stay, bound themselves to the withered metropolis, and to its casket.
By the end of 2015, and probably all along, a siege was imminent. And if a siege was imminent, its brutality was equally so. Retaking Aleppo would sound the death knell for the opposition. It was also supposed to position the regime to put a chokehold on the Islamic State, the sprawling bastion of terror and fanatic eschatological theology that prevails over 10 million people and tens of thousands of square miles between Syria and Iraq. Quite simply, if Assad’s troops reclaim Aleppo, the whole game changes.
For months now, with Russian and Iranian assistance and a complete back-pedaling of Western support for the rebels, the consummation of Aleppo has not been a matter of if, only when. Unfortunately, the best way to raise the loyalist banners over Aleppo tomorrow required putting it in a stranglehold today—or such was the logic of the regime and its backers.
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The last supply line into Aleppo was cut nearly a year ago. At that time, about half of the city was occupied by the Assad regime and the other half by rebel forces. Fighters loyal to the government, backed by an upsurge in Russian airstrikes, controlled the areas south and north of the city; Isis controlled the west and Kurdish soldiers were closing in from the east. The city—the biggest prize of the war—was surrounded. It was a cold Syrian February, and the full-fledged siege of Aleppo was about to begin.
My friends’ homes were bombed. Their churches shelled. Their universities and hospitals and favorite shops crushed. Friends and family members were the collateral damage of what had become the “mother of battles.”
My Aleppian friends showed me before-and-after photos of their streets and squares. One is unrecognizable from the other. One is a typical Arab urban center. The other is a video game, a dystopian novel, a scene from Mars. My Aleppian friends don’t cry when they show me the photos. They are cold. Sometimes they even laugh. How else can one cope with the daily decimation of their neighborhoods?
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Nightly air assaults began in September. Accusations of regime-approved “double tapping”—a policy of bombing a site, then bombing it again once first responders have arrived—were rife. It was—it is—the climax of this conflict. The full cataclysm.
The camel’s back would soon break, not with a straw but with the pulverization of earth and stone, and with many cries.
In the year I lived in Lebanon, conversations about Syria were a fairly regular event, within the office and outside it. Most of those conversations, though, were about memories of prewar Syria or little laments about emigrating friends or vignettes about mortars falling from the sky. Virtually none of the conversations were about the war proper. Grand strategy, ethnoreligious analysis, and doomsday prophecies rarely came up.
Except on Aleppo.
Everyone talked about the battle for Aleppo. Some predicted it would end the war. Some predicted the war would never end.
But now, with claims of war crimes and atrocities, social media accounts live-streaming the death of a great power, tweeted goodbyes and eulogies, the siege of Aleppo is concluded. Many thousands are dead.
Everything is destroyed.
Everyone is ruined.
And Assad will not go. In that regard, the rebel yell that fueled nearly six years of war, has proven to be in vain. The United States and other coalition backers of the opposition have, thus, lost as well. Whether they truly wanted it or not, they had signed on to the cause of the Free Syrian Army. Now that army is disbanded, defeated, dead.
There will be films about this. Mountains of media coverage. Many gravestones.
The siege lines are broken now. There were fireworks in Western Aleppo, where until recently there had been the deadly rain of mortars and shrapnel. But it is not so much celebration as a desperate need to light the sky, to hear explosions again in the air. This death was not countered by a sudden birth. No happy endings here.
Mostly there is just mourning, for the end of something bloody and grand. For innocence long gone, sniped, forgotten. For a once proud, important city, now important only because, like a prince’s crown upon the funeral pyre, it is a beautiful thing that burned.