The Magazine

The Battle for Aleppo

A report from the front lines of the Syrian civil war

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By JONATHAN SPYER
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He had the usual cool politeness and optimism of Islamists. But his parting words to me combined strategic optimism with tactical concern. “The rebels trust in their own motivation and in the help of God. But what we need right now,” he added, “is antiaircraft weapons.” 

The helplessness of the rebels in the face of aerial attacks was demonstrated during my time in Aleppo. I was at the Dar al-Shifa hospital in the Sha’ar neighborhood when it was attacked by a regime jet fighter.

Dar al-Shifa is one of two hospitals serving both FSA fighters and civilians in the rebel-controlled part of the city. Along with hospital staff and families of patients, I was forced to take refuge in the basement of the hospital during the attack. The fighter jet dropped a bomb that landed about 10 yards from the entrance to the hospital, killing and wounding a number of people in the street. The jet made a second run over the hospital, firing off a salvo of rockets that caused the electricity supply in the hospital to temporarily shut down. 

The bombing of a hospital is a war crime, an attack against a defenseless civilian population. According to Dar al-Shifa staffers, it is a near-daily occurrence. 

Airpower is Assad’s main weapon at this stage in the battle for Aleppo. Jet fighters and helicopters drone above like large insects. Flying uncontested over the city, they seem to cruise or hover aimlessly, before swooping down to release their charge with terrible noise and devastation among the population below.

The fighter jets drop a type of bomb that resembles an oildrum filled with explosives. It hits the ground, then explodes about five seconds later. Aleppans have grown used to waiting, but my driver, Mahmoud, was almost killed when he ran into the street to try to move his car after a bomb hit the ground, thinking that the noise it made on impact was the explosion itself. An Aleppan who held him back saved his life. The car was badly damaged, the windshield shattered. 

Later, I visited the site of a major aerial bombing in Azaz, north of Aleppo. The bombing, in which around 75 people were killed, had reduced a whole neighborhood to rubble. An old man was moving what remained of his property from the ruins of his former dwelling. Two of his nephews had died in the bombing. He worked himself into a fury as we asked him about the details. “Neither the Jews, nor the Americans, nor the French, nor the British ever did anything like this,” he said, as he counted off modern Syria’s fabled enemies on his fingers. 

The aerial bombings have created a huge population of Syrian refugees across the border in Turkey, living precariously in the countryside along the border fence, or at the makeshift refugee camp established at the Bab al-Salaam crossing point, due north of Azaz and about two hours’ drive from Aleppo.

 To encounter this population is to understand the terrible human cost of the methods employed by the Assad regime. A schoolteacher from Azaz, encamped with his family at Bab el-Salaam, told me that his children become hysterical when they hear the sound of aircraft. Another man, who had been prescribed anti-depressant tablets, handed me a roll of them. “Here,” he said, “a present. You’ll be needing these when you get back.” 

A third man, whose attempts at eloquence gave way to tears, sent his son to bring me one of his daughters from the tent. The little girl, who could not have been more than 4, had suffered severe brain damage from a bomb fragment. She squirmed and wriggled in her brother’s arms, her mouth opening and closing. Her father, weeping silently, showed me the scar on her head where the fragment had entered. 

A crime of great magnitude is under way in Syria. As the dictatorship loses ground, it is attacking its own civilian population with terrible and indiscriminate violence. 

Observation of the military and political situation in Aleppo from a Western point of view leads directly to an inescapable dilemma. On the one hand, the Assad regime is a criminal enterprise, now busily engaged in the energetic slaughter of a considerable part of its own civilian population. It is also an ally of the most dangerous anti-Western and aggressively antidemocratic alliance in the Middle East, the Iran-led bloc. 

For all these reasons, increased aid and intervention on behalf of the rebellion would appear to represent a rare alignment of strategic and ethical responsibilities. The means by which this could be undertaken are familiar: a no-fly zone in the north, increased weaponry including antiaircraft ordnance for the rebellion, a safe zone for refugees. 

But there is another consideration that became clearer to me during my talks and meetings in Aleppo. Sunni Islamism is having its moment in the Arabic-speaking world. This is apparent in the nature of the Syrian insurgency. The most powerful forces engaged against the dictator do not represent liberty in the form recognizable to the Western mind.

There are many non-Islamist fighters and commanders among the rebels. But the best-organized, and the only ones with a clear vision of Syria beyond Assad in the crucial Aleppo front, are the Islamists. It is important to note that the more extreme, al Qaeda-type jihadists exist only in relatively small numbers. But the insurgency as a whole was born in rural Sunni Arab communities. Today in Aleppo, the rebel fighters hail overwhelmingly not from the city itself, but from the surrounding villages and towns of Aleppo governorate. If victorious, this rebellion will almost certainly give birth to a conservative, Sunni regime. 

The question then is whether the Sunni Islamist ferment now under way across the region constitutes a greater danger to Western interests than the Iran-led bloc of which Assad is a cornerstone. 

In the wake of events over the last month in the Middle East, that concern is yet more pressing. After a terrorist attack in Benghazi killing a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and the storming of the U.S. embassy compound in Cairo, it’s hardly surprising that Americans are wary of backing a side in Syria that might in time turn against U.S. interests. And yet the failure to engage further with the rebellion makes a bad outcome certain: either the victory of Assad, or the emergence of a Sunni Islamist regime with no links, debts, or client loyalty to the West.

The United States and other Western powers have typically prioritized threats, to be dealt with in order of urgency. First there were the Nazis, and then the Soviets. The pressing issue in the Middle East is still the Islamist bloc led by Iran that is racing toward a nuclear arms program. Ensuring that the rebellion against Assad succeeds would strike a major blow against the mullahs.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

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