Aleppo is in ruins; years of war has shattered its streets and plazas. But the destruction of this ancient city represents not only a tragedy for Syria, but also a loss and failure for all humanity. After all, Aleppo was one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful cities. In fact, some say that civilization began here…
In this post-truth age of “fake news” and relentless propaganda, it can be hard to get a sense of reality on the ground. So between geopolitical power plays and wanton acts of violence, there seem to be few heroes in the story of Syria. However, villains and victims abound.
These images of Aleppo, though, do cast light on the destructive legacy of the Syrian conflict. Indeed, the images offer a haunting visual record of the city before and after it was ruined. Fortunately, those working at the Olympia Restaurant in Aleppo assembled and shared the pictures on Facebook.
The historical roots of the Syrian Civil War can be found in the regional unrest of the Arab Spring. In 2011 change swept through the region; mass uprisings occurred in Tunisia, Algeria, Oman and Egypt. However, when protesters in Syria called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, he responded with violence.
Yet the ensuing civil war has been anything but black-and-white. For example, belligerents include a host of factions, both moderate and extreme. Among them are the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army, Sunni rebel groups, Kurdish separatists, ISIS and other Jihadis. Then there’s the foreign powers: Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States, to name a few.
The Battle of Aleppo began on July 19, 2012. At that time, it was the largest city in Syria and home to around two million people. Sadly, the battle raged for more than four years, making it one of the longest sieges in contemporary warfare. Plus, the scale of destruction earned it the nickname “Mother of Battles.”
At the outset, the city itself largely supported the Assad regime. The rebels, meanwhile, initially comprised of less than 7,000 fighters, who came from surrounding villages. As the conflict wore on, however, Jihadists from the wider Muslim world increasingly replaced the rebels. Of course, looting and in-fighting soon became common.
So, for four years, rebels and government forces engaged in a kind of tug-of-war, each gaining and losing territory. However, 2016 marked a decisive turning point. With rebel supply routes severed, the Syrian Army retook control of approximately 98 percent of the rebel-held eastern half of the city.
In fact, Assad claimed victory over the city on December 22, 2016, after evacuating the last of the remaining rebels and Jihadists. He acknowledged that the end of the power struggle in Aleppo came in large part due to Russia’s air raids along with the Iranian-funded and Lebanese-led militias, which oversaw thousands of foreign fighters.
However, the immense human cost of the battle means Assad’s triumph is something of a Pyrrhic victory. After all, an estimated 30,000 people died in the Battle of Aleppo. This is equivalent to some 10 percent of all casualties in the civil war. The main causes of death were warplane bombardment, shelling, field execution, shooting and explosions.
In what may be seen as a war crime, Syrian and Russian war planes destroyed all of the Aleppo’s hospitals when they bombarded the city. Their targets apparently included Al Kindi hospital, pictured here. Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported gross human rights violations, such as the indiscriminate killing of civilians, forced disappearances and torture.
The Syrian and Russian aviation forces alleged use of barrel bombs and cluster bombs proved particularly controversial. In fact, aerial bombardments killed an estimated 3,000 civilians in the first five months of 2015. The rebels also killed and maimed civilians through shelling, but to a lesser extent than the government.
Meanwhile, the battle had a devastating impact on Aleppo’s cultural and historical heritage. Indeed, a satellite survey of some 210 historical and archaeological structures revealed that 32 had sustained possible damage, 33 moderate damage and 48 severe damage. Plus, the war has destroyed 22 structures entirely.
In fact, Aleppo is the so-called cradle of civilization. Yes, inhabited since the 6th millennium BCE, the city has an exceptionally long and fascinating history. For instance, its architecture reflected Hittite, Assyrian, Akkadian, Greek, Roman and Persian cultural influences, among others.
Perhaps no other structure best reflects the city’s diverse heritage than the massive Aleppo citadel. Built from limestone over several centuries, it is thought to be one of the world’s largest and oldest castles. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, it was sadly damaged during Syrian army shelling in 2014.
Pictured here, Aleppo’s Great Umayyad Mosque also suffered serious battle damage. Not only has its courtyard and interior been devastated, but its 11th-century minaret has also collapsed. Sadly, the destruction is incomprehensible for a city that has been a major cultural center since the 8th century.
However, the city’s golden age took place from the 12th to the 15th centuries. As a major stop on the Silk Road, Aleppo flourished as an international trade center, its fabulous souqs stocking untold treasures from the East. Today, the battle has wiped out some 1,500 out of 1,600 of the city’s souq shops.
The loss of the city’s cultural heritage will certainly have an impact on future tourism opportunities after the war. Once upon a time, tourism contributed 12 percent to Syria’s national income. Moreover, since the city represents global patrimony, some commentators see its destruction as an international failure.
“It took 4,000 years to build Aleppo, hundreds of generations, yet one generation managed to tear it down in four years,” stated Jan Egeland in November 2016, Special Advisor to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria. “Aleppo, for three thousand years, gave to the world civilization and world civilization was not there to assist the people of Aleppo when they needed us the most.”
No, the destruction of the cradle of civilization does not bode well. If, as Egeland said, the work of hundreds of generations can be wiped out in the blink of an eye, where does that leave the rest of us?