The following field report comes based on a precise assessment of the northern city’s conditions after it was reclaimed from the terrorist groups. Bringing the case under concentration is significant because a three-year holding of the city by the terrorists has changed everything– its demographic makeup, industrial structures, economic potentials, and everything. This negative transformation, of course, made the normal life in the city impossible.
To make things even more tangible and concrete, Alwaght's reporter has talked to a person who has just come back from Aleppo, asking him to share his in-person views of the conditions in Aleppo. Here it follows in the form of the eyewitness's observations.
During my trip to Aleppo, I closely witnessed the different angles of damages and devastations the eastern part of Aleppo experienced when it was captured. With the destruction scales high and the city service facilities sustaining considerable damages, the change in the life of Aleppo residents was tangible. Following the conclusion of the operation, the normal life was resumed in the eastern neighborhoods of the city. In general, the old parts of the city, or the center, and the western parts of it were in the hands of the government since the beginning of war, and witnessed no specific troubles. A majority of the colleges, government offices, ministry headquarters, and the key public service centers of Aleppo are located in the western part of the city, which has been held by the government. But from the Aleppo Castle, which was under the control of the government’s forces and located in downtown Aleppo, toward the east the terrorists were moving and firing at the government’s forces. The eastern sector of Aleppo is novel with modern urban design, accommodating tall buildings. Aleppo’s east in addition to its residential neighborhoods, has its own industrial parks, built with wide streets. The industrial parks include textile sector, food sector, mechanics sector, and agricultural sector– all located in a district called Sheikh Najar. It was due to these industrial and scientific parks that Aleppo was labeled “economic heart of Syria.” But at the present time, 75 percent of the factories have been destroyed by the terrorists, with facilities transferred to Turkey for sale. From the 20 to 25 percent of the remaining, many are out of service. In this short time of liberation of Aleppo, the owners of factories and industries have come back to Aleppo. They are busy assessing the damages to their assets and businesses as they seek business revival.
The return to home of people of eastern Aleppo is quite noticeable, even in this short time since it was liberated. The reconstruction has started, including repairing the water and power facilities. Some schools have just resumed education. This instant return to life is in best interest of Syria because Aleppo is an economic lifeline for Syria, and resumption of economic, service, and medical sectors in the city’s east will influence the whole Syria. Consequently, the people’s morale for further fighting the terrorists in other parts of the country will be bolstered.
On the other side, during occupation of the east of Aleppo by the terror groups, you could see many residents of this part were forced to take shelter in the west. They are returning home now.
When I met the head of Aleppo Awqaf Association, or endowment association, he mentioned something very attention-grabbing and at the same time painful. During the meeting, he said that in 2007 the UNESCO under an understanding with the Syrian ministry of information began mapping and detailed photographing of all of the historical sites and cultural heritages in Aleppo. When the war erupted, the terrorist groups unfortunately targeted Aleppo’s historical sites and cultural heritages, very purposely. It was glaringly apparent that these groups had precise maps and positions of all of the historical places in Aleppo. It was clear for us that the UNESCO's 2007 maps of the city were somehow handed in to the terrorist groups. It was because of this access to maps of precise locations of Aleppo’s historical sites that the terrorists were able to engineer their operations to bring the historical places under attack. We wondered how the terrorists, who part of them were foreigners and non-Syrians, managed to locate and penetrate the city’s historical underground tunnels and passages that previously were filmed and documented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Many historical mosques and bathrooms were reduced to rubble with prior plans. Many of these historical places are unfortunately devastated now. The Awqaf head added that they were currently eyeing preparing a legal case to sue UNESCO, it must compensate the demolitions.
On the other side, the Aleppo academic circles along with many other groups try to alter Aleppo’s social infrastructures. At the present time, Aleppo city is suffering from a kind of identity uncertainty, and any group, either the seculars or non-seculars, try to transform in their favor Aleppo’s social and cultural infrastructures and mainstream tendencies. These days Aleppo looks like a polarized community that on the one side are standing the seculars and on the other side are the Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. As an Aleppo university professor put it, it can be estimated that nearly 80 percent of Aleppo residents are with religious tendencies. Among them many even after the war-time developments and the rebel groups' terror actions saved their moderation and religious laxity. Even now on the one side of some streets you can see mosques and on the other side churches. It is interesting to know that for a long time the Muslims and Christians visit mosques and churches and save their bonds with each other. In many Aleppo districts the Muslims and Christians live in each other’s neighborhood. Even schools in some districts host a mix of students, from both the Muslim and Christian sects. The key end behind the recent developments in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, was to change this social harmony and remove the religious laxity in the city. Now that Aleppo is freed, we hope to see restoration of coexistence of Muslims and Christians in Aleppo.
But Adel al-Hariri, a university professor in Aleppo, told me that after Aleppo liberation there was a desperate need for hard working on the social and cultural issues to help the city restore and entrench its genuine identity afresh. If no cultural and social measures are taken for Aleppo in post-liberation period, in more or less than 10 years Aleppo will witness inhumane clashes and terrorist actions, and the identity-linked problems will resurface.
When encountering the Syrian people, you could observe their enthusiastic kindness to the Iranians. Many of them, even the state officials like the chief of the Awqaf Association see Syria owing Aleppo liberation to Hezbollah's strenuous work and Iran’s supports.
In a conversation with chief of Aleppo Popular Forces, Brigadier General Haytham Nayef, he raved about the way of mobilizing people in Iran and continued that his country had decided to work like Iran’s Mobilization, (or Basij in Farsi). "All groups should join the war," he told me. Nayef also referred to the experiences of Medical Mobilization, Administration Mobilization, and Syndicate Mobilization in Iran, saying that he aimed to form similar institutions in Syria from all groups of activities. The Aleppo Popular Forces chief added that the popular military institutions in Syria similar to Iran contributed effectively to Aleppo liberation. He continued that while the army was fighting on the front lines, a majority of Aleppo defenses were managed by the local mobilization forces, which was a precious experience.
A surprising issue after Aleppo liberation was the increase in the Islamic dressing of the women there. Before the war I had travelled to Aleppo, and through my academic connections I could see that only about 10 percent of women in Aleppo were wearing Islamic hijab. The rest had non-Islamic dresses. But now, contrary to the past years, I think at least 90 percent of women and girls are wearing Islamic hijab. I talked to Professor Dawalibi, the dean of Faculty of Letters and Foreign Languages, on the case. He, too, confirmed a tendency by the Aleppo women to Islamic dress and hijab following the past few years' developments, though in the dean’s viewpoint the proclivity to Islamic dress was tied to a couple of reasons including the familial grounds and roots, being a fashion, or a fear from secret presence of and harassment by the terrorists. But I did not find these reasons rational, and I think the issue needs further research.
Anyway, in a comprehensive assessment I thought that although people grew discontent with the government’s performance in the past, an overwhelming portion of the population is seeking a normal and secure life, free from concerns. They in no way are poised to take the side of the rebels and armed groups, despite their past criticism of the government's approaches in their city. In fact, we can observe two types of approaches towards the Damascus government among the Aleppo residents: those who strongly support the government of President Bashar al-Assad and are firmly supporting the government which is busy battling the terrorists across the country. Others are those who, notwithstanding their disagreement with Bashar al-Assad's past measures and censuring him, will pick Assad and have his back against the terrorists if they are to choose between the government and the rebel groups. The number of those who believe in armed struggle and terror actions against the Damascus-based Bashar Assad’s government, particularly after Aleppo liberation and the latest developments, is very small– they lack a social base.
On the other side, the views to Iran are more positive and optimistic compared to views to Russia. They consider Iran’s aims and measures in Syria as serving the Iranian goal of backing the Palestinian cause and the Muslim groups. But, on the opposite side, they deem Russia as a superpower whose presence in Syria comes with the sole aim of confronting the US and challenging the West.