A 'kind of madness' takes hold as Aleppo on brink of disaster
Not for the first time in Syria's bloody war, the fate of Aleppo hangs in the balance. The storied northwestern city, once part of the Silk Road route and a Unesco World Heritage site before the fighting left its historical quarters rubbled, now finds itself key to what may be a decisive twist in a conflict that has claimed more than 250,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
This month, President Bashar al-Assad's forces - backed from the skies by Russian fighter planes and on the ground by militias, including Lebanon's Hizbullah, working alongside fighters from their benefactor, Iran - launched a major offensive designed to encircle Aleppo and isolate districts where opposition forces have been bedded since 2012.
Their advance has resulted in the severing of one of the last two secure routes linking the city to Turkey. If the second route is also cut off, it would end supplies not only to opposition fighters holding out in Aleppo, but also to the estimated 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like several other communities across the country.
Such fears, along with sustained aerial bombardment by Russian forces in recent weeks, have prompted an exodus out of the city. Most have headed for the Turkish border.
"There has been a huge increase in civilian casualties as the bombing has intensified, with tens of thousands of people arriving at the border with Turkey," says Dalia Al-Awqati, director of programmes in northern Syria for Mercy Corps. "Camps near the Turkish border have effectively doubled in size and there is no end in sight to the long lines of displaced people desperately trying to survive. Our estimates say that roughly 70,000 people are currently moving towards the border."
Aleppo has been an opposition stronghold since summer 2012, when rebel fighters consolidated positions inside several neighbourhoods in a city which was and remains hugely symbolic and strategic for both regime and rebels. For Assad, losing all of what was Syria's commercial and industrial hub just 50 kilometres south of the Turkish border would have shaken his regime to the core. The opposition, meanwhile, saw Aleppo as a possible capital for their revolt, from where they could gradually expand their control.
I was in Aleppo in the early days of that rebel offensive four summers ago. In the dilapidated, rebel-held neighbourhood of Salahuddin, already being bombed by Assad's fighter jets, I met fighters and the civilians who supported them. This was before the hodgepodge rebel forces started to dangerously fracture allowing more militant groups to ascend, with Isil later finding a space in which to grow.
In a makeshift hospital on one street laid to waste by air strikes, I met Abdulmajid, a doctor who insisted he was not a fighter but felt he had to do something.
"I am trying to help in whatever way I can," he told me. "It feels like Assad has plunged our country into a kind of madness."
I met another man, a fighter, who told me that he was driven to take up arms against Assad out of revenge.
Regime loyalists had killed his wife and four children - the youngest only 8 months' old - in Homs, a city in central Syria which at that time had been devastated by fighting.
Since 2012, Aleppo has been roughly split between the regime and rebels, with Assad's forces mainly in the city's western flank and their opponents rooted in the east. Some neighbourhoods in between have see-sawed between both sides in a grinding, intimate war of attrition. Assad's forces have been barrel-bombing rebel-held districts for the last four years, targeting bakery queues and hospitals in attacks denounced by human rights groups.
Last September, the regime began a concerted push to retake the city, with Russia's military intervention and Iran's stepping up of its existing support allowing Assad's forces to make significant advances around the city's hinterland. By the first week of this month, they had it surrounded.
This week, the UN's human rights chief warned of "shocking" violence and abuses in and around Aleppo. At the same time, diplomats, who have gathered in Munich to discuss efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict, agreed to work out the terms of a nationwide "cessation of hostilities" over the next week.
Given how many previous attempts have faltered or failed, few hold out much hope of a real breakthrough. The Russian bombing of Aleppo continues, as does the stream of its residents towards the Turkish border, which remains shut.
I remember asking rebel commanders, in summer 2012, how long they expected the battle for Aleppo to take. "A month," one told me. "Weeks," said another. But it was the third man's response that proved the most prescient. "Only God knows," he said.