By Aron Lund
12 April 2017
The fall of the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last December marked a turning point in the war and ended a half-year long siege. Four months later, the city is only just emerging from years of brutal infighting and the country is still trapped in a major conflict – but a new normality is slowly settling over Syria’s second city.
Originally captured by rebel fighters in July 2012, the eastern half of Aleppo suffered years of shelling and air strikes. According to one Syrian expert, some 70 to 80 percent of the material destruction in Aleppo is concentrated in its eastern neighbourhoods.
After December, the former rebel enclave was virtually empty of people. Three quarters of its civilian population had been displaced into western Aleppo by the fighting, and the remaining quarter was controversially bussed out alongside opposition fighters to the rebel-held countryside west of the city.
Now the eastern half of the city is slowly being repopulated as returnees trickle back, despite extraordinary destruction, dire economic conditions, and an apparent lack of security. While outside observers tend to view the events in eastern Aleppo solely through a political lens, informed by the terrifying violence that led to the fall of the rebel enclave, many of those returning seem to be adapting pragmatically to their difficult circumstances, struggling to make life work under Bashar al-Assad just as they did under his enemies.
The circumstances of the fall of the opposition enclave remain disputed. The governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran all flatly deny the brutal nature of their re-conquest of eastern Aleppo, but rather than welcoming an investigation of what happened, Syrian authorities have continued to prevent independent access to the city by journalists and human rights researchers.
The Syrian opposition and anti-Assad nations like the United States have, for their part, indulged in over-the-top rhetoric about Aleppo as a successor to the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. In contrast to the hundreds of thousands of dead in Rwanda, UN researchers received information on 82 murdered civilians as pro-government troops secured the eastern neighbourhoods in December 2016.
If that number seems surprisingly low considering the intensity of the preceding battle, it may be because those most involved with the uprising were already gone when the government took control – they had been bussed out among the 36,000 who left for the rebel-controlled countryside following a deal between the opposition and the government on 13 December.
The 13 December agreement prevented a final battle in overcrowded residential neighbourhoods, reduced the number of people at risk of retribution from al-Assad’s government, and limited subsequent friction with the authorities in Aleppo, although those 36,000 are now trapped in another conflict zone. Yet it remains deeply controversial. The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has declared that the agreement amounted to the war crime of forced displacement, saying civilians were never given a choice over whether to stay or to leave. But perversely, it also seems to have prevented a much bloodier outcome.
Arrests, Looting, And Corruption
Since December, the situation for civilians inside Aleppo is difficult to discern, with the facts scrambled and distorted by propaganda from both sides.
So far, al-Assad’s repressive rule appears to be re-establishing itself without any major flare-ups or mass killings. A senior military source in Aleppo told IRIN in December that although those guilty of “severe criminality” would be tried and judged, “the state is open to these people returning to their normal lives.”
Little is known about the treatment of civilians since then. The director of the opposition-friendly Syrian Network for Human Rights, Fadel Abdul-Ghany, told IRIN that his organisation is aware of 891 arrests of civilians after the regime re-conquest, but he added that most were men between 19 and 40 who were wanted for compulsory military service rather than for political reasons.
However, Abdul-Ghany said the government has continued its “systematic policy in arresting civilians and looting their properties under the pretext of dealing with armed opposition factions,” while noting the “extraordinary challenges and difficulties” in collecting information on government abuses.
Arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, and looting by pro-regime militias do seem to be a major problem in Aleppo, especially in the eastern parts, to the extent that the government itself has acknowledged the threat to public order. In March, a statement attributed to the head of security in Aleppo, Lieutenant-General Zaid Ali Saleh, was circulated online, in which he ordered a pro-Assad militia out of the city due to “acts of theft, plunder, stealing and attacks on public property, the freedoms of citizens and their private property.”
Russia has deployed military police to eastern Aleppo to monitor the fraught situation, clear unexploded ammunition, train local forces, and patrol the area alongside them, but it is unclear how effective this has been.
Aleppo Governor Hussein Diab previously told the pro-government daily al-Watan that local authorities would increase their patrols in recaptured neighbourhoods and arrest militia members involved in looting. The governor has also made sure to appear in local media in connection with crackdowns on criminal gangs, presumably to demonstrate that he takes the issue seriously.
However, the militias have powerful patrons in the country’s ruling family and among its allies, and the profits from stolen property and bribes collected at checkpoints tend to trickle upwards, which makes it dangerous for local officials to interfere in their affairs. The government also depends on these militias to deal with its security challenges. Thus, instead of trying to confront the problem, al-Assad’s regime has responded in typical fashion: by censoring criticism.
In March, for example, the Ministry of Information banned the popular pro-government reporter Reda al-Pasha, who works for an Assad-friendly Lebanese television station, from working in Syria. While no reason was given, it is widely assumed to have been punishment for his public criticism of militia leaders such as Ali Shelli, a notorious Air Force Intelligence-backed commander linked to looting, kidnappings, and killings.
(Representatives of the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian governments did not respond to requests for comment on the issues raised in this article.)
How Many Were Displaced?
As some life begins to return to the city, the question remains just how many people were forced to flee the opposition-controlled enclave – an issue much debated during the months of siege.
Before the war, eastern Aleppo, which included some of the city’s poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods, may have had as many as 1.5 million inhabitants. The number began to drop off after the rebel assault in the summer of 2012, which led to widespread fighting, shelling, and collapsing living conditions.
This escalated into a panicked mass flight when the Syrian air force stepped up its attacks on the city in December 2013, in a campaign that seemed deliberately intended to push civilians out of rebel-controlled areas. The effects were dramatic: as many as half a million people were reported to have fled their homes in only a few weeks in early 2014.
Although displaced civilians moved back and forth, the number of inhabitants in the rebel-held area continued to shrink steadily as increasing numbers sought shelter in western Aleppo, in the rebel-held countryside, or across the Turkish border. Additional tens or hundreds of thousands fled after Russia’s intervention on the side of al-Assad in September 2015 (which again intensified the aerial bombardment) and to avoid being trapped when pro-regime forces began to encircle the city in the spring and summer of 2016.
How many remained in eastern Aleppo during the siege that began in mid- 2016 is hotly debated. Opposition sources spoke of as many as 325,000 inhabitants, while pro-government voices gave figures in the 40,000 to 200,000 range. The UN, which was prevented by the government from entering east Aleppo, estimated the besieged population at between 250,000 and 275,000 people*.
When al-Assad’s army finally retook what remained of the enclave in December, the number of inhabitants was substantially lower. In January of this year, some 121,000 recently displaced civilians were registered as living inside the city of Aleppo, then fully under government control. An additional 36,000 had by then been given safe passage to opposition-controlled northwestern Syria, per the 13 December agreement. This adds up to around 157,000 people, or approximately 10-15 percent of the population in western Aleppo during the same period.
How Many People Are In Aleppo Now?
The Syrian government has consistently framed its campaign in Aleppo as an attempt to restore normality for the large majority of inhabitants. “Liberation from terror groups, especially al-Nusra, will allow the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons to return to east Aleppo,” a Damascus-based source close to the government told IRIN in December, adding that a victory for the loyalist side would “hopefully put the city back on track to resume its economic and industrial activity, and be a safe haven for its more than two million inhabitants.”
Since then, the return of displaced people has been slow and the population of the eastern neighbourhoods remains smaller than before the siege, but it is increasing. According to a UN report from March 2017 that is based on figures collected by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and government-approved charities, approximately 141,000 individuals have now been registered as living in the formerly rebel-held area, up from 56,000 in January. These figures seem to include both people displaced during the extreme violence of November-December 2016 and some who fled between 2012 and 2016.
Those who move back to eastern Aleppo often find their old lives shattered, Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told IRIN. “Many returned to homes that either were partially or completely damaged and to neighbourhoods without water or electricity to light main streets and supply social services, such as hospitals and schools.”
According to Tom, unexploded ammunition and landmines have killed and wounded dozens of returning civilians, many of whom are children.
The conflict has taken an especially heavy toll on the adult male population, with several tens of thousands of Aleppan men killed or maimed in the past six years. Many more have been drafted by the government or are fighting in the ranks of one of Syria’s many militias, for or against al-Assad’s regime. Still others have fled to avoid conscription or to escape political persecution. Today, nearly two in five families in eastern Aleppo are female-headed.
Footing The Bill For Reconstruction
The future of the city and it’s civilians may depend on what sort of reconstruction ends up taking place, but the cost to rebuild Aleppo has been estimated at $35-40 billion, far beyond the means of al-Assad’s cash-strapped government. His allies have provided little aid for reconstruction, and traditionally generous donor nations in the anti-regime camp remain unwilling to subsidise stabilisation and rebuilding efforts if that also means subsidising the al-Assad regime, which, realistically, it does.
The government has tried to put on a brave face. In early April, the Aleppo branch of the ruling Baath Party held its annual congress, with much of the Syrian cabinet in attendance.
Reconstruction seems to have dominated the agenda as ministers rattled off statistics to prove that they are working to revive the city. Minister of Public Works and Housing Hussein Arnous vowed to build 6,000 new homes and Health Minister Nizar Yaziji said he is reopening health centres in eastern Aleppo. The minister of electricity promised electricity; the minister of water resources promised water; and, not to be outdone, the minister of tourism promised tourist attractions.
While some believe eastern Aleppo may soon become the next location for private real estate investment, much of the work for which al-Assad and his allies take credit appears to have been carried out by the UN and other aid organs. According to the latest figures, the UN has already allocated $19 million to clear rubble, construct emergency shelters, and provide food, water, sanitation, education, and other civilian needs.
A New Normal?
While activists and politicians debate the numbers from afar, conditions in eastern Aleppo remain murky and open to conflicting interpretations. Syrians on the ground may view the situation differently from foreign observers, in so far as an end to hostilities offers them a measure of personal and economic security, which is understandably the first priority for many civilians.
Until the rebel capitulation in December, life in eastern Aleppo was a bloodbath, with constant bombing and attacks on schools and hospitals. Thus far, the aftermath to that battle is no Srebrenica and certainly no Rwanda, but something more akin to a brutalised and washed-out version of pre-war Syria. It will be a future filled with difficulties and problems – but also a familiar one.
“People lived with Bashar al-Assad for 10 years before this began,” a prominent pro-regime figure told IRIN in November with a gloomy shrug. “They know what it was like. Life was better for them then than it is now.”
Yet, with war still raging around the city, the deeper sense of normality that peace and the passage of time may offer must seem very far away. In Aleppo, neighbour has fought neighbour, and the city will be saddled with emotional trauma and unresolved grievances for decades to come. Though former enemies must now learn to live side by side again, the government’s rhetoric about reconciliation seems to be little more than a flimsy cover for continued rule by force. In the end, it will likely be up to Syria’s divided, brutalized, and politically powerless civil society to try to overcome the bitter legacy of war, and there is no overstating the difficulty.
* Brita Hagi Hassan, an opposition leader who headed the Aleppo City Local Council until February 2017, told IRIN that the number of inhabitants had dwindled to 325,000 by July 2016, when roads out of eastern Aleppo were cut. A UN official put forth a figure of 300,000 in July 2016 but most UN bodies subsequently estimated eastern Aleppo’s population at 250,000-275,000 people. Government sources gave a range of responses, typically on the lower end of the scale. In a meeting with IRIN and other reporters in October 2016, President Bashar al-Assad said the eastern neighborhoods held 200,000 inhabitants, which was also the figure advanced by the late Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. However, Assad’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem stated that the number was 97,000, while another well-placed regime source informed IRIN that a final count of civilians in eastern Aleppo “will not exceed 100,000.” Yet another Syrian government source told a well-connected Syrian-American commentator that the number was probably between 40,000 and 60,000.
Aron Lund is a freelance journalist and analyst specialising on Syria, and regular IRIN contributor