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Syria: Ruling over Aleppo’s Ruins (Middle East Report N°234) [EN/AR]

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Aleppo was devastated by bombing and shelling during the Syrian war. It remains unsafe, with residents subject to shakedowns by the regime’s security forces and various militias. Damascus and its outside backers should curb this predation as a crucial first step toward the city’s recovery.

What’s new? Almost six years after retaking Aleppo, the Assad regime is again largely in control, but the city is a shadow of its former self. Many neighbourhoods remain in ruins from Syrian army shelling and Russian bombing. Militias roam the streets and an informal economy thrives, but there is little else.

Why does it matter? Aleppo was Syria’s largest city before 2011 and the hub of production, trade and services in the north. Its revival is key to the area’s long-term prosperity and stability. If a city of this importance cannot be rehabilitated, the future of other war-ravaged towns is bleaker yet.

What should be done? Damascus, plus Russia and Iran, could aid Aleppo residents and its formerly vibrant entrepreneurial class by reining in militias, restraining security agencies and regime cronies, and ending the persecution of people accused of opposition links. Large-scale reconstruction is off the table, but small internationally funded “recovery” projects can ease hardship.

Executive Summary

Aleppo offers a glimpse of the grim realities of post-war Syria. It was the country's largest city and its economic engine before the Syrian army and Russian air force bombed entire neighbourhoods into rubble, displacing most of the residents. Many people have yet to return and businesses to recover, as government-linked militias stake out turf, looting homes, demanding bribes and engaging in other forms of predation on those who have remained. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its allies are doing little to get the city back on its feet. Business leaders resent the arbitrary rule of state security agencies and the regime cronies in their shadow; many are leaving as an unhealthy economic climate perdures. Although they have shown little appetite for doing so thus far, Russia and Iran have an interest in using their influence to stop unruly militias from extorting residents and stealing property. Those steps would help revive the city.

Fighting came to Aleppo in mid-2012, spreading from the surrounding countryside and splitting the city into zones of regime and rebel control. Rebel-held areas were primarily informal settlements populated by labourers hailing from the hinterlands, while regime-held Aleppo, including primarily the city centre and its western flank, consisted of more affluent neighbourhoods. While the latter part of the city suffered damage, and the quality of public services and access to basic goods declined, an indiscriminate bombing campaign by the regime and its Russian ally destroyed and depopulated entire swathes of the former.

With Russian airpower and Iranian technical advice and ground support, the regime drove rebels out of Aleppo in late 2016 and fully retook the city. Yet the rebels’ defeat has not meant a return to stability, let alone prosperity, for Aleppo’s inhabitants. Large areas of the city remain in ruins and there is no evidence of a coordinated state vision or effort to rebuild them beyond estimating the number of destroyed buildings.

The security situation remains shaky. Regime forces have primary but not exclusive control of the city, as militias, though nominally aligned with the regime, engage in sporadic clashes with soldiers and one another and harass residents. Rebels are ousted, no foreign player has an interest in renewed intervention to challenge the regime and the population is too exhausted and impoverished by years of war, and too preoccupied with meeting basic needs, to stage another uprising. Moreover, most of the city’s inhabitants who were displaced to opposition-held areas or abroad have been unable to return, mainly because they fear either conscription or reprisal for their suspected involvement in the revolt.

Economically and socially, Aleppo is nothing like it was before the war. Regime-allied militias backed by Iran and Russia operate openly in neighbourhoods throughout the city, looting properties and shaking down residents at will. They and the security forces also levy heavy taxes on the city’s major economic activities: trade in products flowing in from the outside and lucrative generator monopolies to supplement meagre state electricity provision. These conditions make Aleppo's industrialists, many of whom moved their operations to neighbouring countries in the war’s early years, loath to risk reinvesting in their native city. Many of the skilled workers they formerly employed have also left and the constant threat of conscription facing all young males makes the supply of labour insecure. This situation renders the chances of even a partial return to the city’s pre-war economic vibrancy slim.

The Syrian regime lacks a comprehensive plan, much less the capacity, for rebuilding the city, and nothing suggests that international assistance is forthcoming. Neither of the regime’s backers, Russia and Iran, has expressed an intent to spend large sums on reconstruction. Western actors remain committed to a national political transition, believing that without it major investment will only reinforce the regime’s repressive rule and thereby aggravate the conflict. Some Gulf Arab states, notably the United Arab Emirates, have signalled that they may be prepared to support reconstruction, perhaps hoping to pull Syria out of Iran’s orbit and roll back the Turkish encroachment in the north, but they worry about running afoul of U.S. secondary sanctions on dealings with the regime. International organisations have expanded their humanitarian work but struggle to navigate a maze of often incoherent donor limitations on their mandate. They also face scepticism among beneficiaries who often doubt their bona fides, precisely because the regime has assented to their presence.

There is no early prospect of Aleppo – or any other Syrian city heavily damaged in the war – returning to its pre-2011 levels of prosperity or human well-being. Indeed, the experience of this city and other parts of Syria suggest that, rather than restrain militias and security services that exploit average citizens and businesses, the regime has moved to strengthen these elements in order to control society through a mosaic of fiefdoms. At the core of this form of rule is a shift from purely arbitrary predation on local populations during wartime to post-war plunder that sometimes comes with the trappings of legal procedure but is still unaccountable and stands in the way of even a modest recovery.

The city could nonetheless be made more hospitable for its entrepreneurial classes and more liveable for its residents. While large-scale reconstruction aid is out of the question, small internationally funded projects – reviving bakeries, for example, or restoring health facilities and sanitation systems – could help ease suffering, though offering no hope in themselves of bringing about structural change.

A far more consequential step would be for the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran to curb the predation of militias and security agencies, as well as regime cronies acting in the slipstream of, or in collusion with, the men with guns. Damascus has previously taken such action with smugglers and its own security agencies when they overstepped their bounds, while Russia and Iran could rein in militias and security agencies under their sway. At present, without complete control of Syria’s borders or territory, the regime lacks key aspects of statehood, meaning that Russia and Iran must periodically prop it up. Helping curb the chaos in Aleppo could relieve this headache for Moscow and Tehran in at least one important locale. Damascus and its foreign allies may be unable to stop the predation entirely, but if they can reduce its severity, they would help the city take a crucial first step toward recovery.

Aleppo/Beirut/Brussels, 9 May 2022