Enab Baladi’s Investigations Team
“I remember how that day witnessed the heaviest bombing since the beginning of the revolution. Missiles and cluster rockets were like raindrops. The sounds of ambulances echoed endlessly, and there were many martyrs,” thus Mohammed Jokhdar described the last moments in the city of Aleppo before the settlement stopped aerial bombardment, and the noise of the last four quarters turned into silence after the wailing of the departees.
On the same morning, December 12, 2016, Bustan al-Qasr (The Palace Orchard) and Al-Kalasah neighborhoods were destroyed by al-Assad forces and the militias which support them, and the rest of its inhabitants gathered in the area west of Jisr al-Hajj. Under the pressure of rockets and explosive barrels, fighters of military factions and residents surrendered to a settlement that gave their neighborhoods and streets to those who had deprived them of life for five years.
More than 50,000 people in an area of no more than two kilometers, most of them were children and women, were burying their last victims in the quick-build graves, leaving what remained of their homes and revolution memories and getting ready to leave.
The first convoy lasted for a whole day until it reached al-Rashideen neighborhood in the west of the city, after it was attacked by Hezbollah and other sectarian militias. Despite the organized reception prepared by the western rural and Idlib residents for the displaced people of Aleppo, the frustration about and fear of the future were obvious.
“Here is the real suffering,” Mohammed, a media activist and photographer, described the situation to Enab Baladi the moment he arrived in the western countryside. Thousands of people were forced to stay in newly constructed shelters, while some went to Idlib to look for work and shelter and others illegally left for Turkey in search of stability and security.
Displacement of communities
On December 22, 2016, the last convoys left the besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo. In the eastern part of the city, there were only aspirations for return. While the “victors” were entering the desolate neighborhoods, the displaced people were facing new suffering mixed with a feeling of alienation.
The number of displaced persons from the eastern part of the city to the western countryside was 1052 families. Meanwhile, 5552 others arrived in the northern countryside, which was described by several international organizations as “the largest forced displacement in Syria.” They relied on the statistics of Russians who were yesterday killing the citizens of the city in large numbers, but today they are counting the number of displaced people one by one.
The neighborhoods used to “freedom” since the control of opposition factions in 2012 are no longer interested in the remaining or the removal of the rubble, and the return of some of its people, who were previously displaced to the neighborhoods of Western Aleppo, did not ease the burden of loneliness.
According to a local resident, who asked not to be named for security reasons, the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo remained vacant for about four months before the first self-financed repair workshops began repairing some houses at the expense of their owners, while the sources estimate the rate of returnees from the western part of the city to Saif Al-Dawla, Ansari and Salaheddine neighborhoods at about 30% of the displaced people.
Division of community identity
Before al-Assad forces took control of the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, the regime continued to convince its loyalists in the western neighborhoods that it protects them from “terrorists’ shells” and that those in the east are corrupt and should be eliminated.
The loyal Facebook pages have embarked on the promotion of racist ideas, such as “children of the eastern neighborhoods are an incubator for their terrorist families” and “the neighborhoods which launch the mortar shells should be wiped out.” During these years, the regime was able to make Western neighborhoods loyal to it, knowing that the reality has never been so.
That division reached its peak after the regime took control of the whole city. While thousands were transported by green buses to the diaspora, loyalists in Western neighborhoods were dancing for joy after their “victory,” which has created divisions within the population and irrevocable splits.
The regime then exploited the ruined rubble of the city to spread the image of “life in the face of the terrorists’ destruction” through photographs of “modern and liberated” young girls and boys in front of the Citadel of Aleppo and over the rubble. These indicated its willingness to erase the character of “Islamization” associated with the opposition factions and emphasized that it is a secular regime open to all components of society.
This division of community identity concerns not only residents and displaced people from eastern neighborhoods, but also those who remained in Aleppo. Today, parts of the eastern city neighborhoods are marginalized, particularly at the levels of service and finance, while western neighborhoods are experiencing relative improvement at more than one level.
All roads lead to Aleppo
While his city continues to witness the contradictions of death and life, destruction and “restoration,” geographical unity and social division, Mohammed Jokhdar adheres to his Aleppo identity and revolutionary orientation despite being 200 kilometers distant.
Mohammed lives today in the Turkish city of Mersin after he spent ten months in the western countryside of Aleppo, but he feels nostalgic for the memories in Aleppo.
“Everywhere there is a sign that points to Aleppo,” said Mohammed to Enab Baladi. He added: “In my memory, there are pictures of those who stayed there from our martyred friends. They were simple people who believed in our cause and were displaced with us without committing any sin.”
The scenario of Aleppo as a military scarecrow in opposition-held areas
The phrase “the situation in Aleppo is not as it was before” was linked to the military scene in Syria after the total control of the city by the Syrian regime, as Syrians were afraid that the departure of the opposition from Aleppo might be followed by their withdrawal from areas in other provinces.
Perhaps the most prominent effect of fear lies in the way the city has collapsed. The eastern neighborhoods witnessed a planned policy, which began with the imposition of a complete siege that was accompanied by starvation and shortages of essential materials for civilians and then targeted infrastructure and hospitals, to narrowing the geographical area.
On the ground, the map of control changed after the regime took complete control in mid-December 2016. The opposition factions lost vast areas of influence in Syria to al-Assad forces, especially in the western Damascus countryside, the central region of Homs and the surrounding areas.
Wadi al-Bardah and Ain al-Fijah was the first targets after Aleppo. Al-Assad forces began a battle in the area in conjunction with the departure of buses from eastern Aleppo. After a month-long aerial escalation, they managed to fully control the area, as part of an agreement to “deport” its fighters and their families to the north of Syria.
The regime also applied the same military policy to displace the citizens of western Damascus to the cities of Madaya and Zabadani, which the opposition lost following the “Five Cities Agreement” that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Ahrar al-Sham movement had the most prominent role in implementing.
The leader of Ahrar al-Sham and the former negotiator of the Eastern Aleppo neighborhoods, al-Farooq abu Bakr, considered that the collapse of Aleppo as vital in the history of the revolution, and pointed out that the military and political circumstances that followed were fundamentally different from what was previously.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Farooq said that the policy adopted in the city was applied to the areas recently lost by the opposition, through intense Russian bombardment, the use of “barbaric” force and scorched earth as well as forcing fighters and civilians to leave.
According to al-Farooq, the fighters have faced a major problem with the existence of civilians in the neighborhoods of Aleppo, which have been subject to heavy shelling in recent days, amid the absence of medical and civil defense centers.
Al-Waer neighborhood and Homs city collapsed a few months after the fall of the cities and towns of western Rif-Dimashq as al-Assad forces stepped up the aerial bombardment of the neighborhood last April and forced the factions of the region to accept the agreement that requires them to leave and head toward northern Aleppo countryside and Idlib province.
After they left the neighborhood, al-Assad forces moved to eastern Rif-Dimashq and reenacted Aleppo scenario in al-Qaboun and Barzeh. Al-Assad forces took control of these two strategic neighborhoods through the use of an exit agreement to the north of Syria. Therefore, they cut off the last supply lines of fighters and civilians in eastern Ghouta.
The map of control has witnessed a gradual shrinking of the opposition in favor of the regime and the militias supporting it. Analysts attributed this to the international agreements that accompanied the fragmentation of the opposition.
Al-Farooq stated that no country can impose its conditions on “a rebel carrying his gun.” He believed that whether international agreements existed or not, there are ground data that are very different from abroad.
Data depend on the strategy of the scorched earth, which is adopted by Russia that supports al-Assad regime, which leaves the opposition factions with little hope. The same thing happened in eastern Aleppo after the warehouses of ammunition and food were targeted.
Al-Farook criticized the tyrannical way in which the military factions operating in Aleppo, including Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Abu Amara Battalion, have fought Fastaqim Union and which drastically contributed to the collapse of the city.
The control of the city gave the regime a greater “military confidence” to restore the held areas in the western countryside of Aleppo, and to completely expel ISIS from it through a triple axes attack which reached southern Raqqa countryside and the western outskirts of Deir ez-Zor. The regime also took control of eastern countryside of Hama and Homs.
In politics … The strongest controls the field
The political situation did not differ from the military scene after the fall of the city. The circumstances presented a new political path called “ceasefire” in the Kazakhstani capital, which had different version the last of which was “Astana 7.” Astana conference did not reach any clear position in favor of the opposition forces. Instead, it was a political cover for the regime and its international supporters on the ground, as they continued their violations far away from the main items signed between the parties under international auspices.
Since December 2016 and with the collapse of Aleppo, the opposition has been prevented from using its most important negotiating cards and has turned into an internationally “weak” party in comparison to the first years of the revolution, because Western and regional countries cannot offer anything tangible to a party unless it relies on heavy field presence.
According to the Syrian oppositionist and former member of Astana delegation, Zakaria Mellafji, the period that followed the siege of Aleppo and the withdrawal of the military forces has witnessed a change, not only at the level of control map, but also at international and regional levels. The American position witnessed a clear withdrawal despite its weakness at the general level and the regional position happened to find other priorities.
The moral feeling of the opposition forces and the decision to participate and proceed in the course of “Astana” resulted into a new situation. In an interview with Enab Baladi, Mellafji considered that the international community had a great capacity, and if America wanted to hinder the fall of Aleppo in late 2016, it would have made it possible. However, the US withdrew in conjunction with the regional interests of the States that are influential in the Syrian file.
After the regime took control of the city, one concept reigned over the political scene. This concept provided that the bargaining power of the negotiating party should lean on field presence and its winning military cards.
According to the Syrian oppositionist, the city was controlled in a painful way, which involved burning, destroying, starving and removing people. It has been followed later by courses, with Russia as the main promoter, seeking to politically take control of Syria far away from militarism and ground conflict.
Astana course did not differ from Geneva negotiations, which reached its eighth version without any significant progress in favor of the opposition and also failed to stop the aerial bombardment of the Syrian cities, especially eastern Ghouta. The opposition also failed to open safe corridors to the civilians trapped there.
Meanwhile, Riyadh meetings, with the two versions, came out with a number of items and propositions after a series of resignations in the body of the Supreme Negotiating Committee, the main opposition party. The main actors did not implement or commit themselves to any of these resolutions.
On the other side, the Syrian regime has clung to a number of things, including the shift from discussing the fate of the regime’s president Bashar al-Assad and his regime and the issue of political transition, which he considers as a red line that cannot be definitively crossed or discussed.
Apart from all this, Russia has taken a number of steps in the last three months in order to take political negotiations to the Syrian National Dialogue Conference in Sochi to impose complete hegemony over Syria’s political future, according to its statements.
Limited Iranian-Russian support
Aleppo struggles to reach the reconstruction stage
“The destruction caused by the proxy war in Aleppo was huge. However, the most important achievement is the will of the Syrian people and their ability to withstand terrorism and demonstrate their courage to defend their country,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, the advisor to the Supreme Leader of Iran during his visit to Aleppo city, one year after al-Assad forces took complete control of it through the support of Iranian militia fighters.
However, the “courage and steadfastness” that Velayati spoke about, in addition to the praising, were not of a critical importance to the regime’s government. What matters most is the result of the visit which included contracts and agreements, some of which have been announced and others remained undeclared, in addition to promises to participate in the reconstruction of Aleppo, the city they are responsible for the destruction of 60% of its buildings and facilities.
Russia has also announced several projects that could be included into the reconstruction of Syria, but all of what the two sides have started so far do not exceed services, tourism or cultural investments.
Local “rehabilitation” efforts
Eastern Aleppo neighborhoods, which have been heavily destructed, take the form of huge, multi-storey residential buildings. Each floor consists of more than one house, given the population density in these areas.
As for the Ancient and archeological neighborhoods, they are historic buildings and Arabian houses scattered among stone alleys surrounding the Citadel.
The Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters did not take any steps to rebuild the destroyed buildings in the eastern neighborhoods, because a large part of these are completely destroyed and need to be rebuilt from scratch.
In a previous investigation, Enab Baladi monitored the individual “reconstruction” movement initiated by the merchants of Aleppo’s old markets since last March. Those areas and markets extend from Aleppo Citadel through al-Zurb and al-Saqtya markets to Bab Antakeya, and other areas around the Citadel and the Great Mosque.
United Nations Assessment Committee
The most destroyed neighborhoods of Aleppo are witnessing a large-scale monitoring and assessment of the magnitude of real estate damage. Aleppo Engineers Syndicate, which is led by Engineer Morris Esber, has been responsible for this move under the auspices of United Nations.
One of the participating engineers in the committee, who did not want to be named for security reasons, assured Enab Baladi that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) provided about 40 million Syrian Liras to the Engineers Syndicate, whose experts are now conducting extensive tours to assess damage of properties.
According to the source, reports of engineering experts about the buildings or properties with minor or medium damages are prepared and then submitted to the UN authority responsible for the commission, which in turn funds the restoration operations through local contractors.
Completely demolished properties are only referred to, without mentioning details and the authority that might rebuild them.
Industry and services … Iran’s share
Last September, the regime’s government announced the signing of 135 million Euros contracts with Tehran for the supply of special power generators in Aleppo province, which has suffered an almost complete absence of electricity since 2012.
Since the signing of contracts, the electricity situation has improved and electricity has become available in the houses at an average of 8-12 hours a day.
As for the water pump, it is distributed following a schedule to different neighborhoods at an average of once a week, which is considered by the residents as a good thing compared to continuous months of water cuts in the past.
With the activation of the second Iranian fiduciary line (including the supply of oil and industrial as well as agricultural production requirements), the Aleppo Chamber of Industry multiplied its contacts with Iranian industrialists to support local projects and establish Iranian investments.
The projects benefiting from the fiduciary line have not been announced, but the recent period has witnessed a slight movement of the production in the industrial city of Sheikh Najjar after it was suspended for a long time due to the government’s failure to finance repairing and restoration operations.
According to the statement of the director of the economy and foreign trade in Aleppo, Maan Nadman, to the official news agency SANA, the Ministry of Economy granted the industrial city of Aleppo 290 import permits and approval, worth 94.769 million Euros.
Russia is watching over tourism projects
Russia is moving quickly to take control of a number of tourism projects in Syria according to investment plans, away from reconstruction projects, which it avoided to directly talk about so far.
One of the projects which Russia adopted was the renovation of the Umayyad Mosque near the Citadel of Aleppo, as part of the tourism identity of the city of Aleppo. In November, it started allocating funds and running local archaeological workshops to assess damages and to study how to renovate the mosque without affecting its historical value.
Russia is expected to sign more investment and rehabilitation contracts in archaeological sites near the Citadel of Aleppo.
Reconstruction … “Hiding secrets”
The issue of the reconstruction of Aleppo is a cornerstone to rebuild Syria under al-Assad regime, as many observers believe, because it involves many messages or distant goals.
According to the opponents of the reconstruction operation, the issue does not stop at the rehabilitation of public facilities, the provision of houses for citizens and the provision of basic services, but it first exceeds this to trying to “obliterate the crimes.”
All the projects that Syrians hear of today, such as the metro or the commercial and residential towers require very deep foundations. This raises many opponents’ concerns about the possibility of exploiting these “architectural and engineering” conditions by the regime to get rid of the mass graves of its opponents, especially that the regime considers reconstruction as an “award” to its allies. Its president Bashar al-Assad has already announced that the reconstruction of Syria will be left for the “allies,” meaning that what they have already done together will bury it together, as it is circulated in the streets.
On the other hand, the regime’s senior traders do not hesitate to seize the opportunity to exploit the event and expand their wealth. According to Decree No. 66, they will be able to take the citizens’ “illegal” properties so as to invest them in providing housing that meets the legal requirements.
With the regime’s draining to a great extent in its battles to survive, its losses reached “crazy” figures according to the estimates issued by its own authorities, which means that Syria will inevitably resort to external support, according to what observers expect.
This is not only limited to the residential neighborhoods and the reciprocal war of accusations between the regime and the opposition in targeting civilians, but it exceeds this to reach a human heritage that belongs to all humanity.
According to activists, violations committed by the regime and the opposition forces against the ancient ruins of Aleppo have been documented, as places such as mosques, markets and historic public baths have tuned into battlegrounds between them.
This raises serious questions about the efforts of European countries and international organizations to support the regime in restoring old Aleppo, before opening any investigation to reveal the party responsible for its destruction and damage, as if it were a mere “manipulation” of the crime scene.
In August, UNESCO announced its intention to open a school for craftsmen in Aleppo, which would help it repair what military operations destroyed.
The very quick move the organization has taken after the regime took over the city has again raised the issue of indirect funding the international organizations are providing to al-Assad regime that has already been raised by journalists around the world.
The regime’s political and economic goals make the reconstruction matter a new “front,” in which it has to burn its enemies, which makes some opponents consider the “reconstruction” as a new war crime.
Between “playing” and “gloating”
Events the regime has launched in Aleppo
Right after taking control of the city of Aleppo, the Syrian regime has quickly launched a number of events. However, instead of organizing these events for the purpose of reconstruction revolving around providing the essentials that the affected city lacks, these activities were organized for “entertainment” purposes, which sparked anger among a large segment of the Syrian people.
On September, the Ministry of Tourism in the regime’s government launched the Aleppo Marathon, which quickly ignited internal wars with loyalists, because the government started organizing entertainment events before providing basic living conditions.
The ministry inaugurated a monument of “I Love Aleppo” in a week that was described as “the bloodiest in Syria’s history,” while Syrians’ houses were demolished over them, according to the reactions Enab Baladi monitored through social media websites.
Only few days earlier, at the end of March, the ministry inaugurated a monument in front of the Citadel of Aleppo named “Believe in Aleppo” as a step to overcome the war that affected the city, according to the ministry.
A report by the French expert, Terry Grandin, showed that 75% of the infrastructure of eastern Aleppo was destroyed, because of the bombing that aimed at retrieving these neighborhoods from the opposition’s control.
The regime’s media machine, most notably the SANA news agency, sought to turn any event in Aleppo into a mass rally ceremony, starting from the opening of a popular swimming pool, to a journey of 30 students and elders, to young singers and ceremonies that fall under the category of the anniversary of the foundation of the General Union of Peasants which took place days ago.
In the absence of these events, festivals have quickly emerged, such as the festival of “Mahabat Watan” (the love of the homeland), to revive Aleppo’s archeological markets, at a time when taxes have been imposed on the owners of Aleppo markets to rebuild what the regime forces had destroyed.
According to people interested in and followers of the events that Aleppo experienced over a year; these events were aimed at two goals. While the first is to show a positive image to the world about the “comfort” the regime-controlled cities are living in, the second is addressed to the Syrian interior, since the events are promoted as a “gloating” over the bloody defeat of the revolution.