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September 20, 2017

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Why Aleppo is Syria's fiercest battleground

Syrian government forces seized a swath of what was once rebel territory in Aleppo Monday, in one of the most dramatic shifts in the five-and-a-half-year civil war. The divided northern city has paid dearly as a central theater of the war. In the past two weeks alone, over 250 civilians have been killed by intense bombardment of the city's rebel-held eastern zones. A photo of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh — confused and covered in dust and blood as he sat in an ambulance after being rescued in August from the rubble of a building — became a haunting image in the unforgiving struggle.

A Shattered Historical Treasure

Syria's largest city and once its commercial center, Aleppo was a crossroads of civilization for millennia. It has been occupied by the Greeks, Byzantines and multiple Islamic dynasties. As one of the longest continuously inhabited places, its Old City was added in 1986 to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. Aleppo was one of the last cities in Syria to join the uprising against President Bashar Assad's government. Landmarks have been used as bases for fighters, and the conflict has damaged some of them, including the 11th-century Umayyad Mosque, where a minaret collapsed in 2012; the 13th-century citadel; and the medieval marketplace, where fire damaged more than 500 shops in its narrow, vaulted passageways.

The Key to Victory

With rebel defenses crumbling in eastern Aleppo, Assad is on the brink of regaining full control of the city. A government victory, aided by the interventions of his Russian and Iranian allies, would significantly bolster his position in the international arena. Rebels still hold other pockets around Syria, but any movement to unseat Assad will have to reckon with the reality that he holds the country's four largest cities and its coastal region.

A Suffering City

The government's push has laid waste to Aleppo's rebel-held eastern neighborhoods. An estimated quarter-million people are trapped in dire conditions in those districts since the government besieged the enclave in late August. Food supplies are running perilously low, the U.N. has warned, and a relentless air assault by government forces has damaged or destroyed every hospital in the area. But its western neighborhoods have suffered, too. After rebels moved into the eastern districts in 2012, residents in the west withstood repeated sieges that drained their fuel and food stores. Shelling from the east and from the surrounding countryside, while far less-intense than government bombardment, has been constant. Hundreds of civilians, including children, have died in their homes and schools.

The Warring Parties

The main Kurdish militia, known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, controls several predominantly Kurdish northern neighborhoods. The main insurgent groups in the city are the Nour el-Din Zenki brigade, the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group and the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. Government forces are backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and augmented by Russian air power.

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