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As the war in Syria enters its seventh year, the situation on the ground is changing. Daesh fighters are holed up in their capital Raqqa, awaiting the coming assault by the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Democratic Forces. Many Daesh fighters have left Raqqa for their likely last redoubt, Deir Al Zor, near the Iraqi border. The end is coming for the “caliphate” in northern Syria and Iraq proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014.
Al Qaeda affiliates and other insurgent groupings are largely concentrated in north-western Idlib province where they have been fighting each other for ascendancy. Another base for “Free Syrian Army” and al-Qaeda affiliates is being established by the Turks around Jarablus, a small town on the border with Turkey, in an effort to create a Syrian military force to counter Syrian Kurds who have carved out a wide band of territory stretching from the east to the place where the Euphrates River flows into Syria.
Following the recovery of insurgent-held eastern Aleppo at the end of last year the government held the country’s five major cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Homs and Hama - containing 80 per cent of the 18 million Syrians still in the country. The deadly suicide bombings in Damascus last week, however, show that Daesh and al-Qaeda could go underground and adopt the tactic they have designed for Iraq: attacking public places and locations where civilians gather in numbers.
The 450-kilometre road from Damascus to Aleppo now takes six hours along routes secured by frequent checkpoints. The journey by car before the war took six hours: at the worst of times the trip could take nine, ten or more. Slowly, painfully, gradually, the countryside, long dominated by opposition fighters, is being regained by the Syrian army and wrapped around cities and towns.
The route bypasses Homs, saving time in city traffic jams, and joins the Raqqa road. After Khanaser a rough, two-lane road opened three years ago passes through a wide plain lying between two mountain ranges, the range on the right held by Daesh, the slopes on the left by al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The Syrian army is in between. Along the route are empty, devastated villages of traditional mud-brick, beehive houses with conical roofs. In one, a few people are attending a funeral for someone returning to his dead village. A salt lake glimmers like a mirage behind a collection of squat ruins. The lake was used as a catchment area during last year’s battle for eastern Aleppo when Daesh released water from the channel to flood the plain and bog down troops and tanks approaching from the southeast. An hour’s drive from Aleppo armed soldiers stand guard at the junction of pipes and channels that will, once repaired, supply all Aleppo with water.
The army recently captured from Daesh the al-Khafsa area, the source of Aleppo’s water. The precious fluid is brought 77 kilometres by concrete lined channels from Lake Assad which is fed by the Euphrates River. Water had been used as a weapon of war by Daesh and other armed groups which turned it off and on at will, depriving the entire city of water for weeks and forcing residents to rely on polluted wells. At Jibrin, on the edge of Aleppo, stand cotton warehouses currently hosting refugees.
Eastern Aleppo has been portrayed in the western media as a totally devastated area. This is false news. Many neighbourhoods were damaged in the fighting, houses and flats were looted, but most buildings and apartments can be repaired. Here and there among them are the ruins of bombed and shelled blocks. Where battles raged there are zones of wreckage which only bulldozers can remedy.
It is estimated a quarter of the east’s former inhabitants have returned. Displaced families from elsewhere are settling in the east. Some returnees and new arrivals take over flats belonging to others and do not pay rent. Shops and street markets have sprung up. Cars and buses circulate and pedestrians fill the streets. Tens of thousands of children attend classes in 24 schools reopened by Unicef in early January. The Iranian Red Crescent Society has set up stalls where schoolchildren and hungry people can get a falafel sandwich at noon every day. The Red Cross and charitable organisations have positioned water tanks around the area as there is no water or electricity. Generators are few and far between.
The drive westwards through the former front lines is unremarkable. The west, like the east, is without piped water or electricity, but has largely been spared the damage and destruction wrought in the east. Traffic is heavy, generators roar and clack on pavements, restaurants and cafes are open and filled with customers, and streets are lined with stalls stocked with goods formerly sold in Aleppo’s blasted and burnt ancient souq.
The 20-storey Chahba Palace Hotel hosted a Chamber of Commerce bazaar and fete on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Three hundred stalls were set up in the hotel’s public rooms mainly by women entrepreneurs. Among them were shopkeepers, both men and women, from the Old City’s famous souq, constructed between the 12th and 16th centuries. The object of the annual three-to-four day bazaar is to encourage women to take up careers in trade and manufacturing. Staged by the Women’s Committee of the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce, the event brings together men, women and children from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Moderately damaged shops and workshops located in what used to be the war front are being repaired by their owners. Residents of Aleppo remain determined to recover and reassert the identity of the city that was, before the war, Syria’s commercial and industrial hub. Umm Muhammad, a refugee from the Raqqa countryside settled in east Aleppo, told The Gulf Today her husband is at work clearing debris from and repairing a factory that used to make glass. Since flats in many if not most of eastern Aleppo’s apartment blocks are without windows there is a fortune in glass panes these days. A Syrian architect estimated it could cost $10 billion to reconstruct eastern Aleppo’s housing and infrastructure.
The rebuilding of Syria should draw back to the city, thousands of construction workers who have plied their trade in neighbouring Lebanon, providing them with employment and enabling them to feed their families. However, to rebuild Syria needs peace and stability. For these essential blessings Syrians look hopefully to negotiations between the government and opposition due to open in Geneva this week.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict