ALEPPO (Syria) (AFP) – The city of Aleppo is key to all sides fighting in Syria’s five-year civil war and holds “the key to war and peace”, according to a monitor.
The northern city — once Syria’s economic capital — and its surrounding province have since mid-2012 seen some of the worst fighting in a war that erupted on the heels of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The once flourishing city has been divided into zones held by the regime in the west, and opposition areas in the east, since a rebel offensive in July 2012.
The countryside is now scene of the worst fighting to erupt in Syria since a truce began on February 27.
Raising concerns for the durability of the ceasefire, jihadists from the Islamic State group and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, the regime and loyalist militia, Kurdish fighters and rebels are now all battling each other on several fronts in the province.
– An ancient city –
Provincial capital Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world to have been constantly inhabited since at least 4,000 BC, thanks to its strategic position between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq.
The manufacturing centre, renowned for its textiles, is situated at the crossroads of major trading routes, and numerous civilisations succeeded each other on its soil.
The metropolis of the north of the country was considered the second city of the Ottoman empire until its collapse after World War I.
– Aleppo enters the war –
The city suffered the wrath of the Assad family’s regime after an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood between 1979 and 1982 when many of its businessmen backed the rebels.
But in the 1990s, the city returned to prosperity, thanks to its ability to develop commercial, industrial and cultural activities at a time of state-controlled liberalisation of the economy.
In April-May 2011, thousands of students demonstrated in Aleppo, which had so far been spared the unrest in Syria since mid-March.
While the student protests were brutally crushed, rebels took control of several parts of Aleppo province which they would later use as launch pads for a massive July 2012 offensive on the city.
The army fought back with tanks, leaving Aleppo divided into east and west.
– ‘Every side has a stake’ –
The first air strikes in Syria’s war followed.
Since then, Aleppo has been split between zones controlled by the rebels and those by the regime, with its province divided up between regime, rebels, jihadists and Kurds.
Aleppo’s residents have paid a terrible price for the country’s war.
Multiple waves of displacement have followed round upon round of fighting and bombardment, including brutal barrel bomb strikes targeting opposition-held residential neighbourhoods.
Most recently, 30,000 people were forced to flee as IS jihadists battled rebels near the Turkish border in 48 hours this week, according to Human Rights Watch.
Fighting this week has also left over 200 fighters on all sides of the war dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
The fighting around Aleppo is the fiercest in Syria since a truce began nearly seven weeks ago, and it is especially significant because all sides in the war are present in the province.
Prior to the war, there were 2.5 million people living in the city; now one million remain.
Some 750,000 live in the regime-held areas, 200,000 in the opposition areas and 100,000 in the Kurdish neighbourhoods.
“Aleppo is the key to war and peace in Syria,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“Every side in the war has a stake in Aleppo.”
Syria expert Fabrice Balanche agreed.
“The main battleground is Aleppo province. Assad must control Aleppo if he doesn’t want to be president of half a country and that the north-south divide become permanent,” he told AFP.
– Cultural heritage destroyed –
The historic centre of Aleppo preserves many heritage sites including its renowned 13th century citadel.
In September 2012, a blaze swept through ancient shops in the city’s souk, or marketplace, and in April 2013, the minaret of the historic Omayyades mosque collapsed during fierce fighting.
Rebels using explosives to reach government positions in Aleppo’s Old City destroyed the iconic Carlton Hotel on May 8, 2014.
In July 2015, a blast destroyed part of the ramparts that surround the citadel.