Aleppo: A tale of three cities

December 27, 2016
Regime forces in eastern Aleppo.

Aleppo and the humanitarian crises has dominated international media in the past weeks. News articles with exceedingly dire headlines have increasingly dominated and many heart wrenching images have emerged of Regime brutality. 

Things, however, came to a head in recent viral video of a woman called Eva Bartlett, a Canadian Journalist and ‘human rights activist’ speaking about the current situation in Aleppo. Bartlett states that she has been to Syria, including the war torn areas of Aleppo 4 times (how she managed to do this is soon to be answered) and that in her ‘experience’ the people of Aleppo and Syria are completely and entirely behind Assad and want him back in power. She was invited to this trip along with other journalists by an Aleppo MP. Her speech at the UN meeting is seen as representing the ‘truth’ and she is applauded for being a voice of reason against an international media which is increasingly being seen demonstrating bias against Assad and advocating ‘regime change’, raising uncomfortable feelings reminiscent of the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. In fact, the reality is, by virtue of her biased one sided view she herself is part of the same media propaganda machine which all work together against the needs and interests of the suffering civilians of Aleppo. The fact that Bartlett has a regular blog on Russia Today’s could also provide a strong hint.

But, to understand what is going on now in Aleppo we need to understand how the city is currently divided. Aleppo is sectioned off into two parts: the regime held areas- which is the area where there are still discos and restaurants and beautiful parks, and where the people are often pictured cheering loudly for Assad as they appear well dressed, well fed and well-kept (and therefore evidence of the Regime’s ‘goodness’ towards its people)- and the rebel held areas- which are the bombarded and destroyed areas that we often see images of. Within this area, or rather more precisely somewhere in between is the Kurdish held area of Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood. I am assuming that Eva had access to the first part of Aleppo. As indicated further by her capacity to travel to one of the most dangerous areas in Syria not once but four times safely. Of course this is not assuming that there aren’t people supporting Assad in the war shattered parts of Aleppo, or across Syria, but her very biased view reflects a suspicious reliance on one aspect of the story.

But to understand who is committing what atrocities and what is going on we need to actually go back a little to understand some context and historical and military events which have happened:

A big point of contention between the Rebels and the Regime was the two neighbourhoods of Nubl and Zahraa- Shi’ite (Alewite towns) in north western Aleppo- who were under direct pressure by the Rebels who were attempting to surround and massacre the two towns. Identity politics is very important as the Regime is largely made up of Alewite Shi’ites, while the Rebels are Sunni Muslims. The Rebel’s direct attacks against Shi’ite towns and civilians resulted in the Regime retaliating in defence of its ‘people’.

One important survival mechanism Nubl and Zahraa used was the passage to Afrin canton. The Kurds (YPG-YPJ) showed generosity and provided the towns with food and supplies allowing them to survive, until the operation to ‘free’ Aleppo by the regime forces was launched. Angered by the YPG’s support for Zahraa and Nubl neighbourhoods the Rebels retaliated by used chemical weapons repeatedly against the Kurdish civilians of Sheikh Maqsoud. They viewed the efforts of the YPG to provide aid and humanitarian supplies to these two strategic neighbourhoods as evidence of the Kurds collaborating with the Assad regime. As a result of this view the rebels have repeatedly used mortar attacks since 2015 against Sheikh Maqsoud and have killed a large number of people, as they did on other neighbourhoods in Aleppo. Horrific pictures of the killings and the injured exist as evidence of this, along with images of what appears to be chemical weapons use by the Rebels have come out of Sheikh Maqsoud. Specifically, the rebels were using handmade and extremely destructive missiles called Hell Canons repeatedly on Sheikh Maqsoud. Naturally, the YPG was fighting back against these attacks. Yet all images by international media silences the plight of Sheikh Maqsoud and often reduces the conflict to Rebel vs. Regime conflict erasing the immense struggle and humanity of the people and the YPG forces in Sheikh Maqsoud. It also erases the Kurdish issue in this process and further reduces the conflict to an inter-Arab issue.

Likewise, the Regime has also attacked the Kurds, recently in Hasake and previously violent clashes have occurred in Qamishlou city. In Aleppo, the Regime retaliated against the Kurds by using barrel bombs in Sheikh Maqsoud.

In the initial stages of the Regime operation the Assad forces managed to surround the Rebels, who in turn manage to break the siege by using suicide vehicles to create a pathway out of the siege. When this initial siege broke, the Russians, with the help of Iran- more specifically Hizbollah- along with other forces such as Palestinian al Quds Brigade become increasingly more involved- and more brutal- in breaking the Rebels. To complicate matters more, in the early stages (in late 2015) of the operation to retake Aleppo a top Iranian commander by the name of Hossein Hamedani, supposedly defending Shi’ite holy places in Aleppo was killed by the rebels. He was the first top level commander to be killed since the 1979 Iranian revolution on a foreign mission and resulted in Iran intensifying its push to clear Aleppo from the Sunni (Salafist) rebels at any cost adding more brutality to the mix. In turn the Rebels have received supported from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes, as well as Western countries including the U.S. Another siege is forced by the Regime, Iran and Russia and this is the one that takes over Aleppo, and where the current situation is at the moment.

So who are the so called 'moderate' Rebels often labelled as the Syrian Opposition? They include various Salafist and Islamist groups, most of whom are foreign fighters and groups, including Nuradin Zanki group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously al-Nusra), along with Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Nuradin Zanki were the ones who on July 2016 publically beheaded Abdullah Issa, the 12 year old regime supporting boy- a crime that they filmed and gleefully spread. Ahrar al Sham is another Islamist group who was operating in eastern Aleppo who wishes to impose Sharia law in Syria and globally. Yet, largely because ISIS still generates so much Media attention in relation to its brutality, the brutality and violence of some of these Rebels has gone largely unnoticed or undocumented.

Of course it is important to note that the Syrian Opposition does not consist solely of these Rebels. Other groups such as the Syrian National Council (SNC) or the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC) among others are attempting to produce an alternative to the Rebel led opposition.

As a result of the take-over of Aleppo by the Regime, Assad’s forces have engaged in significant brutality towards the Rebels and supporters, most of whom are currently fleeing the city. From what we know there are atrocities but to what degree and who is being targeted is the key question here. What we can deduce is that the atrocities on the part of the government is on par with those demonstrated towards the civilians of Sheikh Maqsoud, and other neighbourhoods in Aleppo with the exception that there is no need to use mortars and missiles anymore because the Rebel areas are now taken over so the Regime can go house to house.

The reality is, the international media is showing that the Regime is engaging in massacres and killing of civilians. These civilians are often, though not always, the ones allied with the Rebel groups. Part of the big problem with the international media is that it is perpetuating one side of the story- that the Assad regime is brutal and killing innocent civilians- which it is. The other side that isn’t being told is that the Rebels (though not necessarily the Syrian Opposition because remember there are multiple different groups and we cannot assume homogeneity here and some of them are wanting democratic change) were just as brutal as the Assad regime. On December 18, the Rebels burned down 6 buses en route to evacuate civilians from the government held Shi’ite villages of Foah and Kefraya. A day later, those very same Rebels were being safely ferried out of Aleppo themselves.

One of the main perpetrators of the crimes in Aleppo is the International media who are siding with the “moderate” rebel groups. This siding is through the selective representation of Assad’s brutality, which in turn promotes the notion that the Rebels are therefore a viable alternative.

The reality is massacres have been happening from the very beginning by both the Regime and the Rebels. Assad was massacring people and the rebels were also massacring people. Thousands of civilians have been killed, injured, or displaced. The only time the Regime and the Rebels agreed was when they were attacking the Kurds in Sheikh Maqsoud for providing humanitarian aid and security indiscriminately to civilians irrespective of the civilian’s loyalty or affiliations.

Further, some of the prominent activists, though not all, were Rebel sympathisers who as a result of the recapture of Aleppo by the regime became extremely worried about their safety. A good example of the problematic nature of the ‘Activists’ calling for help is the little 7 year old girl called Bana al-Abed who was tweeting from Aleppo. Her family was flown by helicopter to meet Turkey’s Erdogan and quite literally embraced by him, throwing significant scepticism into the situation.

Another example is the photographer who took the image of the little five year old boy Omran Daqneesh who was injured in the Rebel held areas of Aleppo, and whose image in the waiting ambulance went viral signifying regime brutality. The image was taken by a Nuradin Zanki affiliated/sympathising photographer, Mahmoud Raslan, who was also taking sympathetic images of Nuradin Zanki. The point isn’t that the image of the injured little boy was a lie. The point is that the same violent, child beheading murderers were taking images of Regime crimes- crimes that they themselves were committing in the other neighbourhoods on the people of Aleppo.  Clearly, only one side of the brutality is being selectively presented. Had the not so “moderate” Rebels taken over all of Aleppo they would be engaging in equal level of violence towards the pro-Assad civilians. 

At the same time though different military forces such as Hizbollah and other Iran allied groups and the Regime forces are taking revenge from the Sunni rebels and the civilians allied with them. They are killing the fighters and civilians often indiscriminately, or accidently. Many have also vanished.

In the middle of all of this are two groups: the civilians who are not affiliated with the Regime and the Rebels who are suffering and the neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud. As a result of the clashes and brutality of both the Regime and the Rebels, by December 1st 10,000 Arab civilians were documented fleeing to the Shiekh Maqsud areas. Since then thousands more have entered the area. Water, medicine, and other basic supplies are being supplied to them via the corridor to Efrin by SDF who are on the outskirts of Aleppo directly to the YPG in Shiekh Maqsud. Blanket media silence about the Arabs seeking refuge in Sheikh Maqsoud continues.

Some civilians have also gone to regime controlled areas. The majority are seen wanting to leave Aleppo and are being taken out by buses. There are many more civilians on the ground who are providing support to other injured and displaced civilians. But Aleppo is a small example of what is happening and has been happing in Syria as a result of the Regime and the equally violent Rebels. The reality is neither are appropriate alternatives.

Further, what is happening in Aleppo pales in comparison when the Regime turns its attention to neighbouring Idlib city, the last stronghold of the Rebels. Aleppo was difficult to take over, but Idlib is going to be easier even though it shares a corridor direct to Turkey and where al-Qaeda along with the Rebels are well situated. If Regime and allied forces to keep their momentum and fight the rebels with the same tempo they could be easily destroyed in Idlib. The oncoming US administration has also indicated it will sever ties with the rebels. Trump has stated that they will work with Russia over the Syrian situation. So the rebels are in trouble. At the same time Russia is the key player engaging in a proxy war in Syria and they are committed to destroying the Rebels. The rebels are sharing a large border with Turkey who is determined to stay in Syria.

Once the Rebels have been destroyed the Regime has clearly stated that it will then come after the Kurds, who in turn are busy fighting and clearing the country of ISIS terrorists. In turn for receiving support from Russia, the Regime has promised the large oil wells in Rimelan area in Cezire Canton in Rojava.

One thing is for sure, more massacres are about to come in Idlib. The situation will become even more complicated, if once the Rebels are elimited the Kurds and the Regime - supported by Iran, American ineptness and Russian greed and Turkey's desire to end the Kurds once and for all - face off.

[This article first appeared in Kurdish Question.]

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