On another summer day the ice cream sellers in Aleppo would be busy, handing out cones from their bicycles stationed in a pedestrian square beside the central Citadel. Inside the Old City's covered walkways, juice sellers would be working feverishly on street corners, pumping fresh pomegranate juice sold in thin paper cups. As the pulp would fall in thick crimson clumps on the stone walkways, the spicy aroma of falafel and meat grilling on a spit would rise from the tiny restaurants tucked inside the old souk.
But Aleppo is shuttered, a city of 2.5 million reduced to a shell of its former bustling self after a siege that began just over a month ago.
Like Damascus, Homs, and other urban centers before it, Syria's largest city has become the fortress for rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. In return, its inhabitants are the target of government retaliation-with some of the heaviest weapons yet used in the civil war that first began with street protests 17 months ago.
Nationwide the fighting has killed an estimated 20,000, but numbers in Aleppo are hard to come by. One Syrian monitoring group, the Violations Documentation Center, reports that between July 19 and Aug. 9 over 400 civilians were killed in the Aleppo governorate-either by shelling or by gunfire.
As street-by-street combat spreads from Aleppo's outskirts and working-class neighborhoods into the city's ancient center, the fighting is destroying what was once a cultural and commercial hub in the Middle East. Government forces have used tanks, helicopter gunships, and warplanes to fire on rebel strongholds, destroying homes, schools, and businesses in the process. On Aug. 11 eyewitnesses reported that bombing had damaged the city's 13th-century Citadel, listed as the largest castle in the world and part of a World Heritage site located in the heart of the city.
"The situation here is getting very hard and critical," reports one local physician who runs a relief organization. "Bread is a dream. Gasoline is a supernatural finding. ... Many families are in bad need."
On a typical day there would be more taxis than people on Aleppo's streets. But gasoline has shot up from less than $1 to more than $5 per liter-and little is available. Electricity, once commonplace 24 hours a day, is now turned on only two hours a day in the late evenings.
One of the oldest cities in the world, Aleppo survived conquest by the Assyrians and then the Persians before its capture by the Greeks. It became part of the Roman Empire in a.d. 64 but under Byzantine rule became a center for Christianity. Persians pillaged the city before Arab Muslims conquered it in a.d. 637. Then it survived two Crusades and Ottoman rule, and came under the French Mandate before becoming an independent republic in 1930.
The destruction of Aleppo, noted Al-Jazeera reporter Anita McNaught, "would be like the destruction of Rome or Paris."
Despite its serial conquests, Aleppo historically has been a refuge for victims of other conflicts. During the Armenian Genocide of 1915, thousands of Armenians fled there, the closest city across the border from Turkey. During both Gulf wars, Iraqi refugees took shelter in Aleppo. In 2008, as insurgency took its toll on those living in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains of Iraq, especially Christians, Aleppo took in about 25,000 Iraqi refugees a month. City churches with outside aid were feeding hundreds of them each week (see "Stalked," Nov. 29, 2008).
It's not uncommon to find church leaders in Aleppo born in Turkey or Iraq or Lebanon. "We are the sons of martyrs," a Turkish-born Chaldean priest told me. "We understand what others are going through because we have been there. Our parents did not teach us to hate, and so we help other refugees."
It's that melting-pot aspect of Aleppo that makes more tragic the current street battles. Unlike Cairo, where millions poured into the street to protest the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Aleppo-like many parts of Syria-by comparison saw subdued street-level demonstrations before armed conflict erupted.
When the Qatar Foundation this year conducted an extensive poll of Syrians, it found 55 percent still on Assad's side and 68 percent disapproving of Arab League and other sanctions. It makes sense, notes Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin editor Elizabeth Kendal: Most Syrians would prefer an authoritarian but largely secular regime to an Islamist one, given the country's makeup. At least 25 percent of the population are religious minorities (Christians make up about 10 percent of that segment) and at least a third of the country's Sunni Muslims live in urban areas with one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East. Prior to 2011 disturbances that launched the civil war, Syria had a GDP growth rate of 3.4 percent, unemployment stood at 8.3 percent, and under economic reforms the country launched its own stock exchange in 2009.
"So the main division in Syria is not between Assad and the rest, but between Sunni fundmentalists (including foreign Salafi jihadists) and the rest, i.e., the majority of Syrians," notes Kendal.
Yossef Bodansky, who as director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism became one of the first U.S. analysts to document al-Qaeda's structure and the role of Osama bin Laden, also believes that siding with the rebels is the wrong stance for the United States and its allies. "The international community has been blindly following a jihadist-driven agenda for Syria; a solution the majority of Syrians reject, but which Turkey and Qatar have been driving. It begs the question: Why are analysts in Washington-or Paris or London-not digging more deeply into what is really happening, given that the solution they have endorsed is so profoundly anti-Western?"
Bodansky says that the Syrian National Council, the lead political opposition to Assad, "has always been a front of the more militant-jihadist wing of the Muslim Brothers." Left to battle for control of the country, he and other analysts argue, these rebel groups are likely to send Syria into political chaos and militant insurgency, and likely to take Lebanon with them.
The humanitarian toll of that trajectory already is evident: Across Syria tens of thousands have been killed and almost 3 million, according to the UN, are displaced or in dire need of food and other essentials. Meanwhile, fighting this month has spread to Tripoli and other areas across the Syria-Lebanon border.
Ultimately, the battle for Aleppo, and all Syria, may represent an opportunity for the United States-with Iran and Russia, no less-to agree on a transitional regime that could lead to a move away from Assad's brutality. "Regional stability and moral considerations both require a transitional phase in Syria, not cold-turkey democracy," argues STRATFOR analyst Robert D. Kaplan. "Syria's situation is dire. From both a moral and geopolitical point of view, fighting a proxy war with Iran and Russia there is less desirable for the United States than reaching out to them."
Yet, as Kaplan and others point out, the Obama administration has shown little flair for back-channel, hard-boiled diplomacy. Increasingly it appears that the United States, along with Great Britain, is content to provide tacit support for the rebels, to arm them without direct aerial or naval support, on the premise that civil war in Syria distracts Iran from its nuclear ambitions and Russia from its own military buildup. Republicans in Congress are content to go along because in principle they would like Assad to go and "democracy," whatever it may look like, to replace him.
Christians, who form a significant part of the "Fertile Crescent of minorities" standing between the Sunni Arab majority in the Middle East and the Shiite extremists of Iran, face the largest threat from jihadist groups within the opposition. Despite Assad's reputation for brutal mistreatment of opponents, in the past he's shown favor to Syria's Christian minority, allowing protection for ancient Christian sites and religious liberty unlike most of the Middle East. Assad personally has relied on Christians as his bodyguards and as caretakers for his children.
Since war broke out, Christians increasingly have been targeted by rebels. Over 138,000 Christians fled Homs, where they were terrorized and churches looted by occupying rebels. While the UN claims that pro-government militias were behind the May massacre in Houla that killed 108, local Christians insist that the killers were part of rebel groups.
A report from a local priest in Qaraa, near Houla, provided to WORLD in French, describes in detail "rebel armies" attacking a police station and killing 35 officers, then proceeding to a hospital where 25 patients, their family members who were present, and medical personnel were killed. "The gangs massacred all the people there and then burned the hospital after having moved the corpses," reads the report.
In Aleppo, Christians are surviving by serving. As street battles and strafing from helicopter gunships have moved from outer neighborhoods into central Aleppo, where most of the Christian population lives, displaced residents are living in parks, churches, or school shelters run by local Christians.
"The churches and our people are doing a tremendous work among the IDPs [internally displaced persons] all over Aleppo," reports the physician, who is not named for security reasons. Sunday schools are distributing bread and canned goods to "hundreds and thousands" of the displaced, he said. "The church is having a very good testimony in Aleppo."
In addition, churches in the city continue to work with about 495 Iraqi families who remain as refugees. Many have returned to Iraq since fighting broke out, and at least 12 Iraqi refugees have been killed this month.
Church leaders are quick to acknowledge that the situation is tense and subject to change. "People are terrified," reported Chaldean Archbishop of all Syria Antoine Audo. He spoke to reporters by telephone after conducting a service at Aleppo's St. Joseph's Church earlier this month while explosions and gunfire sounded in the distance. "They fear a situation that is becoming more and more violent and uncertain."
"When I'm asked about Syria, the first thing I say, generally, is that we don't want to become like Iraq," said the archbishop, who was born in Iraq's Nineveh Plains. "That fear is very present with us. That would mean the destruction of a Christian presence in Syria that has been here since the beginning of Christianity."
In 2008 I sat with Audo outside a church in Aleppo's city center as young boys and girls from a church "Scouts" group played basketball and other games under olive trees. With the approach of darkness on a Friday evening, all around us began the Muslim call to prayer, and we watched as hundreds began filing into the expansive mosque built between the old Chaldean and Greek Catholic churches. From across the street came persistent car honking-the sign of a wedding procession passing by headed to one of the churches, its cars polished and bedecked in flowers.
"Even the Muslims need historical references, even if they are in opposition," Audo said from our bench. "Christians represent something that comes before them. In Syria we have a tradition of living together. There is respect for us here, even though we have this fanaticism growing."
More and more Muslim women in Aleppo were wearing hijab, I had noticed, and the archbishop acknowledged, "It is a sign. But we must stay ... in a step of confidence. Unfortunately the Muslim feels himself very strong. They want to have opposition, and they want to have war, even if they say they want peace and reconciliation."
I felt his foreboding, plus the weight of caring then for thousands of newly arrived Iraqi refugees. "How do you keep going, and committed to ministry in Aleppo when you could be somewhere else?" I asked.
"Day by day," he said. "It is a stress every day. But this is a church of Mesopotamia now for 2,000 years. The call is to continue with a presence to give a taste of faith to Kurdish and Arabic peoples, and others. So we are doing our duty as witnesses, praying, attending to the Eucharist, showing the presence of the Lord, and serving Him with joy."