Aleppo beyond a ceasefire
Leaving understandable mass skepticism aside, what happens if this latest US-Russia ceasefire deal actually starts working
The first days of the cessation of hostilities in Aleppo has witnessed the rare signs of genuine life in this once great Syrian city. Children are even playing in the streets. A relieved hospital worker smiles: “We used to have blood stained sheets every morning before the ceasefire. It felt like we had to change them a thousand times a day. But thank God, today all our beds are clean…”
Leaving understandable mass skepticism aside, what happens if this latest US-Russia ceasefire deal actually starts working, if the barrel bombs do stop, if the snipers’ rifles are out away. At the moment, most parties are preparing for its failure, using the lull to recuperate and resupply forces; whilst aid agencies try to restock depleted vital supplies above all in Aleppo. Naturally if you prepare for failure, you will not be disappointed.
It is this city, the trophy of the north, which may become the yardstick of success or failure. The futility of this conflict is never clearer than here in this city where the regime and a host of armed opposition and hardline Islamist groups have fought over since 2012.
Let us also be clear. Four years ago it was Turkish pressure that in large part led to the armed opposition attacking Aleppo, a city that was largely reluctant in joining the public demonstrations against the regime that spread over many parts of Syria. It was a sign of the acute regional interest that continues to this day.
Many in Aleppo, whilst despising the regime, did not want an opposition attack knowing the calamitous destructive regime response that would follow. Yet, it is this regional element that has to be addressed at once if Aleppo is not to return to fighting where neither side appears capable of winning.
So, having seen the US and Russia reach a raft of shaky understandings, will anyone dare to mediate amongst the regional powers? Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the principle actors who have to change tack and de-escalate.
One Syrian armed opposition figure lamented that Syrians in Aleppo only negotiated over vital essentials of life – water, electricity, and fuel, but their futures were determined by outside powers, and Syrians saw no hope in even trying to get involved. We still have not got to a stage where Syrians are allowed to talk to Syrians about Syria.
A city that for centuries had hosted communities from a raft of ethnicities and sects, the western end of the Silk Road, faces coming to terms with the consequences of a bitter civil, regional and proxy warChris Doyle
Diverse Syrian actors on the ground have worked out understandings about water and fuel. Ahali Halab (the people of Aleppo initiative) works across city lines to repair water pipes and pumping stations. This is a civil society project, whose workers are respected both by the regime and the armed opposition groups because without their work, life could not continue. It is the same logic that sees ISIS providing water for regime controlled Aleppo in return for electricity for ISIS controlled countryside.
To buttress any possible sign that a ceasefire might last, change on the ground must start and soon. Only if civilians see the genuine possibility of improvements can there be a hope of sticking. Security clearly is the top factor. Any end of bombing is a start but a local deal for Aleppo to support a national ceasefire is a necessity.
This should include a mechanism for undoing the divisions and allowing safe access across lines for civilians. Further down the line perhaps, displaced Aleppans still inside the city may want to return to their homes in other areas but only in a secure setting.
Above all there must be a proper monitoring mechanism. Back during the last ceasefire in February Syrians were expected to contact the US or Russia. Infamously the US State Department could not even find proper Arabic speakers to service the calls. Yet this is of course a nonsense.
Any complainant from regime or opposition held areas would never be deemed independent. The other past failure was only having 276 UN monitors in the first major ceasefire in Syria in 2012, a truly inadequate number for a country of that size.
Following that will be economic security. The war economy in Syria including Aleppo is rife. How can young men drawn to armed militias be weaned away from them in the absence of any traditional employment opportunities? Traditional economic activity should be encouraged to stimulate a peace economy.
The physical reconstruction will take years – over half the listed sites in Aleppo has been destroyed or gravely damaged by 2015. The priority here must though be infrastructure before heritage. Burst sewage pipes have already contaminated the water system for example.
But the toughest challenge by far will always remain the psychological devastation. A city that for centuries had hosted communities from a raft of ethnicities and sects, the western end of the Silk Road, faces coming to terms with the consequences of a bitter civil, regional and proxy war. Can these communities once again throng the streets of this ancient metropolis?
To have a chance, this ceasefire has not just to take hold but lead to genuine change. All eyes will be on Aleppo to see if this might be possible.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.