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World

Aleppo After The Fall

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse this morning of a devastated Syrian city. It's the city of Aleppo, parts of which were held for years by Syrian rebels until the government recaptured it all. President Bashar al-Assad's government has been in full control, since December, of the ruins. New York Times reporter Robert Worth got a look around. He'd seen Aleppo in more peaceful times. And this spring, he returned to Aleppo with a Syrian government visa and a government minder. The government wanted to show off its full control, although it was hard to keep certain realities from coming through.

ROBERT WORTH: You drive in this kind of strange route north and east. And if you look on the map, you can see that, according to these maps that show who has what in Syria, you're driving in an area where there's this incredibly narrow band of road that's controlled by the Syrian army. And then on one side, it's ISIS. On the other side, it's Nusra, the - basically the Qaida affiliate in Syria. And then as soon as you get to the outskirts of Aleppo, you start seeing just awful destruction - I mean, you know, pancaked, bombed houses. And that really looks like Stalingrad in 1945.

INSKEEP: Meaning that every block has buildings that are knocked down.

WORTH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: What was Aleppo like before it was blown to pieces?

WORTH: I loved it. I mean, you know, it's full of wonderful, old, medieval buildings. It's got the citadel, this wonderful kind of castle in the middle. It's a commercial city. So, you know, they had these wonderful markets, the souks, that go on for miles. So there were with each area...

INSKEEP: With hundreds, if not thousands, of little shops along the sides of them.

WORTH: Exactly, exactly, so if you're going through these corridors and you have - it's people wandering through with smells of perfume and incense and meat and so forth.

INSKEEP: That's what it was like.

WORTH: That's what it was like. Now, it is pretty much empty. It's burnt over. You walk through, and there's lots of black ash underneath. The shops are all destroyed. Some people have come back and tried to cover up what once belonged to them, but there isn't much left to cover.

INSKEEP: What happened to that market?

WORTH: Well, the rebels came to Aleppo in the summer of 2012. And of course, it became the perfect sort of urban hiding place for guerrilla (ph) warfare - not just street to street but, you know, almost stall-to-stall fighting.

INSKEEP: Shop-to-shop fighting.

WORTH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. And you see the remnants of that.

WORTH: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: You see the signs of that.

WORTH: You see huge holes blown in the ceilings of these incredibly - and they're literally medieval buildings and, you know, sort of - it's acquired a strange kind of beauty now. I mean, you know, you see all this grass and flowers growing on top of it and growing on the sides of it, huge mounds of rubble, which have got earth dumped on top of them. And now, of course, that's grown into sort of little garden spaces.

INSKEEP: From the outside, when Aleppo was falling at the end of 2016, the narrative that we heard in America, that we felt I think in America, was that this horrible regime was winning, that rebels who were deeply divided - and in many cases, extremists, but they were nevertheless rebels - fighting on the right side, the United States side, were losing. How did it look when you actually got to the city and talked to people about what had happened to them?

WORTH: I think the picture was always much more complicated than the one we got here. I think because Bashar fought so hard against the rebellion, killed so many people, it's natural that people focused on that. But I think there was less attention to the fact that the rebel movement unfortunately now is not anything we would want to support or be part of. Most of the people fighting on the ground are, if not, let's say, terrorists, they're Islamic extremists. They're violent.

The factions like the Free Syrian Army, which we, the United States, supported, which seemed, you know, like the good guys - right? - from the U.S. point of view, they work alongside Nusra, the Qaida front. So I think that's what you come away with is a sense that there are no good guys versus bad guys anymore on the rebel side.

INSKEEP: What was the basic conflict that divided Aleppo against itself?

WORTH: It's a very complicated story, but I think it has a lot to do with economics. You know, there's always been this huge divide between Aleppo, the wealthy, merchant city, and people from the countryside, very poor people who tended to be more religious. The economic picture bleeds into the religious picture where you have, you know, this Sunni Islamist movement that was driven by economic factors as well.

People - when you have a police state like that that's shattered any effort to create a unified opposition of any kind, people's loyalties tend to be to the town, to the local religious figure or what have you. And so you had rebel brigades that were looking for - out for themselves. They didn't want to unite with the village next door because they might have had big problems with them. It was very hard to get these guys to work together.

INSKEEP: Is this war any closer to ending than it was just because Aleppo fell?

WORTH: I don't really think so. I think there is still a lot of foreign involvement. The whole question of what's going to happen with Raqqa and the Islamic State continues. And then there's the question of even if the Islamic State is defeated in Raqqa, a lot of that sentiment is still there. Will there be a kind of ISIS part two that will grow up somewhere? Even, you know, in the areas that Assad is hoping to recapture, those people, or so many of them, are so, so deeply committed to their cause and against him. It's hard to imagine that there's going to be civil peace in those places.

INSKEEP: Robert F. Worth wrote a story for The New York Times Magazine called Aleppo After The Fall. Thanks for coming by.

WORTH: It's a pleasure. Thank you Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.