After a six-day siege, Aleppo fell. As the invading forces and their foreign allies entered the bustling hub of northern Syria, a massacre followed. Nearly all Muslims and Jews were killed, and most women and children were sold into slavery. The Grand Mosque of Aleppo, built in the first century of Islam, was burnt down.
These are not events of the past few days, but those of some 756 years ago. It was in January 1260 when the Mongol forces, led by the infamous Hulagu Khan and his crusading Armenian and Frankish allies, overran the great Aleppo — then, as now, one of the main metropolises of the Muslim world, and before the current war, Syria's largest city.
Is it pure, unforgivable sensationalism to compare the 2016 destruction of Aleppo with the events of the most violent century of the past millennium? I don’t think so.
Over the last few days, the Syrian Army of Bashar al-Assad, aided by the sectarian Shia militias of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese origin, conquered Eastern Aleppo, the section of the city that had been held by the opposition. The conquerors’ actions are not dissimilar to those horrendous stories we read in the books of history. Early reports show that invading forces summarily executed dozens of civilians. Part of that glorious grand mosque had actually survived the Mongol invasions. Its beautiful minaret, built in 1090, was destroyed only three years ago.
More importantly, while Aleppo survived the siege of 1260 to remain one of the greatest centers of the Muslim world, it is not clear that it will ever emerge from the pyrrhic victory of Assad in 2016. The poignant words of a doctor from east Aleppo, quoted in British parliament on December 14, are most telling: “Remember there was once a city called Aleppo that the world erased from history”.
As it was pointed out by some MPs, It seemed like a bitter irony that the UK's parliament was discussing the Aleppo situation in an “emergency session”. As if the fall of Aleppo had appeared from nowhere. The cruel tragedy of the Syrian war, and its Aleppo battleground, has been its very predictability.
Ever since he was confronted with a popular uprising that demanded the fall of his tyrannical regime, Bashar al-Assad showed utter disregard for the lives of his own people. The Syrian war has many actors, most of them unpalatable from any decent person’s point of view, but Assad has killed the vast majority of its half a million casualties.
The Tragic Aftermath of a Call for Freedom
Aleppo’s eastern and central parts fell to the rebel forces in 2012, after the popular uprising had already turned into a civil war in the aftermath of Assad’s brutal crackdown. Initially, the rebels were led by the deserters of the Syrian Arab Army who had gathered under the ad-hoc banner of the Free Syrian Army. They called for freedom and associated themselves with the Arab Spring. From early on, the ruling dynasty of Qatar used its main regional client, the forces of the Muslim Brotherhood, to aid the rebels. Military confrontations have their own logic (any support is welcome when you are faced with barrel bombs) and thus the tragic aftermath: the civic forces that had risen in a multi-cultural, multi-confessional city were now led by Islamists who turned more and more hardline as their patron changed from Qatar to Saudi Arabia — and, then it was the turn of the powerful forces of Al Qaeda’s local franchise to enter the fray, using the instability of neighboring Iraq as a launch pad.
There is no question that Eastern Aleppo was held by unsavory forces for much of the last four years. But what makes the invasion by Assad and allies horrendous is not their political vision but their military methods. Airstrikes and barrel bombs. Cluster munitions and artillery. Long before the sectarian ground forces of Assad and allies entered the dominantly Sunni areas surrounding Aleppo (with predictable consequences), it was and has been the indiscriminate bombardment that has destroyed the city and much of its populace.
Any hope that the fall of Aleppo could be “at least” a conclusion to the civil war was also dashed over the weekend. As the forces of Assad and his foreign allies concentrated on Aleppo, the ancient city of Palmyra, fell back to ISIS, from which Assad and the Russians had won it only nine months ago with much fanfare. This was ISIS’s most significant military victory in the last 18 months.
The anti-ISIS grassroots Palmyra Coordination Committee (PCC) had the harshest of words for those Russian, Iranian and Afghan militias that abandoned the city to ISIS: “These dogs were the first deserters of the city, leaving the rest of the poor to an unknown fate.”
Despite being in control of the string of the four biggest cities in Syria (Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama), Assad is far from having “won’ this war”. The northwestern province of Idlib continues to be run by Turkish-backed Islamist forces, as are key Damascus suburbs. On the southern front, close to the border with Jordan, the province of Daara is still held by the opposition. Thousands of fighters remain, split into many local groups, with the majority of them being hardline Islamists. Then there are the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control major areas in the north and a small part of the Aleppo province. Backed by the United States and heavily opposed by Turkey and the Syrian opposition, the SDF are one of the only genuinely progressive forces involved in the war. Yet they are very nervous about their future as their vision of autonomy for northern Syria is rejected by all major actors, domestic and foreign. How long will Turkey tolerate their holding of cities close to its border? How long will Assad let them jointly hold northeastern Qamishli?
Add to the mix the unpredictable policies of President-Elect Donald Trump and Syria’s fate will become more unclear.
For now, the main facts are stark: A cruel tyrant with the blood of thousands on his hand controls the majority of the population; assortments of hardline Islamists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, roam around the country and hold major provincial centers; and regional powers — chiefly Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — cynically use their pawns without working toward a plan to end the war and re-unify Syria.
Historical analogies have their limit; but Syria has hardly seen worse days.