Middle East

Aleppo: Is besieged Syrian city facing last gasp?

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Man walks through rubble in Aleppo (19/07/16) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Aleppo has been divided between the rebel-held east and government-west for four years

Syria's civil war came late to Aleppo. It was July 2012. But after four years of bitter bloodshed between its government-held west and rebel east, the beating heart of Syria's commercial and industrial capital has entered cardiac arrest.

The Castello Road, last rebel artery north towards the Turkish border, has been choked off by President Bashar al-Assad's forces backed by Russian air support, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian militia. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last month declared Syria's "real, strategic, greatest battle is in Aleppo and the surrounding area."

Aleppo is no stranger to sieges - there have been at least eight recorded across its turbulent history. But this one promises to last longer than all the others put together.

Many of the 300,000-plus unfortunates trapped inside face the prospect of slowly starving as extortionately-priced food, medicine and fuel supplies are systematically blocked.

Some will die before then from the Syrian and Russian government barrel-bombing. Latterly supplemented by incendiary cluster munitions burning to 2,500C, the bombers are steadily eradicating schools, hospitals and markets from above with impunity.

Months of such punishment lie ahead for Aleppo, as the stage is prepared for the Syrian endgame - a game the rebels look doomed to lose, along with their entire anti-Assad revolution.

Broken promises

Aleppo's dramas have gone largely unnoticed by Europe and the West, preoccupied with their own dramas closer to home - the Nice attacks, the US shootings, the Turkish coup attempt, the Brexit fallout.

Last week, a report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) accusing the Syrian government of failing to declare its stocks of sarin and other illegal warfare agents for the Russian-brokered 2013 chemical weapons deal, raised barely a murmur in the Western media.

Syria's moderate opposition groups have suffered years of broken promises of support from the international community.

Myriad proclamations of "Assad must go" were followed by handwringing from the sidelines.

But even the rebels were not prepared for the latest twist that took place in Moscow a few days ago; when John Kerry agreed with Sergei Lavrov to coordinate US-Russian military strikes on the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Syria's al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nusra's aim has always been to set up Islamic emirates inside Syria, an ideology at odds with Syria's Free Syrian Army (FSA)-linked moderate opposition, yet the two have often found themselves allies of convenience in the fight against President Assad.

The dynamics of the battlefield are such that, were Nusra to withdraw their military support or be targeted, the FSA rebels would be left even more vulnerable to attack.

North of Aleppo they are already battling on three fronts - against IS, the Kurds and the Syrian government.

In Aleppo itself there is no IS presence and very little Nusra either - yet civilians on the ground do not trust the bombs will stop simply because of the new US-Russian deal.

Destabilising factors

In Turkey the climate is also changing. Heavily destabilised by a series of IS and Kurdish PKK attacks, the subsequent collapse of its tourist industry, the absorption since 2011 of three million Syrian refugees and then by last week's coup attempt, even Turkey, once solidly pro-rebel, is talking of future "normalising" of relations.

Like Europe and the US, it has too many problems at home to worry about Syria.

But therein lies the biggest danger.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Government forces have intensified their campaign in Aleppo in recent weeks

The international community is forgetting that all these destabilising factors - the surge of refugees, the exporting of IS terrorism and Jabhat al-Nusra extremism - have been incubating undisturbed inside Syria for the last five years.

Millions of Syrian civilians have fled and many more will inevitably follow.

Aleppo is no stranger to refugees. Across the centuries it welcomed many, as has Syria. Some were Christians escaping persecution from fellow Christians in Europe.

The city has long been multi-cultural, a complex mix of Kurds, Iranians, Turkmen, Armenians and Circassians overlaid on an Arab base in which multi-denominational churches and mosques still share the space.

But while the West obsesses about fighting IS and Nusra, this colourful tapestry of Aleppo's innately tolerant population is slowly being shredded.

Diana Darke graduated in Arabic from Oxford University and is the author of several books on Middle East society, including My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016). Follow her on Twitter.

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