For what can War, but Acts of War still breed,
Till injur’d Truth from Violence be freed…
—John Milton “To My Lord Fairfax” (1694)
Dawn breaks to a daily chorus of artillery and mortar fire in two of humanity’s most ancient settlements that today are Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Projectiles rain on their rural peripheries, where opposition groups still fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad shelter in tunnels below mountains of rubble. Muezzins wake the faithful to prayer, and warplanes deliver the day’s first payloads just after 5:00 AM. The rebels respond with desultory mortar rounds fired at cities they once dreamed of ruling. In Damascus, their shells explode in the Christian neighborhoods closest to the eastern front lines. In Aleppo, artillery batters opposition bases along the western frontier with Idlib province. Both cities’ exhausted citizens have cause to fear for their country’s uncertain future.
I happened to arrive in Damascus, after an interval of four months, on March 19—a few hours after insurgents launched a large-scale assault to break into the city from the eastern suburbs. They emerged from underground caves, smashed through army checkpoints with suicide bomb vehicles, and seized buildings between two besieged districts, Jobar and Qaboun. This happened within sight of the Christian neighborhoods surrounding Abaseen Square. It took the army more than a day to drive them back. Some Damascenes doubted their government’s ability to defend them, and many feared a massacre of minorities. When the battle ended, the lines were back where they had been. The regular pattern of artillery exchanges and aerial sorties resumed. Citizens continued what passed for normal life in wartime, going to work and school to the sounds of violence on the outskirts.
Inside the walls of the old city, the narrow streets around my Ottoman-era hotel sounded like a steel mill. First came the heavy presses, pounding up and down, metal smashing metal, shaking the ground: outgoing artillery from the border separating the old city from Jobar. Then the rumble of turbines, furnace doors screeching open, and flames gushing forth: Syrian air force planes soaring low over the no-man’s-land between the old city and Jobar to strike tunnels and mortar launchers. Finally the staccato of jackhammers breaking ground with relentless fury: jeep-mounted .45-caliber heavy machine guns and old Dushka 12.7- millimeter antiaircraft weapons. Occasionally, something like a compressor rumbled the houses of the old city and splattered shards into the walls: mortar rounds from Jobar, the response of weakened warriors repaying their enemies for keeping them down.
At breakfast one morning, the hotel roof rattled as if a ton of lead had fallen on it. I was about to seek cover, when I looked up. Two cats were fighting on the roof, whose clear plastic sheeting amplified their footsteps. The war seemed to affect even the animal population.
A friend of mine, who has longed for a change of regime since the March 2011 protests in Daraa sparked the conflict, has abandoned hope. “I don’t care how they end it,” he said, “just so they end it.” Ending it was already difficult, but the early April chemical attack that killed more than eighty civilians in Khan Shaykhun, a rebel-held village in Idlib province in the country’s northwest, and the American missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield in retaliation are rendering the difficult impossible.
Over six years of war, millions of Syrians have suffered; beyond the almost 500,000 killed, many more have been paralyzed, disfigured, blinded, traumatized, and uprooted from their homes and communities. As of January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had registered nearly five million Syrian refugees, in addition to the six million displaced within the country. The demolished neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo make this brutally clear. They contained more than half of Aleppo’s population, until opposition fighters began seizing the area in 2012. Although measures of population movement are guesses at best, international aid agencies report that at least 50,000 eastern Aleppines fled to the western part of the city to avoid shelling by the regime or chaotic jihadist rule. Thousands more made their way to the government-controlled, war-free coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous, to Lebanon, or to Turkey, which offered visa-free entry, work permits, and, for many months in 2015, a blind eye to any who dared the perilous sea route to Europe.
In December 2016 the Syrian army, with Russian support, conquered the last insurgent strongholds in Aleppo’s east. UNHCR officials believe that about 36,000 people, rebels and their families, departed by bus under Russian protection for the opposition redoubt in Idlib province. What they left behind conjures memories of Dresden, Coventry, and Tokyo in the aftermath of World War II. The multiple forms of destruction testify to the ingenuity of the world’s arms factories. Bombs have transformed Aleppo into an Escher-like vision of six-foot-thick concrete slabs twisted into braids; five-story apartment buildings compressed into piles ten feet high; and collapsed façades of entire streets exposing rooms with ceiling fans eerily intact and revolving in the wind.
This is the horrorscape to which many residents are returning, only to find themselves still homeless. They camp in makeshift tents beside the remains of their homes, sticking close by to deter thieves from seizing unclaimed land at a time when many deeds have been lost or destroyed. Some sleep inside buildings that are exposed to the elements and subject to collapse at any moment. Children die when balconies crumble or they find shiny objects that turn out to be unexploded bombs.
UNHCR estimates that 150,000 of eastern Aleppo’s former residents came back within the first three months of the area’s return to government control last December. Eastern Aleppo lacks the basic services it enjoyed before the war: running water, electricity, garbage collection, sewage, television, Internet. Water pipes and electricity cables are ruptured, and mounds of debris make the streets impassable for public transportation and private cars.
Aleppo has always been known as the workshop of Syria, the place whose artisans made the finest furniture and household utensils, a metropolis of stone fashioned by generations of master masons. Many of its residents are not waiting for the state or international aid agencies to restore their dwellings, install electric generators, replace broken windows, and bore holes into the ground for water. “Reconstruction will take decades,” one foreign aid worker told me during my visit to the city in late March. Yet the process is underway. “In east Aleppo,” a United Nations official observed, “there has been a huge change in one month.”
More change is needed. Aleppine industrialists in Beirut are waiting for the war to end before committing themselves to the reconstruction of the textile, pharmaceutical, food-processing, and soap factories on which the population will depend for jobs. In the meantime, city dwellers cannot grow food in concrete. World Food Program (WFP) officials estimate that 200,000 eastern Aleppo residents are dependent on its food aid. Including the eastern Aleppines who are still displaced in western Aleppo and elsewhere, the number receiving WFP parcels of bread and other basics is 600,000. Despite this, the aid agencies say, many children are suffering from malnutrition as well as years of missed schooling.
Some eastern Aleppo residents have lost all their belongings. Those who left during the Syrian army’s offensive in December said the government ordered them to leave their possessions behind and flee to safety. When they returned, those whose homes were standing found them looted. International aid agencies blame Syrian army troops. “They do not care how the population reacts,” one aid official says. “If you liberate an area, the only thing that works is fear.” Yet many Aleppines say that government control relieves them of the jihadists’ obsession with requiring men to grow beards and women to cover themselves, banning cigarettes, forcing them to pray, and other intrusions into their private lives.
Western Aleppo, which remained under government control throughout the war, has suffered less than the eastern side and the sprawling souks near the ancient citadel, a measure of the relative strengths of state and opposition forces. Each wreaks havoc within the limits of its firepower. Jihadist mortars have demolished some westside apartments, but not entire buildings. Bullet scars are a common sight west of the former front, and the venerable Baron Hotel has lost all its windows and part of its roof. In areas where the jihadists penetrated for short times, churches no longer exist, and government buildings have been gutted and robbed. Yet on the surface, life in the western half of the city appears to go on much as it did before the war.
But on both sides of Aleppo, there has been extensive damage to the city’s social fabric. As we were sitting in a busy westside restaurant, a representative of the Armenian patriarch in Aleppo told me that of the city’s pre-war Armenian population of 45,000, only a third—15,000—remained. “Those in Lebanon may return,” he said. “From Montreal, no.” The Armenians were Aleppo’s largest Christian community. Their decline portends the disappearance of the rest—and the waning of an essential part of the city’s cosmopolitan character. Protestant pastor Reverend Ibrahim Nseir said that his Presbyterian congregation was down to fifty families from five hundred before the war. His church continues to administer two schools, where, he says, “99.9 percent of our students are Muslim.” (I know many Muslim families in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, who send their children to Christian schools that they believe provide a more modern curriculum than either the state schools or the madrasas attached to mosques.)
Some of the Christians who lived through the fighting seem determined to remain, despite the declining size of their community. “Now I stay to support the Christian presence here,” one woman told me. “I stay to support my government here.” Relations between most Christians and their Muslim neighbors in Aleppo continue to be peaceful. However, the captivity of two archbishops, Syriac Orthodox Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Boulos Yazigi, who have been held hostage by antigovernment Islamists since April 2013, deters many Christians who left from coming home.
When I interviewed Mar Gregorios at Easter 2012, he thought that Aleppo, because its citizens remained quiet while other Syrian cities were rising up, could avoid being drawn into the war. He said he was not afraid. At the end of that year, I saw the bishop again and wrote that he had become “a profoundly shaken man with little hope for his country’s future.” He became the only prominent Christian prelate to call for President Assad to resign in order to end the war. But this outspoken stance did not save him from capture by jihadists whom he met a few months later in the vain hope of obtaining the liberty of hostages.
Though the support of Iranian and Hezbollah forces has been crucial to the regime, the government has wisely kept them out of Aleppo. The city’s Sunni Arab majority is as hostile to them as the Sunnis of Mosul are to their Iraqi Shiite “liberators,” who have led the battle against ISIS. Russia, far more than Iran or Hezbollah, backed the Syrian army in Aleppo. The Russian government also negotiated and oversaw the evacuation of opposition fighters and civilians in those areas. “If not for the Russians,” one Western aid official said, “many more people would have died.” He recalled that Russian soldiers stood guard every five hundred meters along the twenty-kilometer evacuation route from Aleppo to Idlib.
Russians, along with Muslim troops from the Russian Federation, have become a common sight in Aleppo. I had drinks with several affable Russian officers in an Aleppo bar, although they were not forthcoming about their operations. People in the streets, who in the past might have inquired whether I was American or British, stopped me to ask in friendly voices, “Russki?” This would have been unimaginable a few years ago. The Russians had not been visible in Syria well into the war, and committing troops to the Middle East had long been unacceptable to Russia after its disastrous experience in Afghanistan.
“In March 2015, the government lost Idlib,” said one analyst familiar with Russian decision-making. “In autumn 2015, it was clear Damascus could fall.” The fall of Damascus was another “red line,” he said—something else Russia could not abide. Choosing between unpalatable options, it increased air support and sent ground forces to guarantee the survival of Syria’s government, army, and institutions. Its action saved Damascus from an insurgent onslaught and gave the Syrian army the upper hand in the long seesaw war.
One Russian I met said, “We want to cooperate with the Americans.” He explained, “The priority is ISIS, not Idlib.” The priority for the Syrian government, in order to secure all of western Syria, is to expel jihadist forces from Idlib to Turkey. One senior Syrian official told me, “Daesh [ISIS] is shrinking, while [the other major Islamist group fighting in Syria, Jabhat al-]Nusra is trying to show muscle.” The Nusra Front, under its new name of Front for the Conquest of Syria, has launched attacks on Syrian army units in Hama province and near Damascus in recent weeks that have forced the government to concentrate on protecting its rear before moving east toward ISIS in Raqqa. But the Russians had been seeking an accord with the US to defeat ISIS rather than Nusra.
As recently as late March, statements by President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley gave the Russians hope that they could put Assad’s future status aside while coordinating with US forces in northeast Syria to defeat ISIS. Russian troops had begun to emulate the American tactic of training young men who had lost family members in ISIS massacres. Russians called them Saadoun Daesh, ISIS Hunters. Primarily Christian and Alawite, these men were motivated above all by revenge.
But with the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun, the prospect of US–Russia cooperation receded. The incident led to a surge in US public support for the war against Assad and for confrontation with Russia, with the National Security Council accusing Moscow of trying to cover up the regime’s involvement. And it brought about a sudden volte-face by the Trump administration, which threatened deeper sanctions on Russia and challenged Russia’s air defense umbrella over Syria and, on April 24, imposed sanctions on 271 Syrian scientists and other officials working for the Syrian government.
One analyst in Damascus blamed the chemical assault on the recent endorsements Assad had received from the Trump administration as recently as the end of March:
It seems that the initial US backing from six days ago has led to a growing sense of hubris among the leadership here which led them to act with impunity. Some say that Russia gave the green light for this to happen as a way of testing or showing to what degree US commitment to leaving the lion alone was serious [the Arabic for lion is “Assad”]. As for why government would attack Idlib [province], it seems that they thought chemical weapons were the best way to kill as many Nusra Front fighters in Idlib as possible.
Others who are close to the regime insist that Assad had little reason to use poison gas in a remote corner of Idlib where his forces were not threatened (in contrast to, for example, the jihadists’ breach of Damascus’s defenses from the eastern suburb of Jobar). Establishing who authorized the attack will require an independent investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a step that has been rendered more difficult by the US strike.
The government has claimed strategic victories in the past few months with the conquest of eastern Aleppo, the surrender of Damascus’s western suburbs to the army, and the departure of the last insurgents from the strategically important city of Homs. Yet it remains vulnerable on the edges of all its territories to jihadists and other insurgents, whose supply lines from Turkey and Jordan remain open.
The risk of a new Sarajevo of 1914 in Syria underlines the urgency of ending the conflict, but the war’s sponsors are deploying the anguish of dying children to score propaganda points. Rather than negotiate a peace accord, they are doubling their commitment to local warriors who will massacre, maim, humiliate, and torment many thousands more people before this pointless war runs its course.
My heretical view, based on my observation of the Syrian tragedy since it began, is that the chemical gas attack in Khan Shaykhun should not be our primary concern right now. Postwar tribunals, as at Nuremberg and Wuppertal, deal with war crimes. More pressing is for the war to end. The chief British prosecutor at Nuremberg, Hartley Shawcross, wrote: “It is the crime of war which is at once the object and the parent of the other crimes: the crimes against humanity, the war crimes, the common murders.”
What matters is giving the Syrian people a viable future. No party to the conflict—not the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, and hundreds of jihadist militias on one side, or Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian army on the other—cares how many Syrians die. While the conflict endures, all seek power at the expense of ordinary Syrians. Militarists in the White House, Congress, and the US media call for escalation against Assad and Vladimir Putin, but they might serve Syria’s beleaguered population better by seeking an accord with the Russians and Iranians. Until then, there will be more war crimes. And more war.
Photograph by Sameer al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images