Some fifteen years ago I was lucky enough to go to Aleppo and see these sights, which made a great impression on me. In those days Syria was a peaceful country and the people seemed happy, though, of course, there was ample evidence everywhere of the repressive Assad regime, whose vast propaganda posters dominated the streets. People used to refer to President Assad and his two sons as “the Blessed Trinity”; to me they seemed a blackly comic trio. I also visited the city of Hama, to see the magnificent waterwheels along the River Orontes: that city was the site of an unsuccessful Muslim Brotherhood rebellion against the regime back in the early 1980’s which was put down with the utmost brutality. That was proof enough that the Assads wee no joke.
But what exactly is going on right now in Aleppo? Despite predictions to the contrary, the Assad regime is not in its death throes. Moreover, serious questions remain about the identity of the present rebels. My friends in Aleppo tell me that the rebels are foreign mercenaries from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Morocco, who are bank-rolled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Or is this a regime story that they are taking at face value?
My own personal view, for what it is worth, is that the Assad regime will survive this in some form or other. The sheer scale of destruction and violence may well force people to rally to the regime as the least bad option. Again, the regime may hope to bleed its enemies to death through a war of attrition. If it tries to do this, it is only following in the steps of the French nineteenth century politician Adolphe Thiers, as described by Sir Alistair Horne in his book The Fall of Paris. Thiers, you may remember, gave the rebels their head the better to cut them down later, in the hope that this would finally lay to rest Paris’s long history of revolutionary radicalism. Indeed, the destruction of the Commune in 1871 was followed by a huge political reaction, and there has never been another true political upheaval in the city since (unless one counts 1968). A Thiers-like solution may be what the regime is hoping for, followed by a hundred years of peace. Though that peace would be the peace of the graveyard. Poor Syria, poor Aleppo.
Meanwhile, I am told that the Armenian Orthodox Church dedicated to Saint George in the district of Meydan was destroyed by the rebels on Tuesday. Why destroy a church? Aleppo contains a large community of Armenians, many of whom came to the city to escape the Ottoman massacres of 1915. Now, as in Lebanon in the seventies, they are being engulfed by violence again. As I said, the news from Aleppo is most distressing.