Martin Chulov reports: In the distance, Aleppo briefly emerged from the smoke and dust of war, a low grey skyline on a brown summer plain. A heat haze shimmered over the road ahead, shrouding first an abandoned army barracks, then ransacked, smouldering factories, an empty crossroads, and finally, the city itself.
Even then, days after the eastern half of the city had been seized by armed Syrians opposed to the rule of Bashar al-Assad, many of Aleppo’s people had fled. Shops were shuttered. Twisted tanks and toppled buses blocked intersections and the few residents on its empty streets scurried past with their heads down.
These were the first days of August 2012, a momentous time in a civil war that had just seen half of Syria’s second city – and industrial heart – fall to an insurrection hatched by the working-class men of its hinterland. It was my first visit to the city, after several earlier trips to nearby towns where the rebel push for northern Syria had been gathering steam. It paved the way for the Guardian’s subsequent reporting on a conflict with no apparent end.
In more than 10 journeys to Aleppo, from that first visit in 2012 until my last in December 2014, I have chronicled the decline of one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities as it has been ground down by savagery. Modern warfare has done what uprising and invasion have failed to do throughout the ages, transforming half the city into a shell of its prewar self, and imperilling an ancient core that has weathered centuries of conflict and even a devastating earthquake.
Along the way, those who remained and fought for its destiny offered windows into a war that has ramifications far beyond the borders of Syria. Long a crossroads of trade and transport, and a hub of empire, Aleppo is again central to the fate of the region, even under the assault of Russian bombers, which have made much of the east uninhabitable over the past year.
The rebel-held east was the focus of all my visits; west Aleppo has remained off-limits, functioning with little disruption and firmly under the control of the Syrian regime, which refuses visa requests. [Continue reading…]