Syrian children stand in the entryway of their tent shelter in the Bab Al Salame camp for internally displaced persons in Aleppo Governate. Photo: UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

The Siege of Aleppo Could Be the Most Depraved Moment of the Entire Syrian Civil War

On 9th July the Syrian regime closed the last open road to eastern Aleppo. Bashar Al-Assad’s forces now control what goes in and goes out of the rebel-held city – and the 300,000 people are trapped inside.

The siege had long been predicted. Aleppo – the former economic powerhouse of Syria – is a prize trophy and if President Assad can force the rebels to surrender, he could win the war.

Aleppo first became a centerpiece in 2012 when the battle to control Aleppo split the city between regime-held and rebel-held areas. Headlines about Aleppo tend to refer to rebel-held Aleppo, but the city contains two radically different places – government-controlled Western Aleppo and rebel-held eastern Aleppo, with extremist groups like Al-Nusra and Islamic State frequently seizing and relinquishing territory.

Life under siege will likely be dire. International law prohibits the use of siege warfare, but it has been used by both sides in this conflict to demoralize and disable civilians. Eastern Aleppo is home to the largest population in Syria living under rebel conditions – they are now bargaining tools in a battle of will and stamina.  AFP reports that hundreds of people are queuing for bread rations. Residents seem to be digging-in – food prices are up to ten times higher than pre-war levels as fears spread that it could be a very long wait before the next delivery of goods.

Abu Mohamed was combing through a nearby half-empty vegetable market in a bid to find potatoes, which now go for five times the price they did last week — about 500 Syrian pounds ($1) a kilo.

“I have four children and I don’t know what we will eat today,” he said.

“The markets are totally empty, I couldn’t find anything. Everything is missing — eggs, yogurt, cheese, vegetables.”

Abu Mohamed, a tailor, said his salary of 25,000 Syrian pounds was no longer enough to feed his family.

“The prices are so high now, so my income isn’t enough for a single week.”

The UN says it has enough food pre-positioned to feed the city for two weeks.

A building severely damaged by an airstrike in Aleppo City, Syria. Photo: OCHA/Gemma Connell
A building severely damaged by an airstrike in Aleppo City, Syria. Photo: OCHA/Gemma Connell

Sieges of other cities have been barbaric

600,000 people in 19 places in Syria are considered to live under siege. Reports from other cities cannot be far from residents’ minds – in Madaya people have resorted to eating grass and 65 have reportedly died of starvation. Medical supplies in Aleppo are also running out. Meanwhile air strikes on rebel areas continue. 12 people were killed on Thursday, according to monitoring groups.

But the situation in Aleppo is a tale of two cities. A battle line divides the city, and in regime-controlled western Aleppo – not under siege – thousands face the retaliatory bombs and bullets of rebel groups.

People live within meters of opposition territory – their view into the parallel reality encumbered only by rubble and occasional border crossings. Since the siege was imposed, rebel groups have launched a large number of mortar bombs and bullets across the border into Western Aleppo. This frontline zig-zags through residential and commercial areas, turning the city into the battleground. On Saturday an estimated 38 people including 14 children died when rebels launched mortars, including into al-Furqan, an area not previously targeted. As Assad’s forces crank up the pressure on rebel Aleppo, opposition groups may take their own civilian hostages by violent attrition.

Rami Jarrah, a journalist reporting from Syria, told UN Dispatch in February that easy border crossings exist between the two halves of the city. But civilians crossing from rebel-held Aleppo are considered traitors to the regime. This persecution means that residents of eastern Aleppo are unlikely to escape the siege by crossing into the west. Episodes of temporary relief from besiegement that have happened in other parts of Syria are also probably not on the cards. Aleppo is the battle to win the war – and neither side are likely to give any ground.

Meanwhile what were once just streets and houses standing next to each other continue to be opposing sides in a conflict that has an ever-decreasing respect for the value of human life – with their residents facing starvation, blockade and bombs, the siege of Aleppo is just the latest but perhaps most deadly stage.