Syrian government forces seized a swathe of what was once rebel territory in Aleppo Monday, in one of the most dramatic shifts in the country’s 5-1/2-year long war. The divided northern city has paid dearly in lives and wealth as one of the war’s central theaters. In the past two weeks alone, over 250 civilians have been killed under the government’s intense bombardment of the city’s rebel-held eastern zones. A photo of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, who was rescued in August from the rubble of a missile-struck building, sitting alone in an ambulance, confused and covered in debris and blood, has become the haunting image of the unforgiving struggle.
A look at Aleppo:
A SHATTERED HISTORICAL TREASURE
Syria’s largest city and once its commercial center, Aleppo was a crossroads of civilization for millennia. It has been occupied by the Greeks, Byzantines and multiple Islamic dynasties. As one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Aleppo’s Old City was added in 1986 to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. But the civil war has damaged its landmarks, including the 11th-century Umayyad Mosque, which had a minaret collapse during fighting in 2012, the 13th-century citadel and the medieval marketplace, where fire damaged more than 500 shops in its narrow, vaulted passageways. Some historic sites have been used as bases for fighters. Aleppo was one of the last cities in Syria to join the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government.
THE KEY TO VICTORY
With rebel defenses crumbling in eastern Aleppo, Assad is on the brink of returning Syria’s largest city to his control. A government victory in Aleppo significantly bolsters Assad’s position in the international arena and legitimates the Russian and Iranian mobilizations to intercede on his behalf. Rebels still hold other pockets around the country, but any movement to unseat the president will have to reckon with the reality that he holds Syria’s four largest cities and its coastal region.
AN OCEAN OF SUFFERING
The government’s push has laid waste to Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods. An estimated quarter-million people are trapped in dire conditions in the city’s rebel-held eastern districts since the government sealed its siege of the enclave in late August. Food supplies are running perilously low, the U.N. has warned, and a relentless air assault by government forces has damaged or destroyed every hospital in the area.
The city’s western neighborhoods have suffered, too. After rebels swept into the city’s eastern districts in 2012, residents in the west withstood repeated sieges that drained their fuel and food stores. Shelling from the east and from the surrounding countryside, while far slighter in degree than the government’s bombardment of the east, has been constant, as well. Hundreds of civilians, including children, have died in their homes, schools, and city.
THE WARRING PARTIES
The main Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, controls several predominantly Kurdish northern neighborhoods. The main insurgent groups in the city are the Nour el-Din Zenki brigade, the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group and the Al-Qaida-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. The government’s forces are backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and augmented by Russian air power, as well.