Christmas in Aleppo. A large crowd gathers in one of the biggest churches of the city, St. Elias Cathedral. The floor is covered in rubble, the roof replaced by the open sky. The structure itself has endured the four-and-a-half years of fighting in the city. In a corner, a nativity scene was made out of rubble and adorned with green plants — destruction and rebirth.
The crowd is mourning the death of countless Aleppines, of friends and family members, neighbours and strangers.
But on this day of celebrating the incarnation of God, who came to reconcile a fallen world to himself, they are also expressing their relief at the end of the siege of eastern Aleppo and the complete reunification of the city.
Before the war started in Syria, Aleppo was a key industrial, financial and cultural centre in the Middle East. Renowned as of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (Aleppines would of course claim the title of the oldest continuously inhabited city), it prided itself on its rich history. Old Aleppo is even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Syria’s most populous city was also very diverse. If most its inhabitants were Sunni Muslims, it was also home to the second largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as a smaller population of Alawites and Shiʿa Muslims.
In March 2011, the waves of the ‘Arab Spring’ reached the shores of Syria. Peaceful protests calling for more political rights and democratic reforms broke out throughout the country. Soon thereafter, the slogan “The people wants the fall of the regime” spread like wildfire. Demonstrations were no longer asking for reforms; they wanted the fall of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family had been ruling the country since 1971.
Outside observers, enthused by the successful and quick overthrow of dictators in countries such as Tunisia (January 2011) and Egypt (February 2011), predicted that Assad would fall in a matter of weeks, if not sooner. The United States put all its weight behind the project of regime change.
Internally, there was certainly a majority of the population who aspired to greater freedom, less control and more justice. Yet many feared the instability looming on the horizon. For a vast part of the Syrian people, even some who took part in the early demonstrations, there were two great threats to the spirit of the revolution: the reaction of a regime bent on clinging to power no matter what and co-optation of the resistance by violent actors intent on imposing a version of society and governance derived from their interpretation of Islam. In the first instance, any civilian could be arbitrarily subjected to brutal repression; in the second, non-Muslims and Muslims who do not ascribe to the political ideology of these groups — that is, most Syrians — would be at great risk.
Both fears materialised. War broke out.
At first, Aleppo was spared by the conflict. But in the summer of 2012, ‘rebel’ groups backed by the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia seized the eastern part of the city, and increasingly affiliated with al-Qaeda. “We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn’t. We couldn’t rely on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the revolution to them,” commented a rebel commander at that time.
A local photographer captured the first few days of fighting on his street in an award-wining short film. His first taste of war.
“It is a lie that the revolution started peacefully everywhere. In my street, it started with guns.”For him, as for many Aleppines, this was a moment they had feared for months: they were forced to choose sides or, for those who could, to leave.
Many civilians did flee the fighting, either to other parts of the city, the coastal region of Syria — left mostly unscathed by the war — or Damascus, the capital. And so, for the following four-and-a-half years, the city was effectively split into two parts — the rebels in the East, the regime in the West — as neither the rebels nor the pro-regime forces succeeded in overpowering their opponent. The number of civilian casualties rose every day. Food, water, medicine and electricity were often scarce. Throughout Aleppo, the population lived in fear of what tomorrow might bring.
Since this summer, Aleppo has dominated the news, to the point that it became ridiculous that a presidential candidate would not know what Aleppo is. The world watched as pro-regime forces gained ground, with the assistance of their Russian allies. The campaign to retake the entirety of Aleppo was ruthless, and the death toll skyrocketed. The scale of the humanitarian disaster and the laissez-faire ‘policy’ of Western powers baffled the whole world. The 1995 massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia became a favourite comparison, and although the historical parallel is problematic, it was a powerful rhetorical tool.
Everyone was horrified by what was happening. The mayor of Paris decided to turn off the lights of the Eiffel Tower in a show of solidarity. Qatar issued special stamps. Countless people worldwide posted messages of support to the besieged population and took parts in local demonstrations. The horror of what was happening was magnified by the instant and direct character of social media news. In our interconnected world, it almost felt as if East Aleppo was only a few blocks away.
West Aleppo, on the other hand, did not exist. Neither did the shelling of the neighbourhoods by `moderate’ rebel forces, and the hundreds of associated civilian casualties. In the narrative of the war, anyone living in regime-controlled Syria is pro-Assad, and as such their suffering and death insignificant. Symmetrically, Syrian and Russian state media describes anyone in rebel-held territories as “terrorists” — we see them as “freedom fighters.”
Each side amplifies the horror of what their opponent is doing in order to elicit the sympathy of the world.
There is thus clearly a war of information taking place, to the extent that it seems ever harder to discern the truth of what is happening on the ground. Due to the nature of the war, even journalists who try to be impartial fall prey to biases: conflict indeed fuses social networks, creates local microcosms of information and opinion, connected by social media to the wider world, but not to each other.
On December 22, the reunification of Aleppo under regime control was announced, following the surrender of the rebels in East Aleppo a few days earlier and a complicated evacuation process from the neighbourhoods they once controlled. This is certainly one of the key moments of the war in Syria, likely to shape the course of the months to come.
In the streets of Aleppo, civilians were celebrating, not the victory of Assad, whom for the most part they do not support, but the end of the fighting, of deaths on both sides of the city, of snipers, mortars and air strikes. Cautiously, some started to return to East Aleppo, to the houses and shops they had had to leave since the division of the city. Many came back to severely damaged properties, but with a strong intent to rebuild and finally start to live again.
Aleppo today has faded from the headlines. If the news cycle has moved on, it should not mean that our hearts should too. The humanitarian situation in the city is still extremely precarious, and the number of internally displaced people ever higher, with all the logistical problems this implies. In such a situation, it is easy to feel helpless. Yet: “Helpless, mind you, is not a synonym for hopeless. Quite the contrary, the Christian hope becomes manifest in the very event in which a people […] confess utter helplessness.” Many Syrian Christian groups responded to the crisis affecting their country by assisting those in need, irrespective of creed or political ideology. If we want to help, we should support these local, small scale efforts. This is where our help would make the greatest impact.
And at home, we should follow their example and open our arms to those whom the war brought to our countries. It is easy to be afraid of people we do not know. But as Christians, it is our duty to welcome them. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself” (Lev 19:33-34) Let us not be “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” (Eze 16:49).