The deep frustration at being able to map the Syrian civil war around Aleppo–combining the actual inability to map the factions in the conflict, and the actual unmappability of the deeply unsettling destabilization of civil society in the five-year civil war which is waged by outside actors, as much as by the Syrian government–has sapped confidence in the ability to negotiate a cease-fire or indeed to find a civil solution to a conflict that has both created an ongoing flow of refugees and destroyed civil society in the region, as well as an equilibrium of power. And the more we are frustrated in being unable to map the conflict and its descent into inhumane violence, the more violent it has become and the farther removed from being able to exist again as a country.
Any theater of war is extremely difficult to endow with coherence in a map–one speaks of the “fog of war” to describe the clouded experience in the confusion of military conflicts. But the difficulty of gaining purchase on the extent of the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo that is particularly troubling–and troublingly matched by the difficulty of mapping or imagining the targeting of the city and Aleppo’s inhabitants and the refugees who have left the city. The failure to describe, document, or respond to the costs in the sustained aerial bombardment in recent months seems an abdication of ethical responsibility before such escalated destruction that almost fails to acknowledge its scope. The terror of aerial strikes against civilians have led to the targeted destruction of schools and hospitals in the rebel-occupied regions of the city hard to imagine, as a besieged city is isolated from the world. While we don’t have access to the maps and plans that were used during the sustained engagement of rebel forces in Aleppo, and have rather watched screen-shots of the diminishing areas of the region “held” by “rebel forces” over months, those very images distance us from the human rights tragedies that is occurring on the ground with the dismantling of public health care and social institutions, as if extending so many false possibilities of the tenuous grasp over territory of opposition groups. With unclear data on suffering, deaths, refugees or destroyed buildings in the encircled city, we map territory as the clearest index of the balance of war, but ignore the scale or scope of its ongoing bombardment and destruction, as the country has not only “gone dark”–
–but the city destroyed under unimaginable sustained assault.
News wire sources have tried to “map” the extent of those lines areas held in the heavily bombed city, to be sure, in recent months. But the absence of clear lines of jurisdiction or control of a battle that is increasingly waged from a move–but shown as if it were a land war–echoes the military divisions of cities in ways that seem incommensurate with the suffering or mischaracterization of the actors of the war, and the lack of limits with which the Assad regime has enlisted foreign help to destroy its former cultural capital and economic hub, as if trying to efface the opposition that it has for so long successfully tarred by their association to ISIS and the Islamic State–and as a media blitz has tried to portray the battle in Aleppo as a fight against ISIS rather than a defining moment in the escalation of military forces against one’s own people by Bashar al-Assad.
Even though the aerial attacks on Aleppo began as early as July 2012, the escalation of attacks by Russian bombers that began to target buildings and humanitarian supplies with intensity from July 2016. While we were in the midst of the farce of our recent American Presidential election, we have watched maps of the Syrian conflict at an odd remove, depicting the city the city as a multi-colored sectored region, as if a point of stasis in slippy map of sovereignty, as much as a focal point where five different forces seem to lock horns. The disservice of these opaque colors seem to erase and to be done such a deep disservice with Microsoft Paint. And as we do so, we can only fail in an attempt to chart the intensification of suffering that is only like to increase in coming months, as the shrinking green lands held by rebel forces have depicted the so-called “situation in Syria” in increasingly disembodied fashion.
Thomas Van Linge/Newsweek/@arabthomness
As we watch the layers of colors, trying to map the levels of conflict from an empyrean remove that has echoed the official policy of not putting “boots on the ground,” we fail to account for the destruction of houses, massive departures of residents, targeting of humanitarian assistance and destroyed infrastructure and human services in the city. The layers with which we discriminate a war-torn city set to conceal terrifying human costs in the rather terrifying palette of pastels in its curious camouflage, as if to hold out hope for an amicable solution, but to erase the destruction of civilian lives, hospitals, residences, or food and needs supplies that tried to arrive in the light green rebel-held areas of the city that suggest an island around the Citadel of Aleppo.
November 1, 2016/
For the limited information about Aleppo’s continued destruction by aerial attacks as well as bombardments makes the extent of the human costs its destruction increasingly difficult to render with coherence. This absence of this coherence perhaps leadt some twenty-nine million to be struck by viewing the dazed five-year old Omran Daqneesh and the tragically bloodstained face from which he gazes somewhat stoically and looks at his bloodied hand–as if dazed to be transported from the scenario of violence in which he lived to what seems a setting of sanitized medical care, his blood-stained face contrasting to the clean orange cushions of an emergency ambulance. The transferal of Omran from the battlefield like context of Aleppo to the emergency health care vehicle show him dazed not only at his change of context, but almost in shock of being in a controlled ambulance in which he sits, if a sign of hope, is also emblematic of the inability or difficulty to bridge the controlled context of medical and clinical care of the Emergency Medical Services and the rubble of the besieged city, almost the negative image of a controlled environment: the image circulated by Aleppo Media Centre was emblematic of the dissonance between the emergency services and the onslaught of bombs where civilians are targeted daily amidst the rubble of the besieged city, so that the dazed look of poor Omran seems a substitute for our own helpless bewilderment at the war crime of the sustained aerial bombing of Aleppo’s buildings, health care providers, hospitals, and inhabitants.
If the image is manipulative–and difficult to include in yet another post on Aleppo–its power seems to derive from the failure we feel between inability of the child who touches his hand to his head, to take stock of his head injury as he tries to process the loss of his family, after being carried by an emergency worker into the new setting of an ambulance. The image was so poignant it was shared so widely all over the world on Facebook, as we searched collectively for an emblem of good, of one child rescued from the violence of Aleppo–as nine million Facebook users tried to transcend the broken windows, destroyed buildings, and slim hopes for the survival of Aleppo’s citizens, increasingly targeted in inhumane ways to which we are so unable to respond.
For if there is a lack of any coherent purchase on the city’s destruction on such an unprecedented scale of its bombardment, even for the Syrian Civil War, the saving of one child after his family was lost allowed the survival of a child to exist in the blood-streaked face of the five-year-old Omran Daqneesh that circulated globally on social media seemed finally to locate a “face of the Syrian Civil War” against the city’s dire destruction. Indeed, the actual improvised settings of health care in eastern Aleppo–
Thaer Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images
–continued as bombs continued to strike the neighborhoods and where the living and dead lay beside one another in emergency rooms that lacked adequate medical supplies. The absence of medical assistance or facilities, even as Bashar al Assad rejects the last proposal proposed by the United Nations for a local truce that recognized any claims to separate sovereignty of rebel forces, if it was not armed, arguing that it was a violation of “national sovereignty,” seems to have invited an endgame of increased military raids, as the “area held by rebel forces” has shrunk in recent days to a small region curving around the medieval fortified Citadel, sandwiched between advancing regime forces.
The garishly bloodied face of Omran, the sole survivor of an air strike on his family home in Aleppo’s rebel -held territories, seemed a ghost, but served as a respite from images of the dead, and his transport to an ambulance from the horror of Aleppo seemed a promise of the future. The image posted by the Aleppo Media Center provided little orientation to the actual struggle, but the apparent shock of the contrast of Omram’s evident transport, his face and T-shirt covered in dirt and blood, to safety offered more than a reprieve from image of dead children: seated in an ambulance, fingering his bloodied head, his place provided a bizarre juxtaposition of a world of safety and medical supplies who had moved from the bombing of his family’s building in a war-torn city we can barely map. The arrival of the child into a setting of Western safety almost seemed an image of the precareity of saving a child out of its destruction, and preserved an odd ability of hope even as airstrikes would soon hit four hospitals in east Aleppo, and continue to target civilians.
Soon after the image Omar carried to an ambulance was put online, it went viral. It was an emblem of survival in the face of scarce chances of survival of most residents–and depp difficulty of grasping the intensity of the systematic destruction of Aleppo from August, 2016. Seeing Omar’s blood-streaked face may have temporarily punctured distance from the bombardment of the city probably by Russian planes. But the costs of such bombardment are impossible to chart, and of a city that is increasingly destroyed by bombing raids in destructive ways, barely concealed behind Putin’s flimsy and transparent narrative of attacking ISIS terrorists. Despite Bashar al-Assad’s sanctioning of the bombing raids, viewers of Facebook turned to Omran’s survival from a mortar blast in which his ten year old brother died. But the power of the image compensates for the helpless relation to the place, and its poignancy in contrasting the child’s red blood and bloodstained orange cushions–its punctum–seems a counterpart for the distressing lack of mapping what remains of Aleppo–the scale of either human lives or of war crimes.
Despite widespread posting of the image, such vicarious observation of tragic terror may testify to the inability to map its destruction satisfactorily, or the inability to communicate the bombing of the city with sufficient clarity or effect. It is true that Omran’s survival is a glimmer with which we can identify, but the physicians who are photographing the small children hit by gunfire from aircraft or hurt by mortars who made it to hospitals allow us to tell a story of survival. But even as the extent of human suffering in Aleppo cannot be adequately visualized, and the increasing attempt to tire out residents of the city to attain a tantamount surrender seems almost inevitable, the failure to map the disgusting transformation of the city into a battlefield in which Bashar al-Assad once again has given assent to the destruction of his own civilian populations and indeed Syria’s heritage, as if to illustrate his unacceptability as its future leader. As Syrian are apparently joined by Russian airplanes to fire highly explosive missiles as well as gunfire on the remaining residents of Aleppo, are we also somehow failing Aleppo in not being able to map the scale of its destruction? We are in danger of loosing site, in mapping the divisions of the city by armed forces, as if it was an occupied city, to fail to confront the tragic reasons for the vulnerability of its populations and children to such war crimes. And we are perhaps also in danger of failing to appreciate the scope of Russia’s commitment to such escalated violence of aerial attacks with bunker busters and thermobaric missiles to the broader stakes of using Syria’s commitment to developing a site for nuclear arms.
1. “What is Aleppo?” wondered a mind-fogged Gary Johnson in one of the many darkly comedic episodes of the recent disastrous U.S. Presidential election–an election where maps may have similarly distracted us from its frightening stakes.
We might better ask where the bombed out city most often only mapped by lines of factional control lies as it increasingly seems to be disappearing from the world. The mute distance from a human rights tragedy of increasing proportions. If most maps of the city can mostly only convey the divisions in the city, or perhaps statistics and casualties, their distance is bolstered by the increasing narrative that the bombing was inevitable and that the cease-fire negotiated by Russian and American counterparts was destined to fail, an underlying narrative that seems implicit in most legends of the city. The mapping of both the intensified aerial bombardment of Aleppo and of the regions of the bombed out city is increasingly difficult to render commensurate with the crimes against its residents’ human rights. Since the city’s encirclement of government forces, maps of sectors held by different splinters of forces who have dominated the Syrian Civil War is increasingly less adequate to envision the increased aerial bombardment from flight paths of Russian planes carrying larger payloads, and the targeting of a city that seems soon to be displaced from the map, together with so many of its former residents, if they are not killed.
If Aleppo is the only area that is able to resist the Syrian regime’s force, it is the last city held by rebels in part, and as become the theater of a deadly endgame of the Civil War. It is an epicenter of the violence of physical displacement from a map, as foreign air power seems to direct bombs of far more destructiveness and intensity to what was once the largest city in Syria and its economic center. Aleppo’s displacement is quite unlike the three million Syrian refugees displaced over five years, and cannot be compared to it, but seems a displaced city and a battleground for the survival of a state that can be nominally held by Bashar al-Assad, even if his forces no longer seem to be alone in directing the inhumane level of violence with which it is bombarded, or the human and social rights violations that the bombing entails. For from the time of the encircling of Aleppo by government forces, rendered in pink, YPG in yellow, and rebel-held areas in green. The city has been isolated from any supplies, the social and human rights of the inhabitants who live on the streets we can detect in rather ghostly form beneath overlays that project imagined distinctions along clear divides between green to designate the isolated rebel forces, pink for the forces of the Syrian regime or grey for the ISIL forces on the road to Raqqa, and yellow as YPG–a distribution telling less the story of the city’s destruction or the human traffic, or the effects of night-times bombing whose results are revealed each dawn, than perpetuating the idea of a city where sectors, starved of supplies, are isolated and increasingly targeted as terrorists without social or human rights.
The increased aerial bombardment of the city by air routes have ratcheted up a level of uncertainty and desperation in Aleppo, and all but prevented humanitarian assistance or medical needs save by evacuating the city. The bombardment of the city is absent from maps of areas that each faction holds of the country which foreground the shrinking area of rebel control around the ten km stretch of the besieged city, but create the illusion of anything like stable government. Despite the defense of those areas which government control had previously not encircled, as they were countered by rebel forces who protected the supply routes into the city, even as greater land fell, the shrinkage of rebel contingents to an isolated area of one-time density, forced now to try to undertake infrastructural repairs as water or electricity, as many quarters have recourse to local wells, and displaced moved to schools or mosques, and an increased number of displaced live in tents.
But if the battle lines have long been fiercely defended on the streets and city blocks of the city of Aleppo, the increased violations of human rights are hardly captured or registered in the maps that overlay the sectorization of the city onto its street plan: although they may note airstrikes and suggest their density, they hardly communicate the wreckage that exists on the ground. To be sure, no maps are prized for their verisimilitude, but the terrain around Aleppo is oddly absent from human habitation, and leads one only to pause before the focussed violence that seems to be clustered around the very border of western and eastern Aleppo, but have in recent weeks included a significantly greater firepower and destructive force than the city had seen before. Can the greater intensity of bombardment be mapped, in ways that orient viewers to the apparent design of the increased unlivability of the city?
For the battle from the air over Aleppo demands to be mapped by its own overlay, encompassing the increased flights by bombers carrying more violent munitions, destined to destroy houses and underground tunnels in the city, that have rendered it as bombed out as it is, and render the heights of desperation in the city itself. The bombardment is so violent, indeed, that it is difficult to map or embody the extent of violence as aircraft, most often of Russian origin, are systematically leveling against a city that symbolically holds continued status as the most vibrant center of Syria past. Even as the city is a shell of its former self, of questionable geographic significance, the undermining of its infrastructure, attacks on supply convoys and hospitals, and destruction of residences and neighborhoods are an endgame of sorts that has no real end in sight. As sectors of the old city resist, encircled by regime troops, most residents are pushed out of safe or secure housing and in precarious positions with little access to food, heating, blankets, or needed supplies, and cordoned off as if to die–as all humanitarian assistance and food, as well as much water, is cut off from the city isolated from former supply chains that had allowed its inhabitants to survive. If some 150,000 residents have fled the city, Aleppo has become a center for shelters for displaced persons–now targeted by renewed aerial attack.
How can this continuing displacement, pushed by increasingly strong attacks on the city, be adequately visualized by data overlays–and might it ever be? For after being punctuated by a briefly if poorly negotiated cease-fire, which failed to involve all parties on the ground, and failed to win honest commitments from multiple parties, the violence and displacement has escalated and beyond the previous five years, as the city’s buildings and infrastructure is increasingly destroyed to a degree that it seems displaced–as gains in Eastern and Southern Aleppo of Syrian regime troops grow, and Syrian troops seem even to have pushed cautiously into eastern Aleppo’s streets, and promised that the killing of over 300 civilians in eastern Aleppo will prepare fro “a crucial and decisive land offensive,” as Russia refuses not to veto a resolution demanding an end to the bombing.
October 3, 2016/
–in ways that many of there refugees who were dispersed by the continuous civil war were pushed outside of the borders and boundaries of the former Syrian state, and live in the neighboring states of Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq or Jordan, or have moved to Europe and other more removed states. As the townships that have grown up beyond the Syrian borders run by UNHCR, either in temporary shelters of shipping containers or tent settlements have themselves created a new terrain from 2013 of ethical responsibility across the region–
as well as the over seven million internally displaced–
European Commission, January 2015
–that echoes the displacement of neighborhoods, buildings, and populations in most cities that have continued to redraw the map of Aleppo after the five years of its siege. If the continuity of these maps are hardly able to communicate the dispersal of refugees and displaced people who were forced to flee the Syrian Civil War, the symbolic continuity of city map cannot begin to show the concentrations of destruction that have redefined Aleppo.
Aleppo is a city that is surrounded by refugee villages, and the tenacity of rebel forces is dues to the resistance in admitting Assad’s consolidation of power over the former state that his father ran, whose ongoing siege assumes new status only in the light of the regime’s ability to expel the rebel forces to rural areas, but has become a heightened point of tension as Russian bombers flying from Iran seem committed to secure the city for Bashar al-Assad, without care for humanitarian consequences. If it is by no means the center of displacement, or displaced persons–
REACH, Displacements from Northern Syria
–the theater of war in Aleppo makes it both a center of displacement and a site where the displaced are increasingly trapped. Among the three million Syrian refugees this may seem not , but the progress of the Siege of Aleppo and its escalation of war crimes against residents of the region suggests, in its excessive use of violence, the need to take stock of this quagmire of a future face of war, with no sense of human rights or social rights, and push back against its bizarrely apparent triangulation of third-party bombing raids that have rendered the city’s residents faceless to their own government.
2. The tragic counterpart to this displacing of populations of Syria in the ongoing Civil War may be the increasingly displaced landscape of Aleppo. The city’s remaining inhabitants are not only regularly displaced themselves from destroyed neighborhoods, but are witnessing the destruction of the largest city in the country, once the nation’s financial capital–whose bombing seems intentionally to impede the arrival of health supplies and humanitarian aid, as intensified shelling of neighborhoods of Eastern Aleppo weekly kill hundreds of civilians weekly of the 250,000-275,000 trapped in the eastern part of city. Indeed, since Russian troops announced the reclassification and demonization of rebels as “terrorists”–and sought to persuade the United Nations to label them as terrorists, as if to justify the increased attack against the population remaining in the city, and to deny that they have anything like social rights to housing, safety, or food.
The targeting of Aleppo has paralleled the curtailing of the delivery of humanitarian supplies. From July 2016, this reached a symbolic turning point, as the regime tightened its hold on the city as government forces encircles Aleppo, isolating it from supplies, and cut off most of the supplies reaching the green overlay noting civilians in eastern Aleppo, in hopes to isolate its population by preventing the deliveries on Castello Road, shown in a dashed green line–
July 2015, Aleppo Project/LiveuaMaps
as they sought to hold most of the territory of the western city to isolate rebel forces in the eastern half that have been increasingly targeted by inhumane bombing by bunker-buster bombs, thermobaric bombs and fire bombs that have so changed the landscape of the city in the last two months.
The recent targeted bombing of an inter-agency multi-truck convoy flying Red Crescent flags as it was parked just outside the city on September 19, 2016 was something of a dramatic turning point for Western media in its targeting of civilians. But it was also a culmination . For the city was increasingly targeted by overhead bombs with particular destruction, similar to the firebombs that were directed to the Red Crescent convoy. With many of the remaining residents cannot find secure shelter themselves, with no electrical generators or power, and dramatically curtailed access to food–with few families having supplies that seem to last beyond four days, and all markets deteriorated if not curtailed, and access to safe water increasingly precarious.
Households in Aleppo lacking supplies of food beyond four days/REACH resource centre Sept., 2016
The failure to know how map–or to try to map–the recent escalation of rounds of mortar, surface-to-surface missiles, shrapnel, barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and bunker-buster bombs that have fallen and now continue to fall on Aleppo’s buildings may prevent appreciating the scope of its human rights disaster. The scale of such local destruction is perhaps not able to be embodied in maps, indeed, since the data is not available–often all we have is grainy video, as if the war, as so much of the five-year Syrian Civil War, was being held off-camera, and out of the public eye. Despite the shocking of the remove of trying to orient oneself most remotely sensed maps of the city, the absence of any clear analytic to adequately record or to effectively mediate such damage assessment makes us feel both more remote from its destruction. And the failure to embody the progressive ratcheting up of the city’s aerial bombardment may be a failure more profound than we can now understand, as the city is effectively displaced from its historical setting, and what used to be the largest city and most active economic hub of the nation is increasingly displaced from its past. Indeed, the remote maps from which the destruction of Aleppo’s skyline or night-time illumination poorly embody the extent of local destruction or capture the scope of what appears an intentional destruction of the city and indiscriminate targeting of its inhabitants in the encircled city. For the attack on Aleppo has proceeded from crude barrel-bombs launched from helicopters of the Syrian regime that destroyed parts of the city’s rebel-held territories in 2014, the recent targeting of remaining hospitals and underground passageways by bunker-buster bombs and inhumane thermobaric bombs and fire bombs–whose use is prohibited by International Law–has ratcheted up the level of destruction of the city in order to force an unconditional surrender and create a strike of historical proportions that Syrians will not forget.
Destruction of Barrel Bombs Hurled from Helicopters in Aleppo, 2014/AFP
As if to response to Americans’ admitted inability to know the identities of many of those killed by drones in its own “War on Terror,” the attempts of Russians–as much as of the Syrian government–to label fighters in Aleppo as terrorists may seek to given license to unleash an unprecedeted escalation of night-time bombing raids over the city at costs that we are not likely to fully appreciate or come to terms with for some time, or that the city will be able to recover from. “The Syrian army understands that the battle for Aleppo will likely take a long time,” admitted a pro-regime reporter with ties to the military, as the army escalated its siege and took over lands outside the city, under Russian air cover, hoping to change the military map of Aleppo definitively, and recapture the city by advancing into rebel-held areas, less by an invasion than by wearing the rebels down, as the Syrian regime’s allies–Iran; Hezbollah; Russia–are prepared to destroy the city to drive out its resistance.
Eastern Aleppo/September, 2016
3. The majority of Syrian refugees overall do not originate from Aleppo–if many were displaced both from the formerly highly populous city and the region. But the rapid transformation of the city and the displaced destroyed an urban landscape of the ancient city increasingly a theater of war. For the bombardment that began in mid-2012 has so escalated and grown in intensity since the offensive of the Syrian National Army in June 2016 and in recent months that while earlier bombs struck the city at points to shock its remaining inhabitants into surrender, what now seems an intent erasure of its places of historical habitation have been destroyed the urban landscape in ways that challenge mapping–and parallel a huge crisis in human rights as a result of the bombing of the city without restraint in preparation for subduing populations that had long resisted the Syrian regime.
With few data leaving Aleppo and limited witnesses on the ground, we seem to be reduced to watching the ongoing bombing of the city from outside, viewing isolated images, and trying to piece together and synthesize an image of how the rumors of an intent to destroy all resistance in the city will play out, or what Aleppo will look like afterwards. To be sure, the over two hundred thousand killed in the war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad define any easy data visualization, and tallies of dead cannot express the extent of violence, which appears best perhaps as a blood-soaked image of the region, if the blood can help obscure the huge numbers of a loss of lies, and indeed conflate the image of Syrian refugees with the bodies of the dead–
–but the challenges of the changed urban bombed out landscape of Aleppo provide an ethical charge to better visualize data as a destruction of place, and raise questions of how place can be preserved.
How to map the extent of damages such air strikes have caused, which have escalated the urban bombardment of over the past five years, as we have mapped the division of the city into the positions of areas held by rebel forces and jihadists, but hardly comprehended the dimensions of its destruction? While we imagine the city as something like Berlin or Vienna–a divided city–at the end of World War II, the intensity of air raids recalls the destruction of cities by bombing raids that have flattened much of its actual landscape–and whose damage we survey in satellite images, but can only try to grasp in terms of the civilian casualties, eroded infrastructure, and public health crises, as an unfolding tragedy of which we are yet to take stock, and can only start to diagnose from limited superficial knowledge, whose very epistemological difficulty which the red dots that designate sites of bombing almost recall by evoking a violent rash.
Digital Globe/AAAS (roadblocks dismantled between August 9-23, 2016
Aleppo provided to be a ground for the confrontation of regime forces, rebel forces, and ISIS warriors from 2014–fed by supply corridors that kept the resistance alive–but the withdrawal of ISIS from the city in early 2014 weakened the city’s defense as most heavy artillery were withdrawn, and the city became open to air raids. The increased isolation of the city’s Eastern Front progressed by 2016. With the old city hampered in access from roads to cities, power stations, and the airport by government forces–shown here in pink; with ISIS positions in grey–jeopardized possibilities for a nation-wide cease-fire by the effective strangle-hold on the city, even as government forces were blocked from entering the city; rebels rightly mistrusted government offers to suspend air attacks that were so advantageous to its cause.
Aleppo Project: February 2016 gains by Government Forces/LiveuaMaps
The success of Russian airstrikes in retaking much of Northern Aleppo cut off many of the corridors by which supplies had arrived at the city, and the advances that this cut-off of supplies corridors–here shown in green–reconfigured the situation the ground and created an effective opening to isolate the city, dropped bombs noted in red circles.
Aleppo Project–February 2015 government barrel bomb offensive against supply corridors/LiveuaMaps
For since the time of the encircling of the rebel-held “old” city this midsummer by government troops, the cutting of supply lines isolated much of the city’s eastern half, the division Aleppo came to be the prime example of the increased difficulties of getting aid anywhere in Syria–or of guaranteeing safe zones in an increasingly intensifying war. After the rising temperature of the city’s siege over four years, the apparent decision to prevent the entrance of even humanitarian supplies to the city from Damascus was evident even before the unprecedented bombing of a convoy of thirty-one vehicles including eighteen UN aid trucks, bearing humanitarian aid, from emergency supplies to food, was attacked over several hours by thirty aerial bombs in the late evening hours of September 20, 2016.
The aerial attack destroyed needed food and other needed supplies–including blankets and winter clothes, intended for civilians stranded in war-torn Aleppo, Syria’s largest city–as successive fireballs killed twenty-one civilian volunteers from Arab Red Crescent, falsely accused of bringing supplies to terrorists. But the smoking out of suspected enemies had already begun by the bombing raids the Syrian government seems, bizarrely and unforgivably, to have already orchestrated or contented to against its own people, under the guise of an attack on jihadists who have arrived to defend rebel forces in the city. The relatively recent escalation of the air war over Aleppo in the following week was not only the over-eagerness of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, however, and his lack of restraint at punishing enemies: the hand behind the air assault of Aleppo clearly comes from Russian military planes and bombs. After the wake of the cease-fire, which Syria unilaterally declared over, the flattening of buildings in the ancient city grew dramatically, but in keeping with the intense attacks already begun with a range of cluster bombs of violent intensity that regularly contravened International Law.
The increasing isolation of the city under Russian air cover now seems to be a prelude to a major siege on the largest city in the country–one of the oldest of inhabited cities–and national financial hub, as Syrian government and Russian airplanes increasingly flatten the buildings of the old city, allowing government troops to advance into the center of an area where rebel forces were not likely to surrender. Any map of the attacks can only help one imagine the experience of residents of the city. As a result of air attacks, many of its two million without running water or power, and unprecedented bombing of humanitarian aid centers, industry, hospitals, and assistance of food, blankets, and medical supplies. The forced shortages that plague the city seem an attempt to force surrender of rebels: having cut off the city in as many ways as possible from the world, pounding Aleppo with an expanded arsenal of seem an unavoidable outcome of attempts to subdue the divided city by an expanded range of barrel bombs, bunker buster bombs, and thermobaric bombs–many of which contravene international law.
If the rebel-held regions of Eastern Aleppo were already long targeted by barrel bombs in the past, wrecking serious opposition on the divided city by early 2014, suggesting the plans of the Syrian government to take over the city that has been a rebel stronghold, evident tin the intensive bombing of opposition sites over two years ago from late 2013 to early 2014–
–despite the UN’s prohibition of their use, and Bashar al-Assad’s denial of their use, an increased number were fired at the city from early 2015. The increased targeting by explosive missiles able to destroy buildings, penetrate underground hide outs, and demolish tunnels in recent weeks in September 2016 have escalated the amount of firepower directed to destroy Aleppo’s buildings and its residents. How can this escalation be mapped adequately? Although in the weeks after the cease-fire negotiated in Geneva between Russia, the United States, and the Syrian Government, civilian deaths seemed to decline in Syria overall, but renewed air strikes in Idlib–where a site of Al Qaeda was announced to have been targeted, though none exists–caused deaths to spike, and civilian deaths in Aleppo seem to have similarly grown again. The war is not only able to be measured in numbers of civilian dead, to be sure, but the increased civilian casualties corresponding to air strikes, such as the Russian bombing of Idlib, ostensibly at Al Qaeda forces–
–but the rise in casualties has been an index of the inhumanity of the escalation of an intense aerial bombardment of the city. The increasingly open targeting of the city’s populations from above over the past weeks since the negotiated cease-fire has collapsed has subjected the city to increased destruction. But the rise in civilians killed by airstrikes in the province of Aleppo reveals a near-constant escalation, growing civilian casualties over ten-fold in just a matter of six months, according to Syria’s Violations Documentation Center, during the implementation of the so-called cease-fire, and long before the attack on the Red Crescent convoy of supplies destined for Eastern Aleppo. Was the escalation of civilian deaths already part of a steady ratcheting up of the violence and inhumane bombardment of the city from above? Can the ratcheting up of violence now that Russian planes have identified the city as a site for “terrorism” be recorded, other than by cataloguing the scope of violence and civilian deaths?
4. The regular ramping up of attacks after the cease-fire ended seem only to increase, as if to seize the opportunity to increase flights over the city by a scale of local destruction is perhaps not able to be embodied in maps, partly since data is not easily available from the ground of the besieged city–often all we have is grainy video, as if the war, as so much of the five-year Syrian Civil War, was being held off-camera, and out of the public eye.
And the recent attack and bombing of a cross-convoy of Red Crescent aid workers as they were unloading supplies into a warehouse outside the city marked an escalation of destruction at the very moment of the end of the recent, short cease-fire brokered in Geneva, at a time when the increased violence of aerial attacks are hardest to fully grasp. The aggressive use of air raids, by planes of Russian Air Force and Syrian Government, have pointedly escalated the siege of the ancient city in attempts to subdue surrounded rebel-held areas evident in the recent live mapping of strikes on the city’s fortress.
–that force us to try to imagine the destruction of the green-colored zones where rebel forces have been tenaciously concentrated for many months.
The failure to embody the progressive ratcheting up of ongoing violence of the city’s aerial bombardment may be more of an ethical failure than we can fully grasp. For the forced flattening of the experience of war is not only due to limited intelligence–we can assess bomb damaged buildings–but to the impotence we increasingly feel before such blunt images. For as the tallies of air strikes cannot communicate the increasingly destructive arsenal employed, the destructive intent to flatten the city and force a surrender only provide a superficial sense of the deep strategy of intentional destruction that they seem to chart. The maps we see fail to capture the scope of displacement in the city, extending from refugees to the destruction of infrastructure to medical facilities and energy needs, and industrial base, has eroded the historical stability of the city as an urban environment. And as such they may prevent us from processing or taking stock of the shifting war plans in the city and the ability to process the heightened sense of the theater of war in a city increasingly imperiled by the recent ratcheting up of aerial warfare.
For Aleppo demands to be better understood as a theater of war–not only a crucial piece in a nation divided into zones of control, or an intersection between stalled forces of jihadists associated with Al Qaeda and besieged rebel groups.
Clearing Ruins in a Rebel-Held Neighborhood September 24, 2016 Thaer Mohammed/AFP
Can we map the destructive potential of this increasingly lethal range of bombs, in terms of crimes against ? For the increased escalation of the destruction of its fabric seems not only tantamount to a new plan to retake the entire country, but for creating a new military presence in Syria’s Civil War to change the place of what was once Aleppo on the map.
5. News maps of the Syrian Civil War try to explain Aleppo’s strategic significance in a six-year civil war, but few adequately map its place as an escalating theater of violence. The problem is one of not only mapping its geopolitical significance in the struggle between armed factions, at this point, but mapping the military onslaught that has been directed to the city. By implicitly tolerating the increased levels of violence that not only destroy rebel strongholds but render the city uninhabitable, we may be failing the need to map the damage of Aleppo adequately, and the increased costs of its aerial siege to the nation–a diet of the displacement not only of residents who are now refugees, but of the features that gave identity to the city and defined the familiarity of its environment. In the oldest and least post-colonial spaces in Syria, the meaning of space is increasingly erased as a lived landscape of architectural forms, as it is rendered uninhabited and uninhabitable, whose traces of habitation are increasingly purposefully being erased in aerial attacks. With the regime’s army having cut supply lines to Aleppo, rather than enter the city, the possibility that the army would aim to starve out residents who receive regular social media texts urging them to flee and drop their arms, or force them into a surrender in among the most inhumane of ways.
Indeed, the meaning of Aleppo as a site for rooting locations of spatiotemporal memories is being eroded with the sense of the city as a place, displacing the lived experience of its space. The recent escalation of siege on the city goes so much further than in previous years. Indeed the presence of increased Russian planes dropping bunker-buster bombs, if proven as alleged, confirm a new, more destructive phase in the Russian-sponsored siege of the city that has dramatically changed as a theater of war–with bombs and missiles for the first time targeting underground shelters, hospitals, and medical centers, and high-intensity blast-waves of hight-heat thermobaric bombs targeting underground passages and tunnels, in what charts out a new sort of ramped up strategy of total destruction in the most ancient areas of the city. For the huge explosive charges of such bombs cannot be captured only by looking at the ruins of neighborhoods of the city, but are felt in the effects of dispersing fuel with atmospheric oxygen in ways particularly inhumane and deadly, destroying reinforced buildings and killing their residents that echoed Russian bombing campaigns in Chechnya. While negotiations are difficult with such intentional uses of deadly strikes against civilian populations, their attempt to flush rebels from the city, while not successful, have marked to a broad expansion of the aerial war.
If such targets were out of bounds of previous government bombardment and beyond the scope of the city’s siege, in ways difficult to appreciate, the training of bombs on people associated with “terrorists” and state enemies. If Assad’s planes showed little accuracy in choosing targets, the unrestrained bombing of the city in recent days suggest not a new strategy, so much as a new sense of attack. Indeed, by giving apparent prominence to Russian aircraft in the destruction of the city and the rebels’ longstanding presence in Aleppo, to assert absolute control over the region, directing massive quantities of TNT to increase civilian casualties, targeting centers of food distribution and hospitals at night or before dawn to maximize surprise and terror of the city’s few remaining residents.
The escalation of aerial bombardment of residential neighborhoods that ostensibly target rebel groups affirm the Russian position to retain Bashar al-Assad in power in terms that might rightly give one pause. For the result of the bombing raids seems not only to redraw the lines of control over the city, which have not substantially changed, but affirm the presence of Russian authority in the country of Syria, if not the presence of Russian soldiers and war planes in the future of the Syrian nation. The convoy headed to Aleppo was parked at warehouses of Arab Red Crescent, just outside the city, in an attack killing twelve, according the United Nations, and attacks left twenty-two casualties. But the aerial attack reveals a scary continuity with the resumption of bombing of Aleppo itself, and the renewed attack on the city that followed have been interpreted as a rejection of resuming peace talks by the Syrian government–and the Russians–and decision to conclude the siege of the city in definitive manner. While aircraft are not included in most maps of the divided country and he factions of civil war, which present the divisions in political control as if embedded in the terrain–
Joe Burgess/New York Times
–the presence of the planes in unleashing a new wave of violence against the city is undeniable. Given the increased levels of violence that the rain of bombs has unleashed, what would it men to map the attacks and their effects on the habitability of Aleppo? It would show both bomb-damage, the departure of populations, mortality levels, rising food prices, lack of medical supplies, infrastructural damage, and physical vulnerability.
If the attack on the convoy defied human rights conventions and occurred shortly after declaration of an end to the cease-fire, it has come to appear less of an exceptional moment than a turning point in dramatically ratcheted up the violence against civilians even if it targeted jihadists and other alleged terrorist groups who are present in the city which they use as a base. The escalation of the city’s bombardment by more powerful bombs are a particularly terrifying and unprecedented intensification of air strike of the city’s buildings and infrastructure from which there is little turning back, but also a blanket on information of what is happening on the ground. The consequent failure to embody or synthesize the scope of attacks against Aleppo’s residents and the apparent escalation of pressures put on those remaining in the city, using bunker-buster bombs prohibited by United Nations or laser-guided KAB-500L developed by Soviet Air Force, has increased the inhumanity of attempts to squeeze out residents who long resisted the Syrian regime, collapsing underground refuges as well as residential buildings and markets, all in a desperate attempt to increased existing shortages of food and other needed goods in hopes to bring residents and rebels to lay down their arms to surrender–a group that, importantly, includes jihadists, Chechens, and Syrian rebel forces–as northern Caucusus insurgents are increasingly operating out of Aleppo.
They raise a question: Could one map crimes against humanity against the increasing strikes of an aerial arsenal of increased power? What a map of human rights violations would look like is good to think about, even if such a map cannot be made or constructed: the map would take into account civilians killed by bombs or by rubble from buildings; civilians killed in destroyed hospitals or for lack of medical supplies; elderly and children with lack of food; neighborhoods and buildings destroyed in fire or by bombs; future lives foregone. Even though the ability to map the impact prevents clear identification, and most of the aerial bombs and mortars impact far from their targets, of damage that is rarely assessed, the intensification of sustained aerial bombardment seems to extend the violence of aerial involvement in the Civil War in decisive ways, posing increased dangers not only of an intensified humanitarian disaster, but of obliterating much of the city as we know it from the map, under the pretense of attacking those who fought against the Assad regime as terrorists. But if the main targets are “terrorists,” the remaining residents of the city, now unable to move, remain those who suffer.
After declaring the cease-fire over, Syrian government and Russian forces jointly carried out some ninety aerial bombardments of Eastern Aleppo’s residential neighborhoods, using cluster bombs able to trigger “massive fires,” according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, as well as bunker busters, following the Syrian government’s announcement that it had decided to launch new offensives against areas held by rebels who the government labels “terrorists” and escalate attacks on Eastern Aleppo after they had declared the truce expired. The readiness to undertake these strikes so surprised witnesses that the map they create on the ground can hardly be rendered in news maps of territorial divides. For the resumption of heavy fighting on all major fronts in Aleppo and its outskirts will make it difficult to bring the government back to the table. And despite repeated promises and offers to open “safe corridors” for inhabitants of Aleppo to flee, resumption of powerfully escalated bombing raids seem designed to remove the once-thriving historical city from the map and a change in the nature of how we might adequately map its expanding theater of war has closed Aleppo and its infrastructure.
The destruction of the Red Crescent inter-area convoy seem the logical continuation of the attempt to strangle the remaining residents of East Aleppo and rebel resistance in the city. The bombing has forestalled any renewed hope of humanitarian aid in ways that will not be possible to map–much as the current intensification of bombing air raids have occurred off the map, intentionally leaving them out of the public eye and making their scope of the craters they create in the city impossible to track or envision, and the destruction of underground shelters not even visible from above. The bombing of a humanitarian convoy from Red Crescent has opened a new level of aggressive action against Syrian rebel forces–identified only by the regime as “terrorists,” to strip them of their identity and conceal any crimes against humanity perpetrated in the attacks–and a desire of the Russian government to intensify the civil war with a new level of violence at a scope and scale that we are hardly able to register. As much as map the strikes of air-delivered bombs against a base-map of Aleppo, what would it look like to map the costs of such an intensified bombardment of residential areas of eastern Aleppo? Even the impact of aerial bombs in the dense city are hard to imagine in their full extent from earlier visualizations, which appear focussed at individual targets, despite a lack of clear aim:
Amnesty International maps of September 2012 and May 2013–Bombing Sites in Red
Neighborhood Damage in Aleppo, April-May 2015/UNOSAT
Building Damage Assessment: Red-Destroyed; Tan-Severe; Yellow-Moderate; February 18 2016 New York Times/UNOSAT data
Not only has the scope of bomb damage spread across much of the Old City and even to Western Aleppo, in contrast with the images of earlier years, but the bombs have been dropped with intensity around the Citadel, the Airport, and more recently the old industrial area and northwestern outskirts, as the siege of Aleppo adopts a broad basis and intensifies around relatively similar combat lines on the ground.
6. The escalation of air bombings of Aleppo followed the huge surprise of the destruction of a convoy of volunteer relief workers and their supplies. Indeed, the near-continuous bombardment of the cross-line convoy of Red Crescent volunteers who stopped at Oram al-Kubra outside Aleppo last week, along the highway running from Damascus to Aleppo, not only led to an immediate suspension of all aid deliveries across Syria and destroyed any optimism and good-will that the cease-fire had generated and peace initiative sought to foster. It seemed a rehearsal for the bombing of the city. Shortly after the public mourning of Omar Baraka, coordinator of the convoy who was killed in the attacks, who had “sacrificed his money, time & effort to ease suffering of all the needy in Aleppo province,” a moment of shock difficult to process, ramped up raids on Aleppo began, in ways that may seem increasingly controlled less from Damascus than Moscow.
The attack on the convoy that was shocking in itself as an attack on civilians who had risked their lives to help war victims with Red Crescent, taking clear aim at supplies destined for Aleppo. It now appears but the preface to a dramatic expansion of a theater of war that was already intent on creating food shortages and rendering the lives of those in Aleppo impossible, and to persuade “militants” who challenge the Assad regime to lay down their weapons and leave the city. Indeed, raids over the next days targeted hospitals, food lines, medical centers, power centers and residential neighborhoods in Aleppo, as well as in Homs, Idlib Province, and Ar Raqqah, in a reign of terror from the skies. It makes one wonder what Russian allies of the regime, who seem to have brought renewed fire-power of prohibited bunker-buster bombs to the city’s siege, seek to gain in the total destruction of much of the city–and to isolate it from Damascus and future aid, before they decided to enter the eastern part of the city with tanks at the end of the first week of October 2016, to try to claim control of the city.
What seemed a unicum of horror is now, perhaps, a sign of a change in strategy in a broad theater of war. The deadly surprise attack on a convoy of thirty-one vehicles including eighteen UN aid trucks bearing emergency supplies and food hit over several hours by thirty aerial bombs in the late evening hours of September 20 destroyed not only many of the very trucks bearing food and other needed supplies–including blankets and winter clothes, intended for civilians stranded in war-torn Aleppo, Syria’s largest city as recently as 2011–as successive fireballs killed twenty-one civilian volunteers from Arab Red Crescent. Traveling along the Aleppo Supply Road by recognized routes, the convoy was cleared for travel, albeit with the specific request it not be accompanied by United Nations staff, who had given the exact coordinates of the journey of the convoy to the Syrian government which was falsely accused of bringing supplies to terrorists, although the convoy had been fully examined and cleared for departure.
Although the cease-fire had aimed to stop the airborne delivery of barrel bombs loaded with TNT–bombs prohibited by the United Nations, but central to the offensive of the Syrian Government Army on the city from the battle’s start–that forced many to leave the city that once held 2.5 million inhabitants, it has given way to a more intensified bombing than Aleppo or other cities in Syria have encountered. In part, the raids of Russian planes are just dropping more bombs–destroying neighborhoods from 300 feet overhead, with up to fifty planes, each carrying two bombs, targeting residents of Aleppo each day and intentionally destroying its increasingly frayed fabric. Already by late 2013, witnesses in Old Aleppo had experienced an earlier escalation from assault by helicopters to heavier bombardment by military aircraft–whose increased delivery of barrel bombs created a new landscape of devastation in the city. But the increasing aim at underground passage-ways and hospitals–as well as lines of bread and industry–ratchets up the siege to a full war, as if a new Stalingrad. The escalation of violence against civilians and attacks on supplies in the city may have begun from the attack on the convoy, inaugurating a new phase in the mapping of the war that was coordinated not only by the Syrian government, but that seems to have dramatically expanded a different and still unknown scope.
While the convoy was eager to leave in the wake of the cease-fire negotiated, the open attack against its progress received recent attention as an openly brazen war crime–a continuous bombardment of peace-keeping civilians intentionally destroying needed provisions for citizens, leaving only wreckage as the sun rose the next day. “They want to kill humanity,” said a colleague of the Red Crescent worker who coordinated the cross-line convoy, “but humanity will not die.” For Aleppo, if a shell of its former self, had been a long center for anti-Assad protests, has been the longest and largest theater of urban warfare in the Civil War, a convergence of elite military and local ethnic militias, as well as foreign Islamic fighters and Mujahideen, tied to rebel groups but not committed to overthrowing Assad, but encouraging a recent push to cut off all supply routes to the rebel-held parts of the city and starve them out by cutting off the arrival of goods to Eastern Aleppo on the highways and Castello Road, as rebels have tried to open new supply lines to the city.
Fears of a massacre of the city’s civilian population have been present from 2012. Aleppo has remained among the most bombarded war-torn cities in Syria, and one of the regions in which the power of the current government of Bashar al-Assad is trying to retain. The outpost of the Syrian army–and has been transformed as it has become a theater of violence over five years. Russia continues to deny any responsibility for the attacks of September 20–or involvement of airplanes in the strike–and have deflected guilt for the strikes which they preposterously call a propaganda stunt by the United States government, but also targeted multiple sites along the road to Aleppo, wounding multiple civilians and destroying buildings that may conceal other dead. Earlier helicopter raids had dropped barrel bombs in the Hama countryside, and much of the southern countryside of Idlib Province this September–interrupting the Highway on which supplies arrive, if with no known casualties according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. The September 20 bombing led UN OCHA to negotiate another route to reach Aleppo’s civilian residents than the route destroyed by further air raids, and forty trucks await on the Syrian -Turkish border for a guarantee of safe passage.
Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
Damaged Medical Supplies at Orum al-Kumbra after the Sept. 20 attack outside of Aleppo Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presses
Strengthening the virtual stranglehold on the city of Aleppo’s residents has for five years been tantamount to the Syrian government’s official policy. “Let Bashar feed you,” taunted rebel fighters in Aleppo at those in the western part of the city, conscious of the regime’s artificial constraints on incoming supplies and food that have brought artificial ten-fold price differences in the city’s eastern and western halves. Before the five years of civil war, had produced an abundance of wheat and other grains sufficient to export. As pro-government forces continue to taunt other city residents with texts offering food, blankets, food and medicine to those in the zones of the destroyed city they hold, enforced scarcity of resources has provided a crucial tool to continue a psychological war over the remaining population, which the arrival of supplies would threaten to upend: a region that once exported an abundance of wheat, barley, and pistachios now struggles to circulate sufficient quantities of bread, in a way where food is an increased currency of exchange since before 2011, when Civil War began, and exports of wheat and barley dropped to a flat-line–and pistachio exports barely grew, as agricultural exports all but ceased and the scarcity of once-plentiful products grew. The decreased availability in the city and growing cost of food, medical goods, consumer and health products or blankets for the coming winter in Aleppo now seem created, in a desperate attempt to squeeze those who remain in eastern sectors of the city to compel them to a truce.
Everything collapsed so quickly after the destruction of the convoy, that the later escalation of resumed aerial bombardment seemed previously planned.
7. The substitution of a geography of plenty in Aleppo with one of bombed out buildings and dislocated refugees is difficult to grasp or fully comprehend, and surreal. For the extent of ratcheted up violence on civilian residents over recent weeks have rewritten the landscape of a formerly vibrant city in ways difficult to process psychologically for its residents.
The graphs below cannot map the war of forced starvation, or capture the drama of bombardment of urban infrastructure, but suggest the bizarre shift in the forced increase of scarcity, intensifying existing food shortages created by regional warming.
The creation of food as a form of oppression of citizens, as in the starving out of wartime cities from Paris to Moscow to the Siege of Leningrad, recalling most vividly official Nazi attempts to starve out the occupied regions of the Netherlands and former Soviet Union by cutting off needed food supplies, is exactly the sort of war against civilian populations through the targeted destruction of warehouses of food that the United Nations was created to prevent: lines of bread in war-torn eastern Aleppo grew as airstrikes destroyed Castello Road, a major avenue by which food supplies had arrived in the city’s eastern side.
At the same time, Russian strikes that were long frustrated at their range from airports in Iran, in order to get in greater striking distance of Syria, had been frustrated by how the extended routes s both embarrassingly exposed the limits of its own air power and extended a timetable of engagement seems to have forced Moscow to develop a more effective and impressive strategy of military engagement: the unfounded expression of hopes on Russian news agency “Interfax” that “Russia and the United States began thinking about the application of coordinated attacks on Aleppo” and were increasingly confident of “settling the situation in Syria are exploring the possibility of joint operation in Aleppo in mid-September” and that “those militants who were not willing to lay down their arms and withdraw from Aleppo . . . will be subject to destruction” from someone “close to negotiations in Geneva.” If it projects a telling wish-fulfillment more than seem anything John Kerry would sign onto, the date that was selected for such a military overture is particularly striking.
Why such a lie about joint Russian-American cooperation in an attack on Aleppo? The air strikes that Russian Tupalove airplanes ran from Iranian soil sought to escalate their attacks with greater payloads to crush rebel strongholds in Aleppo for almost a year–Sept. 30 2015–and patience and nerves would have become frayed. The desire to target both warehouses and convoy as it proceeded to a military zone that Russian considered to have air cover and control would have offered a strategic possibility to boost its desires. Russian expenditures in previous years of over $150 million on elite mercenaries and munitions in Syria–170 billion rubles–who had earlier fought in Ukraine–partly funded by private investors, suggesting not only Putin’s deep personal ties to the exporting of war to the region, but suggesting the unhidden desire of Russia to establish a permanent military presence in the region, probably most desirable if located on the Turkish border.
The parallel investment of the United States in millions of dollars of foreign aid for Syrian refugees, pledged from donor nations to the United Nations for the past five years, and suggests little faith in the “political process” or of mitigating the “relentless attacks” on Syrian civilians to which U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney gave particular prominence when discrediting the rumors of a joint US-Russian attack targeting Aleppo, and distancing himself from any such attacks by the Assad regime and its allies.
The decision to obliterate the supplies convoy in a mid-September evening continued a conscious obliteration of many structures in Aleppo, and a design to make it impossible to live in the Eastern part of the city. Dramatically increased food shortages provide necessary background for the recent airstrikes on the convoy, as does the attempt to force a surrender by withholding food and needed supplies. The occurrence of the attacks and their deadly damage followed and to an extent enabled by the truce that the Syrian army unilaterally declared, prompted by the US and Russia. But the destruction of supply trucks destined for Aleppo, bearing flags of the Syrian Red Crescent, supervised by Omar Barakat, show the increased ratcheting up of destructive attacks of helicopters and airplanes firing barrel bombs and shrapnel where the trucks were parked outside Syrian Red Crescent warehouses to curtailed and forestall any future delivery of further humanitarian supplies.
8. Could GIS overlays ever be adequate to read the escalation of Aleppo’s buildings, infrastructure, resources, and domestic residences, in the manner of those opaque but suggestive ESRI overlays whose emergence was closely tied to projects of urban renewal? Could a map of the humanitarian disaster be created from Digital Globe images that indicate the destruction of neighborhoods, and even include human losses and human rights crimes? To be sure, few maps can hope to register the levels of destruction used regularly on citizens of Aleppo–or the routes of airplane attack against the aid-bearing convoy that was destroyed, in an attempt to increase the bargaining chips held by the Syrian government that seeks an advantageous treaty and ceasefire during the endgame of this late stage of the Syrian Civil War. After the route of Castello Road was effectively closed by pro-Syrian government, who first prevented delivery of food and needed supplies as advancing government positions exposed transit to sniper fire, and with the road closed from mid-July 2016, the lack of food within the city in rebel held quarters subject to rocket attacks was increasingly dire, intensifying beyond expectations what already constituted a human rights disaster.
Karam al-Masri / AFP – Getty Images
And so, attention turns to the destruction of the convoy bearing food to the besieged regions of the city, and the failure to explain the extent of firepower used in such unexpected targeted attacks that have effectively ended the recently brokered ceasefire. The bombs appear dropped by two Su-24 swing-wing Russian bombers that flew from Khmeimim air base that very evening toward Syrian airspace, joining a jet-mounted chain gun with aid from Syrian army helicopters, in a targeted killing that cannot but recall the US targeted drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Afghanistan. But the targets–humanitarian supplies–expand an increasing policy of starving Aleppo’s residents and depriving them of food, at the same time as the price of bread in the starting city has risen twenty-fold, where it can be found, from 15 US cents to over $3 (USD).
Karam al Masri/AFP/Getty Images
Although clear lines denote the lines of hostility in the Syrian Civil War in an al Jazeera map of the former nation–
–battle lines are increasingly fluid across Aleppo, where the starvation of residents who are isolated and cut off from supplies have been long intensified through air strikes on the encircled city, in an attempt to secure the surrender of arms and all who bear them across the city–whose bombed-out eastern zones is terrifyingly evident in the Digital Globe image from late August 2016.
Digital Globe/AAAS (roadblocks dismantled between August 9-23, 2016
9. Indeed, the Syrian army has so persistently escalated its attacks on eastern Aleppo for weeks, using military bombardments to limit the entrance of any needed foods to the region’s 300,000 residents, and backed by Russian air attacks. In recent days, images of abundance in the western part of the city have been streamed on social media, at the same time as the Syrian government forces seek to force the opposition’s hands, as the Syrian State News Agency (SANA) streams increased headlines that champion military-scale operations against the “terrorist organizations” in Homs, the southern province of Daraa, the countryside north of Hama, and to continue to destroy their weapons, boasting of having launched “widespread military operations against the dens of Takfiri terrorist organizations” and to have “foiled an attack of ISIS terrorists” signaling the collapse of the alleged cease-fire negotiated by Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva.
For from the early summer, Russia had continuously shelled the city of Aleppo from April. At the same time, as pro-government forces, Iranians, and Lebanese Shi’ite militia and Hezbollah were unable to encircle it fully, airplanes flying overhead from Syria shelled the city with an intensity, promising to step up its “the most active” forms of support against Aleppo falling to groups that it called “terrorists”–the catch-all category of a globalized world that blurs whatever military interests are actually at stake.
September 4, 2016
Indeed, the strike against a UN-brokered convoy during the recent cease fire has gained attention as a violation of the US-brokered cease fire, and attacks by air and artillery against any travels on the sole road that links Aleppo’s residents in the rebel-held zones to the southern regions of the state, being unable to cut of Castello Road or the highway on the ground from Damascus.
The area around Aleppo and the city itself remains a crucial if geographically displaced odd outpost over which the Syrian government needs to seek to retain control–many of whose two million residents have been subjects to repeated attacks by bombs, bunker busters, and attacks on urban infrastructure, especially in rebel-held regions, and the destruction of the many underground passageways in Aleppo–-ma’aber in Arabic–which the bombs targeted to isolate civilians who moved through them to acquire or purchase food. The convoy was struck as it approached area of the Syrian government’s control.
The results of such bombings are not mapped with precision in a time of war, when precise aerial views are impossible to map with accuracy or comprehensiveness to convey suffering, but evident in the change in the city as seen over the past five years of attacks–much from pro-government and possibly Russian forces, who have raised the threshold on civilian attacks long before the recent attack on the civilian convoys. From an altitude of 500 miles above the earth’s surface, the radical reduction of night-time artificial illumination around Aleppo–indicated by a red arrow in the satellite images paired below–reveal the scope of destruction in as close to an objective way as possible, if an objective image of such carnage and destruction were needed save to spare us from considering the extent of human rights violations in the city’s almost six-year siege in the ongoing Battle of Aleppo–already known four years ago as Syria’s ‘Stalingrad.’
“Aleppo is not yet Stalingrad, or even Homs, parts of which are a wasteland of wrecked buildings,” wrote a journalist four years ago, as the “shelling of the city began in earnest” in August 2012: since then, the shelling with mortar and shrapnel has not only continued, but the violence ratcheted up with air bombings of increased intensity that have flattened parts of the city, now including fire-bombs and bunker-busting bombs designed to penetrate the tunnels and underground shelters where Aleppo’s citizens crowd for protection against aerial strikes.
Images of the lit night-time skyline of Aleppo, allegedly streamed by state news media as an enticing invitation to cross to the other side, which don’t show up in this satellite image, and to surrender strongholds that the combination of Syrian government helicopters and Russian airstrikes have long attacked. The makeshift defensive barriers and fortifications–shown by red dots, with dismantled barricades and fortified areas identified in yellow–reveal a city divided by East and West. The ancient city of Aleppo, a UNESCO world heritage site–
–has not only been damaged extensively since 2013, from the Souq of al Medina to the Umayyad Mosque, with repeated onslaught of attacks on the city’s infrastructure, and contributed to the collapse of many ancient stone walls had collapsed and parts of the twelfth-century citadel at the heart of the medieval city, and minarets damaged on the Umayyad Mosque where snipers have taken up positions. The burning of the Souq–a center for urban commerce from the second millennium BC–suggests a criminal death of a recently vibrant city, as well as an attack on its defenseless populations during the “continued, indiscriminate use of weaponry against its civilians”–a demand from the United States in a United Nations Security Council resolution that Russia dismissed as “totally unacceptable” and demanded to be immediately withdrawn.
The open attacks on civilian structures, medical facilities, and human needs in following days after the destruction of the Red Crescent convoy further ratcheted up levels of violence in the longstanding civil war. Intensified airstrikes of “unprecedented violence” against civilian populations in coming days led to the destruction of two hospitals as Russian planes bombed areas in Eastern Aleppo, wounding hundreds and overwhelming city hospitals–and dropping incendiary bombs intended to provoke fires in the city.
While UNESCO had planned a volume of the routes that children took to school through the war-torn city, the plans were cancelled since children do not now go to school; the numbers of children who have been killed in the bombing raids are not known, and probably never will, but the badly targeted and broadly based indiscriminate bombing strikes that reduce buildings to rubble as if in hopes to render the city uninhabitable. Despite calls for war crimes prosecution from Boris Johnson, of all people, the extensive bombardment of the city, and rebel factions to demand a cease to hostilities with no Russian presence or mediation of the negotiations since it acted as a partner of Assad’s regime in perpetrating crimes against Syrians as an accomplice of the state.
The indiscriminate attacks against civilian inhabitants have been ratcheted up in Aleppo to a degree that has changed our thresholds of tolerance of violence from earlier years. As it has been increasingly divided into fractured zones of control from late 2013, with civilians in “rebel” areas effectively sandwiched, pressed and isolated, encircled with power lines cut in recent months as lines of supply have been cut, supposedly to restrict transit of munitions and arms to rebels who hold the region–duplicitously claiming to seek to restore safety and security in the city “out of its commitment to end bloodshed” by inviting them to act by “turning in their weapons and remaining in the city or turning in their weapons and leaving it.” Yet that purported commitment to peacefulness has not prevented increasing an intensive bombardment of the divided city, and the call to”put national interest above other considerations so that security and stability can be restored to Aleppo” was, coming in late July 2016 after four years of civil war, difficult to inspire confidence as four hospitals in Eastern Aleppo were struck, disrupting health services in the besieged areas of the city in ways difficult to adequately map or obtain accurate data about. Recent increased attacks from the air of Eastern Aleppo have come as residents are urged to avoid areas that concealed “terrorists,” in an apparent imitation of air-strikes in Afghanistan, Gaza, and Iraq, even in the face of calls to ground all Syrian war planes.
The current block-by-block division of the heavily barricaded city is divided most often by color-coded layers of “control”–similar to urban development maps used in redlining insurance policies in American cities by the Housing and Loan Corporation (HOLC)–but communicate little of the constantly escalating levels of violence and military attack that has undermined the urban infrastructure, as the turf wars between the Syrian Government and rebel groups has intensified, dug in, although the growth of Government Forces (shown in pink overlays below) have continued to squeeze the YPG and Islamic Front in the city but seem rolled back from the surrounding suburbs and countryside.
Aleppo Project/source: Caerus p.33 (2013)
September 26, 2016
Communications and transit to the “Old City are particularly fraught, surrounded is the roads and transit network with sniper fire, its surface also often destroyed by bombs.
The limited control over Eastern areas of Aleppo by anti-government forces belies the capture of many former government air bases around the city since 2013 that have left the government forces dependent on Russia for both bombs and airborne delivery, as a ring of air bases around the city fell into “rebel” hands aside from Aleppo’s international airport.
The delivery of supplies by road remained particularly dangerous in the past along the Damascus Road, and had ceased. But with most food markets now closed in the city, especially in the side held by rebel forces,
The encirclement of Aleppo itself by government forces by late July, 2016 had made any deliveries on the corridor of Castello Road impossible, and isolated “rebel-held” regions of the city from July 27, when the divisions between East and West Aleppo .
The drama of Aleppo’s continued bombing is incorrectly called a “Battle,” perhaps, so much as a new struggle for Russia to insert itself within the conquest of rebels that it identifies as parties not even worth negotiating with, but only to be subdued. Is it guided by a deep interest to establish a military base in the region? Or is the enlistment of Russian forces closely tied to the project of nuclear warheads that has been so dear to Assad, in ways that would change the geopolitical significance of keeping Assad in power?
Although the ongoing war has only apparently achieved a deep destabilization–and an inability to arrive at a resolution to the conflict outside military attacks of civilian institutions–the aim seems to be tied to Russian nuclear power plants in Syria, which have continued with Iranian and North Korean help.
10. At the same time as Russian planes ramped up the bombardment of the region, as if to replay the Siege of Leningrad in Syrian lands, the geopolitical stakes were considerably high: Russian plans to construct both a massive nuclear power plant and atomic desalination plant in Syria, as well as a plutonium production reactor that seems to have been begun once again in Al-Kibar, Dair Alzour–a site once attacked by Israel with seventeen tons of explosives, constructed with North Korean and Iranian help, is currently possibly being rebuilt as a site of uranium storage; the reporting of a potential underground nuclear facility near the Lebanese border by Der Speigel–admittedly unclear in satellite imagery–is reportedly the site to which 8,000 fuel rods received in 2007 for the destroyed plant have been transferred, where they are guarded by Hezbollah allies of the beleaguered Syrian government. The continued cultivation indicates Assad’s continued tenacious cultivation of a commitment to nuclear facilities in Syria.
Satellite images of al-Kibar reactor, AP/Digital Globe, before and after Israeli attack
The rapid dismantling of and bulldozing at the site prevented inspection of the facilities and may have intentionally concealed what it had developed at the site, visible on the publicly accessible imagery of Digital Globe, perhaps revealing the excavation of buried lines to the former reactor.
GeoEye/Digital Globe–Images of September, 2003; Aug. 10, 2007 before air attack; October 24, 2007.
The existence of site of possible weaponization seem to threaten attack by their geographic proximity to Israel, which precipitated the strike at al-Kibar before the site was active. Nuclear weapons systems present a means for Bashar to preserve military parity with Israel, indeed, in hopes counterbalance his regime’s weak military forces. They may provide a basis for his similar tenacity in Aleppo’s destruction: Assad’s duplicitous 2009 statement to “want a nuclear-free Middle East, Israel included” foregrounded these fears. And after Argentinian and Indian offers to help with construction of nuclear reactors were withdrawn in the 1990s, fears of Chinese assistance in weaponizing fissile materials in later years, the emergence of a 2003 deal with Russians to build both a nuclear power plant and nuclear seawater desalination plant have opened the feared specter of technology transfer that Assad has long desire, and diverted funds–a specter that grows with the lack of access to the sites of the International Atomic Energy Agency as Civil War has prevented security conditions for inspections and given rise to recent fears that the up to fifty tons of uranium Syria seems to possess that may be enriched may fall into Al Qaeda hands.
Suspected Uranium Conversion Plant in Syria-Institute for Science and International Security /ISIS, 2008
The existence off a feared “underground facility”–perhaps near Qusayr, just two kilometers from Lebanon’s border–reported by Der Spiegel–may be incorrect, and should be named with a question mark, rather than asserted in a red frame–but centers of nuclear enrichment have been identified in Homs and the existence of a secret underground reactor–code name “Zamzam,” named after the well God created for Abraham’s wife and son in the desert–using the 8,000 rods from the previously destroyed nuclear reactors. At the time of the 2008 inspection of the Kibar nuclear facility Israeli planes had destroyed in late 2007, Syria rebuffed requests of the IAEA to visit three sites suspected to be capable of enrichment–including Marj al-Sultan, Hama, and Homs, the latter of two have since fallen to ISIS– by the US-based Institute for Science and International Security (the “other ISIS”); the Syrian government’s flat refusal to allow the visits raised eyebrows about the possible existence of whether a secret cache of up to 50 tons of natural uranium hidden from observers and the danger of proliferation it posed, despite official disclaimers of the presence in the country of any nuclear fuel–and the uncertainty has been argued to work to Syria’s advantage. Syria’s denial of potential sites of enrichment sites revealed by satellite tracking, near a city now fallen to rebel troops, may conceal its relocation in time to escape its detection to a site from which frequent calls have been tracked to the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, Ibrahim Othman, near the “Zamzam” site, nearby the Lebanese city of Qasr where an underground military site seems maintained by Hezbollah with Iran’s help.
The involvement of Russia in the construction of such potential sites of nuclear reactors, however, threatens to suggest a scary dimension for Russia’s dissimulation of its intent in the region–and a deeper danger of bombing any regions held by Syria’s government, if not a basis for the continued confidence of Bashar al-Assad as his airfare seems to seek to continue to bomb his country, which lies increasingly in ruins. Is the onslaught in Aleppo the cost of Bashar’s tenacity in being able to pursue his nuclear plans, a hope for which he has almost sacrificed his cities under the pretense of fighting alleged terrorists?
Der Spiegel (2015)
Does the promise for may underlie the continued bombardment of Aleppo to rubble, in a bizarre mapping of the bombed-out ruins of the city onto the fear of nuclear proliferation? A recent report that five nuclear engineers–including an Iranian–were assassinated north of the Syrian capital, Damascus, while on route to a declared nuclear research center in Barzeh, a reactor developed with Chinese help, suggests the dedication of energy to broad networks to bolster Syria’s nuclear capacity to which Russia may be closely tied. Fears that Iran and Hezbollah are occupying central roles in the running the sites of nuclear facilities in the south of Syria–and some to fear that Iran has been running its own nuclear program within the country. While the ancient and modern residential buildings alike of the city of Aleppo are destroyed by bunker-buster bombs which often bury their former inhabitants, and have forced most of the city’s inhabitants to flee, after calls for all “bearing arms” to surrender their weapons and quit or remain in the city, the clear annihilation of Aleppo from above seems a terrible augur for a power eager to develop nuclear weapons.
While we often have mapped the terrifying displacement of millions of Syrian refugees during the ongoing civil war, to try to conjure and measure its costs, calmed by the presence of humanitarian assistance on the ground in many of the regions’ largest cities, the virtual disappearance of Aleppo’s buildings is a parallel delocatiion, altering forever one’s relation to the city as a place.
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