x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

As Aleppo burns, her friends are left to watch and wait

Around 250,000 people are believed to have fled Aleppo. Yet over 2 million remain, with food in short supply and water and electricity supplies intermittent for the lucky ones in areas not yet heavily affected by the fighting.

For the past few weeks, I have been observing, with increasing nervousness, the latest tragedy in Syria. The struggle for control of the country's second city, Aleppo, is now the defining battle.

For the first time, the regime of Bashar Al Assad has deployed aircraft, as well as helicopters, to confront rebels who themselves have begun using heavy weapons, including tanks, captured from the government's forces. As urban warfare in the narrow streets of districts like Salaheddin continues, the stage is being set for a climactic engagement in which Aleppo, home to 2.5 million people, could be ravaged.

A victory for Mr Assad's forces here won't end the continued spread of opposition resistance elsewhere. And even if government forces were defeated and forced to withdraw, the regime could still hang on, for a while at least, as long as it is willing to continue using heavy weaponry to defend its interests.

And it is this fear - that the Assad regime will continue its brutality in Aleppo - that worries me most. What will become of the city, and those who are trapped within it?

Among those in the path of Mr Al Assad's destruction are over a dozen members of an extended family that I know well. They've taken no part in demonstrations, either for or against the regime. They're not engaged in the politics of the conflict, but, like all of Aleppo's residents, they are among those suffering from it and continue to be threatened by it.

In the early days of the Syrian uprising, it always seemed clear that it would eventually reach Aleppo. For months I have urged my friends to leave. But that was easier said than done. With such a large family they simply kept postponing a decision, worried about their possessions, and worried where they should go or how they could leave.

The grandmother, who lived through the bombings and street battles of the Lebanese civil war, found it hard to accept that things could get so bad again. And so they stayed, steadfast, as the situation deteriorated.

It was little things that changed first. No customers for the hotel in which one daughter worked, for instance, so she was laid off.

The small business owned by one of the sons-in-law was driven to the wall.

The inexorable decline in the value of the Syrian currency made the few dirhams being sent from the UAE even more important, as power cuts and food shortages cut into daily diets.

Then, a few weeks ago, before conflict reached the city, one of the sons-in-law was kidnapped by armed men. He was released only after a large ransom was paid.

Inevitably, open conflict arrived. And as it did, the grandchildren have invented new games: counting the number of explosions they could hear as government artillery lobbed shells into tightly-packed residential areas, or counting the soldiers or other armed men they could see in the street below.

Clearly it is time for them to try to leave, but how?

The grandchildren didn't have passports. A perilous journey across the city to join the thousands queueing in a passport office that, miraculously, was still functioning, with three employees trying their best to cope with demand, solved that problem.

But the family is in the south of the city, close to the fighting.

From the northern suburbs, the route to Turkey is relatively easy. That, however, leaves open the risk of an air attack.

They could choose to escape to the south, into the countryside. Then again, the area is contested by regime and rebel forces. Fighting has been heavy. A car is available, but groups of armed men of uncertain allegiance line every road in and out.

Staying put is, at best, a risky alternative, even before the "mother of all battles" promised by the government. The kidnappers called the son-in-law the other day, threatening that they would kidnap his son unless yet another huge amount was paid over to them.

I hope his hiding place is secure.

For now, my friends - like hundreds of thousands of others - are stuck.

Around 250,000 people are now believed to have fled Aleppo, to safer areas in the countryside, or across the border into Turkey. Yet over 2 million remain, with food in short supply and water and electricity supplies intermittent for the lucky ones in areas not yet heavily affected by the fighting.

The grandmother, a lady of great charm and strength, remains positive for the sake of the rest of the family, even if she must be feeling deeply worried inside. Could it be any worse than the darkest days of the Lebanese civil war, she asks?

But in that war, heavy weapons were rare, there was no air force seeking to level buildings, and there were certainly no shabbiha to sow terror in the minds of all those who cowered for safety.

I cannot predict when the culmination of the battle for Aleppo will come, or indeed, what it will bring. It will not be the end of the conflict in Syria.

For that, we'll have to wait for the fall of the regime. Even then, sectarian - rather than ethnic - cleansing might make the Bosnian bloodbath look like a picnic.

For now, though, I mostly pray for my friends, still unharmed as I write, and for the multitude of Aleppo's non-combatants, trapped in this unfolding nightmare.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in Emirati culture and heritage