Aleppo Now A De Facto 'Partition City' In Syria

Sam Dagher of the Wall Street Journal, reporting from the front lines of the war in Syria, talks to NPR's Eric Westervelt about his recent trip to Aleppo. Once a showcase of the country's diversity and culture, today it represents the ghastly, grinding stalemate of Syria's civil war.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. Over the past week, there's been a lot of news about the grinding stalemate in Syria's civil war. International monitors announced that more than 90 percent of the Syrian government's declared chemical weapons have been removed from the country. But that news was overshadowed by allegations that president Bashar al-Assad's forces may be dropping chlorine bombs on civilians.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government says it's providing more weapons to moderate rebels. In a moment, we'll hear more about the efforts to disarm Syria's chemical weapons. First, we go to one of the frontlines of the war. Aleppo in Northern Syria was once a vibrant city that showcased the country's diversity, history and culture. Today, large parts of Aleppo are destroyed and the fighting continues.

Sam Dagher just spent days in the regime-controlled western part of this brutally divided city and he spoke to us via Skype from the embattled Syrian city of Homs.

SAM DAGHER: Well, at the moment, I mean, Aleppo is a de facto divided partitioned city. The west side is controlled by the regime, the east side is controlled by the rebels. On the west side it's relatively calmer but also civilians are dying there, particularly if you're close to the frontline.

WESTERVELT: Your reporting describes this intense schism in the city. On one side, people are trying to return to normalcy, in the west - trimming shrubbery and going back to school. And on the east side, people are facing these devastating barrel bombs, these crude indiscriminate weapons. And then occasionally the rebels will lob mortar rounds in the west. Is life going on as normal there or not on, the west side?

DAGHER: No, it's not. I mean, schools are open, businesses are open. You have to remember also a lot of the people on the west side have been displaced from the east side, the people who sought refuge. I met a lot of people who owned businesses and shops but have lost everything in the war. There's something the rebels call hell's cannon. It's like an improvised rocket with, like, a canister of gas attached to it. And that's supposed to, like, increase the incineration effect.

So these horrible things are falling on some of the residential neighborhoods. So people are, no matter where they are, they're facing the consequences of this war.

WESTERVELT: Sam, it's estimated 20,000 civilians and combatants have been killed in Aleppo so far in the three-year civil war. If the Assad regime manages to take the east, won't it be the epitome of a pyrrhic victory? I mean, how do you put this city back together again?

DAGHER: Well, it's very hard. I mean, both sides are now, like, locked in this battle till the end. It's all or nothing. I mean, that's the mentality I sense on both sides. The rebels, a lot of them now under the sway of Islamist groups. In Aleppo you have even groups that are linked to al-Qaida. On the regime side, they're like, we seem to be winning and we are making headway in the center of the country around Damascus, around Homs.

But then you speak to commanders privately on the frontlines and they will tell you frankly, they're saying, look, we're stretched to the limits because we're fighting all these battles around the country. The best we can do in Aleppo is just secure our positions.

WESTERVELT: Sam, we've learned this week that the U.S. is quietly boosting its lethal and nonlethal aid to moderate rebel factions. Is there any renewed hope on the rebel side, from what you know from your reporting, that increased aid will change the dynamic on the ground?

DAGHER: Well, that's what they keep saying. I mean, they want the antiaircraft weaponry, but obviously there's been a lot of hesitation on the part of the U.S. and its allies that these types of weapons will fall in the wrong hands. And rightfully so because, as I mentioned to you earlier, I mean, a lot of these rebel groups, particularly in Aleppo are under the sway of these Islamist factions. So I would say the concerns are legitimate on the part of the U.S. and its allies.

WESTERVELT: Sam Dagher is a Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He joined us from Homs, Syria. Thanks for joining us, Sam, and stay safe.

DAGHER: Sure, my pleasure.

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