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UK columnist: In Aleppo, the besiegers are now the besieged


Syrian Army soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad take aim at rebels during a battle in Aleppo’s al-Liramun neighbourhood. Photo AFP/Getty Images

Peter Oborne writes in The Spectator:

I had been trying to get to Aleppo for ages, but was unable to do so because rebel activity had cut off the city from the outside world. Syrian government military successes at the start of January meant there was at last a safe road. I hired a driver, was allocated a government minder (very handy at checkpoints), and booked into a hotel. Driving north from Damascus, we picked up a 22-year-old Syrian army lieutenant called Ali, returning to his unit after eight days’ leave with his family.

We drove through Homs — miles and miles of utter devastation — and then east on to the Raqqa road. Ali told me that he had been assigned to Kuweires military airport east of Aleppo, which was under siege for three years from Al Nusra and Islamic State forces. He spoke of daily firefights against Isis fighters. For long periods his unit was entirely cut off. When Ali was shot in the chest there was no question of being airlifted out. He convalesced in a field hospital. Eventually the siege was lifted and Ali could return home and see his parents for the first time in more than two years. ‘The secret behind Kuweires was the loyalty of the soldiers. We had no tanks. I lost 82 comrades,’ said Ali. Now his unit is mopping up Islamic State positions round Al-Bab to the East of Aleppo.

When we reached Aleppo there had been no electricity for 112 days and no water for almost two weeks. Improvised mortars — gas canisters explosive enough to bring down buildings — can fall anywhere. Seventeen of the giant student dormitory blocks at the university are now set aside for displaced families from rebel-held areas. All the families have terrifying stories to tell about intimidation and murder at the hands of fanatical Al Nusra, Isis or Free Syrian army forces. These refugees are everywhere. I knocked on the door of Baron’s Hotel, the famous establishment in downtown Aleppo where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. There I learnt the sad news that the charismatic owner, Armen Mazloumian, had died of a heart attack the previous week. His widow Rubina told me that he had refused to close down his hotel when the crisis began, opening his doors instead to victims of jihadi terror from the countryside.

Aleppo’s favourite film this winter is Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece about Cold War espionage. It is a movie that Aleppans vividly understand. They live in a place where survival means crossing enemy lines to negotiate deals about water, electricity, hostages. Aleppo has characters whose lives are even more heroic than James Donovan, the lawyer played by Tom Hanks who crossed into East Berlin to negotiate the release of Gary Powers. At the education ministry I met a schoolmistress who had just made a five-day journey through endless Islamic State checkpoints to collect her pay cheque. She was about to return home, fully conscious of what lay ahead. Syrian Army troops are advancing on her town. ‘Islamic State will turn us into human shields,’ she told me.

My time in Aleppo coincided with the turning point in the Syrian civil war. Assad’s forces, with the help of Russian air power, cut off the line of supply from the Turkish border to the jihadist forces encircling the government-held areas of the city. Deprived of fresh fighters, guns and ammunition from their Turkish sponsors, Al Nusra and other groups encircling the city are, over the long term, doomed. Islamic State, which sells its oil through Turkey, will start to run short of money. Think of Stalingrad in 1942: the besiegers are now the besieged.

When I returned to London I read in the newspapers that this turn of events was regarded as a calamity. Of course, it does depend on your point of view. Government-held Aleppo was under siege from jihadi forces until late last year. That was never reported. Now the areas of Aleppo held by the rebels are coming under siege. That is reported in the western press as a catastrophe, and has brought a concerned response from the British Foreign Secretary.

Again and again I was asked: why is Britain supporting the terrorists? Western media rightly emphasise Assad’s atrocities. But the Aleppans I spoke to regularly pointed out that under Assad’s regime women can walk alone down the street and pursue a career; that a broadly liberal curriculum is taught in the schools; that Christians can worship at their churches and Muslims in their mosques. These Aleppans have lived under siege from groups hellbent on the imposition of a mutant version of Wahhabi Islam. They know that many of their fighters are foreigners whose ambition, encouraged by Turkish and Saudi sponsors, is to extinguish Aleppo’s tolerant culture and drive every last Christian out of the city. These Aleppans have a point. When the history of the Syrian civil war is finally written, historians will indeed have to confront the question: why has it been British government policy to turn the ancient city of Aleppo into present-day Kandahar?

Related video:

Life slowly returned to the northern outskirts of Aleppo, Monday, after areas of the crisis-stricken city were liberated by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
Nubbul and al-Zahra had been besieged by al-Nusra Front militants, preventing the approximately 70,000 residents from living their lives in a normal fashion. For more than three years locals managed to survive from humanitarian aid that was being air-dropped.
SOT, resident (Arabic): “Thanks to our will and resistance we defeated our enemies. We kneaded dough and baked bread by ourselves. We did everything with wood, after gathering twigs. During the siege we did not have enough food and water. There were no electricity and gas cylinders. That is how it was. Thank God, the arrival of the troops was a relief for us. “


  1. Manda says

    Peter Oborne interviewed on Going Underground. Alistair Crooke also interviewed on this ‘Syria special’.

    I have taken a side. The side of the Syrian people and the sovereign state of Syria. It appears SAA, Russia, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah are the only ones fighting for that. All other parties (including west) appear to wish for the destruction and balkanization of Syria.

  2. Alessandro says

    If you browse a little through louisproyect’s blog, his biases become quite apparent. He rails against Russian imperialism, and in a recent post suggested it stemmed from “Russian chauvinism,” a 19th century concept. Any discussion of Turkish imperialism, on the other hand, is markedly absent, while the author seems to be quite an admirer of Turkish culture.

    He’s also my absolute favourite kind of Marxist – the kind that makes a very good living teaching and debating theory with other ivory tower academics but has never actually worked, in the sense of production via manual labour. The kind that keeps socialism a closed club, unavailable to the masses who are supposed to be its beneficiaries, by attacking people who haven’t read Capital and the entire works of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc. as “lacking Marxist credentials.” Let me know how that permanent revolution is going, Louis.

  3. The Grauniad is the gatekeeper of the Anglo-“Left”, it’s no different from a Murdoch or any other Zionist Neocon hag

  4. So appropriate that you would be crossposting Oborne whose crusade against Robert Mugabe identified him as an imperialist mouthpiece. What you sad conspiracy theorists don’t understand is that hating Assad’s opponents is the new normal. Your analysis, Oborne’s, Donald Trump’s, Marine Le Pen’s, and just about every other liberal or ultrarightist is cut from the same Islamophobic cloth virtually indistinguishable from what Christopher Hitchens was writing 10 years ago.

    • Francis says

      Slagging people off again? And your qualifications would be?

      • If Assad was so popular, why did he have his snipers shoot at peaceful protesters? This is not the behavior of a popular leader. It is instead that of a cornered rat.

        • Hi Louisproyect. Exactly the same thing happened when the USA instigated coup attempt occured in Venezuela. Snipers shot people protesting on both sides of the argument. It happened again during the American instigated coup in Ukraine. Now it has happened again as NATO countries are engineering a coup in Syria.
          Are you not aware that this is a typical CIA method of undermining both the Government and the peaceful protestors.
          Furthermore there is ample evidence from official documents that a number of countries principally the USA and the UK had special operations agents in Syria since 2010/11 working with terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda/ Nusra Front to train, fund, arm and provide intelligence to help them destabilize the Assad Government by attacking police and army barracks and killing officials.
          When the the government retaliated against these terrorists the Western corporate media willingly spread the misinformation that Assad was attacking his own citizens. The US defence forces also provided a training manual for their Special Operations agents to guide them in destabilizing Syria using terrorist groups. Here it is:

          Please read it if you want to understand their methodology and confirm that this has not been a natural uprising of citizens wanting democracy but a foreign based coup.

          Isis did not arise from nowhere they are a mixture of terrorists groups patched together with the aid of Turkey Saudi Arabia, UK, USA, France, Jordan, Israel, Qatar and of course Al Qaeda. Largely they are funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as ISIS stealing Syrian and Libyan oil which is sold illegally through Turkey.

          Their aim is not to free Syrians it is to carve up Syria and Iraq ceding areas to Turkey, Israel, Islamic Caliphate, and the Kurds. The remaining area would have a new puppet leader and be isolated from Iraq and Iran. The proposed Iranian oil and gas “Freedom” pipeline through Syria to Europe would be stopped and replaced with the Pars pipeline shared with Saudi Arabia and Qatar passing through Turkey.

          The main purpose of this slaughter is to cut back Russias and Irans share of the oil and gas supplied to Europe weakening Russias and Irans economy and Russian influence in the region. The Russian navy would be forced out of its Naval base at Tartus in Syria which was part of the reason that the Ukraine coup was instigated by the USA with the assistance of NATO. The USA and other NATO countries had wanted to get rid of the Russian Navy from Sevastapol in Crimea which with the Tartus base shut down it would mean Russian vessels would be unable to access the Mediterannean. this would largely isolate Russia from its Middle East oil supplies. Furthermore the main pipelines from Russia to europe pass through Ukraine.
          The Syrian conflict despite the chaos has been planned for at least a decade and further attacks on Iran and Russia are in store if NATO gets away with the Syrian war. That is why Russia is prepared to fight this out to the end. The question is why are our governments and media lying to us about the true purpose and genesis of this slaughter of Syrian people.

    • Jennifer Hor says

      Engaging in ad hominem attacks by calling people conspiracy theorists, Islamophobes or allies of Christopher Hitchens (who incidentally supported the Bush II government’s invasion of Iraq in 2003) will not win you any followers to your own blog if that’s what you’re after. You may as well slink back there.

    • terz says

      What does islamophobic mean to begin with? I come from Bosnia and barely managed to save my naked skin from the (mostly imported, arabic and afghan) jihadist crazies. That is no phobia, but genuine fear of a genuine monster.

      And please, stop trying to sell these extremist crazies as Muslims. They’re about as much “Muslim” as KuKluxKlan are Christians.

      • terz says

        Also: most people killed by ISIS, Nusra and the rest of those mercenary groups were actually – you guessed it – sunni Muslims.

  5. David Cameron should be forced to read this before being strapped to a very large & leaking Sarin gas canister filled with chemicals supplied by the UK !

  6. A most enjoyable article. But:

    “Western media rightly emphasise Assad’s atrocities” (no evidence given). So what are you saying? Western media is only a little bit totally unreliable?

    Are you referring to the Gouta sarin attack, long ago proven to have been carried out by terrorists? Or the various unproven claims that the Syrian government is deliberately targeting civilians? Maybe the ridiculous Caesar photos? Perhaps you’ve swallowed wholesale the Madaya al Assad is starving his own people beat-up?

    Off-Guardian ultimately buys into the UK establishment’s tactic of demonising leaders it deems to be a threat (Joan of Arc was a witch, Napoleon ate babies, Arthur Scargill was corrupt, etc etc etc). As such you are just another agent for illicit regime change.

    • Jen says

      Off-Guardian is quoting Peter Oborne’s words “… Western media rightly emphasise Assad’s atrocities …” which do not necessarily reflect the views of the people in charge of Off-Guardian. Oborne is not a regular writer for the blog.

      • OK, thank you. But this is not the first time I ever seen Off-Guardian peddling the line of al Assad is bad, al Assad must go, stuff what the majority of Syrians want – maybe it has been Oborne in the past too.

        Off-Guardian is letting itself down publishing this stuff – are they suggesting that the NATO narrative is only a little bit totally unreliable?

  7. Amer Hudson says

    Yep, I wonder that, too. Why does Britain support the terrorists?

    The answer is that it supports everything the US tells it support. Unthinkingly. And no matter how neo-con or pro-Zionist the policy.

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