If the English poet, John William Burgon, called Petra ‘half as old as time,’ Aleppo is a lot older. One of the world’s earliest cities, it ended the bronze age by discovering iron ore. A centre of Christianity almost two-thousand years ago, Aleppo sent evangelists as far afield as the western shores of India. Commerce was the life-blood of the city, and almost till the Suez Canal was built, it was the entrepot that supplied the riches of the Orient to Europe. It was not by chance reference that Shakespeare made Othello say in his dying speech that it was in Aleppo that he killed a Turk who traduced Venice. For by then, the English had established the Levant Company of London in Aleppo, long before the East India Company, to trade in Chinese silks and Malabar spices.
The roots of the present tragedy shrouding Aleppo can be found in that early period, when rich Christian merchants settled in the western part of Aleppo. However, at that time, even the poorer Muslims in the eastern districts benefited from the thriving trade. The city held pride of place in the Ottoman Empire, even ahead of Cairo and Damascus. However, western imperial powers had long coveted the riches of the Middle-East, and after victory in the First World War, they dismembered the Ottoman Empire, the French taking control over Lebanon and Syria, while Britain held Egypt and Iraq. In the inter-war years the French manipulated furiously to create discord between Aleppo in northern Syria and Damascus in the South, and achieved some success, but at the end of World War Two both France and Britain were too exhausted to interfere much in the Middle East.
De-colonisation and the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt brought a new sense of Arab pride and identity, and an attempt was made to join in a national union of both Syria and Egypt, the two key components of the defunct Ottoman Empire. However, the preceding colonial rule of the West had created enough discord in the region for that union to last long. The pan-Arab forces of Nasser lost out, and the Ba’athist forces of local nationalism gained control over Damascus. Hafez al-Assad, though from a poor rural family, rose to be Syria’s strongman. Power shifted to Damascus, whose merchants were favoured over those of Aleppo. In the meantime, a resurgent Turkey under Kemal Attaturk Pasha seized control over all of eastern Anatolia, cutting off Aleppo’s trade with the Mediterranean. The eastern route had already been closed by British control over Iraq. Aleppo which had been a centre of trade since the dawn of civilization, and a centre of culture for two-thousand years, sank into impoverished disgruntled provincialism.
The Great Game of divide and rule, of setting off one tribe or ethnic group against another, played in the nineteenth century by Russia and Britain to further their own imperial interests, was now re-started with a vengeance by the ascendant imperial power of the United States of America. In 1952, the CIA destroyed Dr. Mossadeq’s attempt to safeguard Iranian oil from the rapacious West, and re-installed the Shah. Under Eisenhower and Kennedy, America bankrolled and armed Pakistan as a check on India, which was wrongly perceived as a stooge of Russia. The CIA under Ronald Reagan created the fundamentalist Taliban to thwart Russian-induced modernization of Afghanistan. America, in its openly declared national interest, armed and supported the reactionary Saudi royal family, which it could control with ease, as it had the dictators of South America for a hundred years and more. The Bushes, father and son, rubbished Iraq and Afghanistan. It was clear that the American interest was to sequester the Middle East and its energy resources as an American dominion.
Obama followed his predecessors by leading a destructive assault on Libya. Gaddafi had made the cardinal mistake of distancing himself from the corrupt Arab clients of America. His loneliness led to his destruction at imperial hands, even as the Burmese Emperor had been destroyed a century ago by imperial Britain. The tactic was the well-proven one of instigating ambitious and unscrupulous ethnic leaders, with full support from Qatar, which served as America’s launching pad.
With Libya down, America’s baleful eye could be turned on Syria, now led by Basher al-Assad, the son of the first dictator, Hafez. If Syria fell, the American ring could be closed round the Middle East and a grave threat posed to Iran, which had Sunni Pakistan, America’s unruly client to the east.
The tinderbox was the eastern districts of Aleppo with its impoverished Muslim population. Rebel groups could be formed there to protest against the domination of Damascus. Civil war was ignited in Syria with every expectation of swift success. American forces stood between the Syrian government and its potential Shia allies in Iran. Further, by turning a blind eye towards the funding of ignorant fundamentalists by the pusillanimous Saudi regime, America expected Syria to be over-run in short order by the forces of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq [ISIS], to be rescued later by magnanimous American forces.
This plan did not quite work out. If it had, it would also have achieved the long-term goal of the West of keeping Russia out of the Middle East. Russia under Putin was no longer enfeebled by the break-up of the Soviet Union, and Putin struck at the rebels in east Aleppo in support of Assad and Damascus. Since the days of the Crimean war in the mid-nineteenth century, it has been Russia’s ambition to push southwards, through Afghanistan, through the Dardanelles, to stretch its ‘area of influence’ to the Middle East. Its recent face-off with Ukraine has the same root cause when Russia feared losing control of even the Black Sea ports. The Syrian imbroglio offered Putin the chance to establish a Russian presence in Damascus.
The richer Christian population in west Aleppo also threw in their lot with Damascus fearing the barbarian hordes of the ISIS, as did Hezbollah, which would have been left naked in Palestine without Syrian Shia support, which in turn depends on Iran. Meanwhile, the new Turkish President, Erdogan, has been trying to consolidate his rural support by being more ‘Islamic’ than the Attaturk faction, and has prolonged Aleppo’s agony by nominally supporting Aleppo’s rebels to maintain Turkish interest in the imbroglio. At last an evacuation of east Aleppo has been brokered by both Turkey and Russia, and the remnants of the hopeless population will be allowed to disappear into many European slums. Their governments are caught in the hypocrisy of their own liberal pretentions, and will police as harshly as possible the unwelcome refugees of their own creation. Bashar al-Assad is left to rule over the ashes of Syria, while Trump’s hawks foregather to plan out another destructive manoeuvre.
This tragic chapter in the history of the Middle East is one among many that stretch into the future. An end could possibly appear in sight with American exhaustion in maintaining global imperial domination. Perhaps, by the end of this century another generation may see Jew, Christian, and Muslim, and all the various ethnicities of the Middle East and the North African coast live in civic conviviality with the easy commercial intercourse they enjoyed during the years of the Ottoman Empire.
Ketti, The Nilgiris
(The writer is a well-known author, economist, and a renowned rights activist. He is on the jury to select Alternate Nobel Prize)