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IN ALEPPO

David Levy speaks with Sakhr Al-Makhadhi, a journalist based in London who covers the Arab world for the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian among others.

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The Montréal Review, September 2012

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David Levy: I first encountered the word Aleppo years ago in William Shakespeare's Othello (1603) and Macbeth (1610). I wasn't then sure if it was a real place or a locale the Bard had invented.

Sakhr Al-Makhadhi: Aleppo is one of the world's oldest cities, the biggest city in Syria. It's in the north of the country, very, very close to the Turkish border. About fifty miles from the border. There are cultural connections with Turkey. It was on the Silk Road. It has international connections across the world. Aleppo is Syria's international city where commerce thrives, a city of businessmen.

DL: The name in Arabic was Haleb or Halab, which is to say Chalab, the "ch" pronounced as in loch, re-constituted as Aleppo during the Crusades.

SAM: The French redid Halab as Alep which became the English Aleppo. In Syria today it is pronounced Halab employing the emphatic h of house.

DL: How has the city dealt with the conflict?

SAM: For the past 18 months it was the quietest place in the country. The regime has always had ties with the business elite and they've kind of co-opted them. The people in Aleppo somehow managed to avoid the worst of the trouble.

DL: I take it all that has changed.

SAM: Aleppo has been dragged into this revolution, unwillingly. As you may know, it all began in Daraa in March last year. People from outside Aleppo have brought the fight to Aleppo to show the population that there's no escape. That no one is safe from this. To show that the government has got no stronghold, that no spot is free from the violence. Aleppo had been taunted by other Syrians facing government attacks. They've been accused of being lazy, of being unwilling to join the revolution.

DL: One might assume people would want to distance themselves from the conflict if they could. I understand two million people live in Aleppo.

SAM: It's a slightly bigger city than Damascus. It's a trading city. It has always had very close connections with Turkey. Why did it stay quiet, its hard to tell, really. Relatively quiet. Damascus as well had been relatively quiet earlier this year.

DL: You've pointed out that with the virtual exclusion of the international media from the country, Al-Jazeera no more welcome that the BBC, there is a fierce ongoing struggle for control of the narrative, one the Free Syrian Army (FSA) appears to be winning, though neither side is entirely credible.

SAM: What I'm hearing from people on the ground and from reporters who have managed to get into the city is that in the country a lot of people have been behind the FSA and supported them because the FSA were defending their neighbourhoods and because they are in many cases local fighters or local civilians who've taken up arms. The majority of the FSA are not defectors, actually, they're civilians who've taken up arms. In Aleppo it's different, because the fighters have come from outside the city. The feeling there seems to be that actually people are quite angry with the FSA for dragging them into the war.

DL: There have been reports claiming that the conflict is threatening Aleppo's monuments, some dating back 3,000 years to the Bronze Age, the Citadel, the Temple of the Storm God.

SAM: Syria has faced many, many wars and invaders and occupiers, it has had more rulers than any of these monuments can remember..I don't think they are particularly at risk. I don't know exactly where the fighting in Aleppo has been going on, because I don't know the city as well as I know Damascus. But I don't think it has been taking place in the old city. The Citadel is just at the edge of the old city. In Damascus certainly the fighting was all in the suburbs, some sporadic gunfire in the west of the city, a couple of bombs in the centre and a couple of assassinations. But all of the shelling and the flight of civilians, all of that took place in the suburbs.That's where people live. In some ways it's a bit like London, where the centre of the city really doesn't have many residents, people don't live there, unlike cities like Paris where there is a vast inner city residence.

DL: Apparently the front gates of the Citadel were blown off in a missile attack.

SAM: The last time I visited the Citadel it was strewn with rubbish, kids playing all over it.It was in an incredible state of disrepair.The Syrian regime hasn't been looking after it.Doesn't care about it.Not really. Even in Damascus, the two-centuries old Souk al Hammedi, the covered souk built by the Ottomans faced gunfire during the revolt against the French occupation 100 years ago. The bullet holes are still visible.Syrian monuments have faced this.In the 1982 attacks in Hama, the death toll between 10,000 and 40,000, a lot of the fighting took place in the narrow alleyways of the old city. Hama is halfway between Damascus and Aleppo. The government razed the entire old city. So you can walk through Hama now.I remember walking from one end to the other in five or six minutes. because there is virtually nothing left of it. It was totally bulldozed.On one side of the river there's a park. They've lost a whole chunk of this incredible history. I can't see this happening in Damascus and Aleppo simply because the fighting isn't taking place in the older parts of the city.

DL: Apparently the Syrian military has been equipped and trained for conventional war and the current asymmetrical conflict without clear battle lines, without a front, is something quite different, something the regime was ill-prepared for. What would tell us that one side or the other, the regime or the FSA, has won or lost? The rule of thumb in these conflicts is that one wins if one doesn't lose, that is if regardless of casualties one is able to keep on fighting.

SAM: I don't think there will be a decisive victory.Even if Bashar al Assad falls, and I'm sure that's inevitable now. The regime will continue. There is no easy way to remove it. The FSA will not overthrow the regime. Right now I can't see it. Of course things are changing very fast.but at the moment I can't see that happening.

DL: This could go on and on?

SAM: Exactly. Even if the regime loses large pieces of the country, it will survive as a gang of warlords. It has an incredible air force and an armed force behind it. It will turn into what more resembles a kind of civil war as we understand the term civil war. The kind of thing we saw in Lebanon and in Iraq where there are minority sectarian groups fighting each other. At the moment it's a state fighting a population and half the population has taken up arms. The state might turn into a militia.A clear victory for either side?. I can't see that happening.

DL: It doesn't now look like there is much hope for a negotiated settlement. If neither side seems able to win an outright military victory what will bring this war to an end?

SAM: As I've said, the FSA could force part of the regime from power but the regime will still exist, will go on fighting. Like the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which was a cult of personality. One small family ruled the country. It's a minority regime. One part of the country ruling over another part. That is not to say it's one sect ruling over another. It's not that simple.

DL: Is the Syrian conflict a proxy struggle, Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shia Iran?

SAM: That's the game that Saudi and Qatar enjoy playing and have enjoyed playing in Iraq and Lebanon.

DL: The battle seems to have spread to Lebanon.

SAM: It's always been in Lebanon. The Lebanese civil war lasted so long mainly because there were external forces supporting the different sides. All the Lebanese parties accused their rivals of receiving support from outside. The truth is all of them received support from foreign sponsors, whether from France or from America or from Iran or Saudi.It's still going on to this day. The majority of Lebanese parties are funded and supported explicitly from the outside. It's happening to some extent in Iraq. Of course, it was going to happen in Syria as well. It's in a region where there are large groups of people who look outside for support.

DL: What are the larger consequences of the Syrian conflict for the region?

SAM: Bashar likes to tell us the region will explode if the regime falls. I can't see it. The conflict in Syria is fairly confined to Syria. That's why Saudi and Qatar and Iran are only too happy to meddle. They know they're not going to get burned. The fear is that the Lebanese have such strong ties with both sides and have really sold their souls to either side of the conflict so they're going to get hurt whichever way this goes.

DL: What I keep hearing you say that there doesn't appear to be any end in sight.

SAM: It's a tragedy, a tragedy entirely of the regime's making. There were so many opportunities, not recently but certainly at the beginning of this revolution, there were so many opportunities for the regime to put an end to this, somehow, without sacrificing much of their dictatorial control by giving the population some of what they wanted. When it began the people weren't calling for the overthrow of the president. They were calling for reform. There were local protests. People coming out to demonstrate for local reasons. It began as a peaceful protest and it stayed that way, despite much violent provocation, for a few months.

DL: The people seemed enormously patient.

SAM: They were. They saw what happened in Iraq and Lebanon. They didn't want it to go that way. The only reason people finally took up arms was because they were facing the regime's politics. There are a significant number of Syrians who are very angry that certain Syrians have armed themselves against the army because they know that will bring more trouble upon them. The regime had so many opportunities to end this, to give the people what they wanted, there was so much hope when Bashar spoke for the first couple of times, two or three weeks after the revolution began. There was hope that he would give the people some of what they wanted and it wouldn't harm the country. Protests were only taking place once a week, on Fridays after Friday prayers. It wasn't as widespread as we see it now, all over the country. They threw this opportunity away by continually killing people, by shelling residential areas, by provoking people to eventually take up arms. It was inevitable that it was going to end up like this. This incredible naïveté, they believed just because they had an army they could outgun people taking up small arms. They can't. It's now turned into a guerilla war they're never going to win.

DL: Did Bashar think he could do what his father did in Hama?

SAM: Absolutely. Maybe not him himself, but his crazy brother Maher and the hardliners around him believed that they could win this with, as they put it, a "security solution" rather than a "political solution". There were these half-hearted attempts at opposition conferences and dialogue. They had a quite well-attended conference where they invited members of the opposition, credible members of the opposition, in early May last year. So there were these twin tracks happening. But it seems the hardliners won, they believed they could replicate what happened in 1982 in Hama. It was never going to be that way because this wasn't 1982.

DL: What made it different?

SAM: The uprising in Hama was Muslim Brotherhood. It wasn't well-supported, certainly not widespread. The reasons were different. They were doing it because their party and their militia had been gradually undermined and attacked. It was the culmination of a decade-long cold war between the regime and the Brotherhood. They launched attacks in Aleppo, in Hama and in Homs in the north. They failed completely because they didn't have the support of the people. This time it was different because it wasn't restricted to one political party and one area. It was widespread. It was the whole country. It started in the rural areas among the rural poor and it has spread. There is not a single ethnic group or religion or social class that has been excluded. That is why Bashar will never win because he's lost the support of the entire country. 

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Recent reports out of Aleppo tell of on-going street battles between rival gangs for control of individual streets, of checkpoints set up to rob car passengers, claims that the regime has regained the advantage in the city whose hearts and minds are neither with Bashar nor with the FSA.  

Notes

Sakhr Al-Makhadhi, "Where is the truth in the battle for Syria's narrative?" Channel 4 News, 15 June 2012.

Sakhr Al-Makhadhi, "Denial in Damascus as Syria Revolts" Channel 4 News, 06 August 2011.

Patricia Cohen, "Syrian Conflict Imperils Historical Treasures," The New York Times, 15 August 2012.

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David Levy is an editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)

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