The only good news from Aleppo is that the Old City was built to last and significant parts of it can be repaired. Thick stone walls are strong. Last year, as the jihadists who call themselves Islamic State were blowing up temples in Palmyra, the ancient town in the Syrian desert, the director of antiquities at Damascus Museum told me that as long as the original stones were still there, experts could do a lot to reconstruct the lost buildings. Rebuilding the broken fabric of Aleppo will be expensive, but it won’t be impossible. It would also require peace.
The bad news is that the longer the war goes on, the more Syrians are scattered into a new diaspora and the harder it will be to restore their communities. I was lucky enough to visit Aleppo before the war, in 2010, when Syria was safe enough for me to take my mother and (then) nine-year-old daughter. The Old City’s alleyways and khans housed the greatest souk in the Levant. Aleppo was a great crossroads in the medieval world where the trade routes of Europe and Asia came together. Shakespeare put the place name into the incantations of the witches in Macbeth: “her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger”.
In modern times you could buy pretty much anything you needed, from washing machines to shiny counterfeit football shirts. Tiny shops would build piles of dried fruit, or rainbow pyramids of spices, or the dark green soap made from olive oil and bay that used to be aged like wine before it was sold. It took a year to make each bar.
Money can help rebuild. But the people who made the place what it was have gone. Half of Syria’s pre-war population has fled. When I walked through Aleppo’s burnt-out khans and broken alleys, they were echoing and empty. The war had snuffed out the old life. The only people I saw were soldiers.
These are better times for President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian intervention has made him much more secure. It is a long time since the first year of the war, when he was expected to go the way of Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt and Gaddafi of Libya. His father, President Hafez al-Assad, created a system designed to be as rebellion-proof as possible.
When the people of Tunisia turned against President Ben Ali, the army did not intervene to help him; he jumped ship as fast as he could. In Egypt the people also turned against Hosni Mubarak, and so did his erstwhile Western allies; the army decided he had to go. In Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi faced a revolt that his forces might well have crushed, had they been left alone. However, Britain, France and the US provided the rebels with an air force, and Qatar, among others, trained and armed the rebels.
President Assad has been much luckier. Most of his security forces remained loyal, and they are still prepared to fight and die for the Syrian state. Britain and France did not provide the Syrian rebels with an air force. A critical moment came in 2013 after the chemical attacks around Damascus. The regime expected punitive strikes from the US, helped by Britain and France. When they did not happen, President Assad could celebrate. The most powerful countries in the world blinked first. When Russia became the first big foreign military power to intervene, it was on Assad’s side.
The Syrian army has not been good at taking the offensive. But it can defend, and it has mastered the ancient tactic of starving its enemies out. I saw the last few evacuations from Daraya, a suburb on the edge of Damascus. The UN described what had happened there as “four years of unrelenting siege”. It said that children starved and the population ate grass, amid fighting and aerial bombardment. Daraya’s surrender was a big blow to the rebel operations around Damascus.
The war feels much further away from central Damascus, including the Old City, than it did at the beginning of the year. Throughout the war the Old City closed down at dusk. Damascenes hurried home, frightened about crime, including the risk of kidnap for ransom, as well as rebel mortars. This time round, I was amazed to see that bars, restaurants, even boutique hotels, have started to reopen in the Old City. The nightlife is concentrated in the Christian quarter. Alcohol is available, and Syrian food, if you have the money to enjoy it, is delicious. Millions of people in Syria have neither the money nor the food to cook. UN sources told me that the regime is mostly responsible for blocking relief convoys. Various local truces, as well as rebel surrenders, have helped the regime-held centre of Damascus feel safer. That does not hold in the suburbs, still controlled by the rebels, especially eastern Ghouta, which shows no signs of wanting to capitulate.
The road from Damascus to Aleppo runs through Homs, where it splits from the old highway, which is controlled further north, around Idlib, by rebels. Homs has acres of empty ruins. To get to Aleppo, the government has paved what used to be a country road that takes a big detour to the east.
It starts with a stretch several miles long of more deserted, overgrown rubble and the shells of houses. Every time I pass, I wonder what happened to the people who lived there. It takes about four hours to drive from Homs to Aleppo. Most of the journey is across an arid wasteland. I didn’t see a single building intact. The villages are traditional, made out of mud bricks, with cone-shaped houses that used to be the homes of farmers. Now their fields are untended, and their villages, like the suburbs of Homs, are empty and destroyed.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets: @BowenBBC
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times