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Return to Aleppo: A squandered legacy

Historic Aleppo was the center of many empires over the centuries but now resembles a city plundered once again by Mongols.
TOPSHOT - A general view shows Syrian pro-government forces walking in the ancient Umayyad mosque in the old city of Aleppo on December 13, 2016, after they captured the area.
After weeks of heavy fighting, regime forces were poised to take full control of Aleppo, dealing the biggest blow to Syria's rebellion in more than five years of civil war.

 / AFP / George OURFALIAN        (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the second in a series of stories from Al-Monitor correspondent Fehim Tastekin, who is traveling in Syria.

ALEPPO, Syria — When I finally arrived in Aleppo from Damascus, accompanied by Damascus-based Turkish journalist Hediye Levent, I discovered the Meridien Hotel we'd wanted to stay at was totally booked because of a government meeting. The hotel general manager found us places at Hotel Riga, once one of the best in the city. We had thought it was not operating because of the war.

When we reached the hotel, we were challenged by Russian security personnel who would not allow us in. We contacted its manager, who told us the hotel is reserved for the Russian military and hasn’t had any other guests for a long time. He called the Meridien manager, security units were mobilized to check our credentials and, finally, we were given rooms. There was no water, no electricity, no heating, no breakfast, not even tea-coffee service. But the price was the same as before: $110.

Russian soldiers were suspicious of us. One of them who heard us speaking Turkish came over to ask if we are Turks. He turned out to be an Azerbaijani Turk from the Russian Republic of Dagestan. The soldier with him was Chechen. We thus found out that the Russian military police sent to Aleppo were mostly Chechen. All 250 of them were said to be loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

My knowledge of the Caucasus facilitated my conversations with the Chechen soldier. I asked him, “Ah, you were serving under Shamil Basayev.” He panicked and signaled me to shut up. From 1992-1993, Basayev was tolerated by Russia and had recruited volunteers from Caucasus and participated in the battles of Abkhazia. Basayev later emerged in the battles for Chechnya's independence and fought against the Russians. In the second Chechen-Russian war, Basayev's forces split; some joined Kadyrov, and those continuing to resist Russia set up the Caucasus Emirate. These two groups became dedicated enemies. Some from the Caucasus Emirate joined Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Now Basayev's former soldiers were allied with the Syrian regime to confront their former comrades. It was not wise to share a hotel with these soldiers: Finding another hotel became the first task of the next day.

Old City: Did the Mongols return?

I wanted to start my tour of Aleppo with a visit to Umayyad Mosque in the Old City, which I had photographed in 2015.

What was left from that time, I wondered. Nothing but fresh ruins, as it turned out.

A soldier accompanying us said the Syrian prime minister was going to visit and it could be difficult to tour the mosque. “Why don’t you start from the fortress?” he suggested. He was speaking of Aleppo Fortress, with its living quarters, museum, amphitheater, two mosques and baths, which had been smack in the center of Aleppo battles for five years. Although its adjacent neighborhoods were in the hands of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its allies, the Syrian army did not abandon the fortress except for a brief period. The structure was badly damaged, and many of the historic artifacts were destroyed. It was as if the hordes of Mongol Khan Hulagu, who had razed the city in 1260, had recently paid a visit, or Emperor Tamerlane, who is said to have used thousands of human skulls as building materials around 1400, had returned.

A Syrian solider escorts Fehim Tastekin through Aleppo's Old City.

The destruction in this part of Aleppo started when armed opposition groups expanded their battles to historic neighborhoods. The army responded with heavy weapons. They now accuse each other of causing the damage.

The public buildings south of the fortress were destroyed with explosives placed in tunnels. Carlton Hotel was the first major building to go. Photographs of that bombing were released by the Islamic Front, which claimed responsibility. The popular Biroya restaurant facing the fortress is partially destroyed. The state security office next to it had become Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's headquarters. There were still liquefied natural gas bottle rockets called "weapons of hell" around. A tunnel inside the building connects to the fortress. A soldier explained the tunnel was used on July 12, 2015, to blow up the walls of the fortress. Government offices and the Aleppo Chamber of Industry built by the French were blown up the same way.

Among the buildings destroyed were Husrev Mosque, Khan al-Wazir, the justice building, Al-Shaibani School, Nahasin and Yalburga al-Masra baths, Mihmandar and Kenali mosques, A- Zawiya al-Sayadieh, Hotel Far-Zamania and Sarraf market.

The Baron Hotel, which Turks have always shown interest in, is still standing. The hotel was built by the Armenian Mazlumian family of Malatya in 1911 when they got tired of moving around to avoid the massacres. It hosted all the military and diplomatic traffic during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Syrian state. Names that influenced the 20th century such as Ataturk, Cemal Pasha, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Charles de Gaulle, Theodore Roosevelt, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Agatha Christie and Lawrence of Arabia all stayed there. The last owner of the hotel, Armen Mazlumian, died last January. That magnificent hotel is still standing but no longer with its famous grandeur.

I slowly walked through side streets, with their once-magnificent structures now mostly in ruins. I spoke with Aleppo resident Abu Ahmed, who said, “I didn’t abandon my house. I had no money; I couldn’t leave. Armed groups occupied these parts. They are the ones guilty of destruction. They were supported by Turkey. They ruined us.”

He confirmed, though, that the army had used heavy weapons.

So, who was responsible for the destruction? Abu Zaid, another resident, said, “First of all, the armed groups. If they hadn’t come, nothing would have happened here. We had heavy clashes. The army used heavy weapons. No barrel bombs were used here.”

Umayyad Mosque: from an illusion to rubble

I finished my tour of the fortress and its vicinity and returned to Umayyad Mosque, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped to attend Friday prayers after Aleppo's conquest. The destruction of this mosque — which occupied the dreams of “neo-Ottomans” — began with its majestic gardens. After the armed opposition captured the mosque, its northwest wall was destroyed in 2012 and its minaret in 2013. The courtyard now resembles a combat zone, littered with stone-filled barrels and sandbags. The mosque’s eastern flank was a true combat line with firing positions.

A view from inside Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque shows barrels and sandbags set up to protect the line during fighting.

The roof of the nearby Medina market has collapsed. Some 13 kilometers (8 miles) long, the market once had 22 shopping areas but is now a maze of dark passages. Shops are empty; none have windows or doors. There are still explosives and weapons here and there.

Who was responsible for all this wanton destruction, I asked researcher Kemal Al Cafa.

“The army did not use barrel bombs and planes against the Old City," he replied. "At the beginning, armed groups exploded bombs in tunnels to capture the area. That caused much damage. They used 500 kilograms [1,100 pounds] of explosives to blow up the Carlton Hotel. We had 13 such major explosions. Rebels used ‘weapons of hell’ against the army. Their targets were all in historic locations."

I was terribly shaken by what I saw in Aleppo. It became meaningless to ask who was responsible and why.

Eastern Aleppo: a frightening ghost

The neighborhoods evacuated by armed opposition groups under the new process initiated by Iran, Russia and Turkey have unmistakable signs of heavy battles. I toured Bustan al-Qasr, Shaar, Tariq al-Bab, Messer, Fardion and Salahuddin neighborhoods to observe the squandering of a legacy. These are the neighborhoods that were constantly on the global news with images of barrel bombs exploding, children suffering and the heartbreaking agony of people trying to survive. State officials confronted with these specters have a ready response: “They were firing rockets from these neighborhoods to western Aleppo, where more than 2 million people lived. Those rockets killed 11,000 and wounded 60,000.”

In Bustan al-Qasr you see improvised barricades built with the carcasses of burned-out trucks and buses. In one such barrier they even used a double-decker bus.

Overturned buses are used as barriers in Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood.

In this neighborhood, a conservative lifestyle prevails. You see many women with Islamic garb. Shaar, Bab al-Hadid and Bab al-Nairab were former strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood. The government may wish to blame foreign fighters and their external financial patrons for the uprising, but it can’t dismiss the societal base of the rebellion. The Muslim Brotherhood rebellion that was crushed in 1982 with incredible loss of life was repeated with the participation of new generations. The leading cause of the uprising was the poverty in the city’s slums, which grew with migration from the rural areas.

It wasn’t all that hard to obtain the loyalty of poor people who needed the money coming from the Gulf countries to mini-emirates set up by Islamist organizations.

Umm Khatice, a woman in Bustan al-Qasr, said her family never left their house and lived in misery for five years, suffering from hunger. “We were the starving ones, not the armed groups. Those thugs confiscated relief supplies, distributed them to their supporters or sold them. Many people had no choice but to join them to survive,” she said.

An elderly couple in Bustan al-Qasr invited us into their house. The woman said when the armed men came to their neighborhood, she and her husband had to move to the Aleppo University dormitory, where they lived for five years.

Now they have returned to what is left. “They removed the doors of my house," the husband said. "I made a door of chip wood and used cardboard to cover the windows. We have no water, electricity or heating." I asked how could they live like this. The old woman said, “We have our home. It is enough.”

In Shaar, many buildings were leveled by air bombings. All streets were hit. Work to remove the rubble is slowly starting.

I encountered deep anger against Turkey. When people heard we were Turks, their attitudes hardened. The question we heard most was, “Why did Turkey did this to us?”

We also toured the Jibrin Industrial Zone, where people evacuated from eastern Aleppo were settled. Russians were distributing food. There were a few men in the camp, but not young ones. People do not want to talk of their life under armed groups. They might have relatives still there or with the groups. They told us that people joined armed groups for monthly salaries of $50-$100. Two middle-aged men told us they were working at a Sheikh Najjar leather products factory. They said armed groups dismantled the factory and sold it in Turkey. Another man said they experienced hunger and thirst under the blockade, but those who agreed to join the armed groups managed well. We were also told how armed groups did not allow civilians to leave the area under government blockade, and even fired on those who wanted to leave.