Sunday, January 21, 2018

In Syria, a city reflects on losses during holiday lull

ALEPPO, Syria — A brief lull in fighting for a Muslim holiday Sunday allowed residents of Aleppo to take stock of their losses after three weeks of intense battles left many in Syria's largest city strapped for cash, separated from loved ones and scared of more violence ahead.

In the capital, Damascus, President Bashar Assad prayed at a mosque. It was only the second time he has been shown on TV since a bomb attack killed four of his top security advisers July 18.

Thousands across the country marched against Assad in mosques and cemeteries after special dawn prayers marking the start of the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, which caps the holy month of Ramadan. The holiday — usually a joyful time to remember the dead, dress up in new clothes and visit family — followed a particularly bloody Ramadan when fighting erupted in Syria's two largest cities, bringing large civilian populations under fire and causing a spike in the death toll.

"There is no holiday," said Mohammed Radwan, 34, standing near an apartment building in Aleppo's Tariq al-Bab neighborhood, which was hit by an airstrike the day before. "The electricity comes and goes, the jets fire on us, and no one has any work. All we'll do today is clean up the rocks and rubble."

Nearby, a group of men coated in gray cement dust searched the wreckage of the strike for the bodies of two girls, ages 2 and 14.

The fighting in Aleppo has marked the first time that Assad has relied heavily on air power to bomb and strafe rebel forces who have grown adept at challenging ground troops. The poorly armed opposition fighters are largely helpless against near-daily airstrikes by attack helicopters and fighter jets, and the attacks often kill or terrify civilians. As many as 200,000 have fled Aleppo, either to nearby villages or to refugee camps in Turkey.

But after three weeks of battle, the government has still not managed to defeat the rebels — a sign of the regime's loosening grip on the country.

In the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, an airstrike on Wednesday that killed more than 40 people cast a pall over holiday prayers. Only about 100 men showed up to pray in the Hadideen mosque with its salmon-colored minaret bearing the scars of a shell blast.

Residents said many families fled the town after the strike. Others packed up blankets and mats to camp out in the olive groves around town, fearing another attack on the holiday.

"We should all be wearing new clothes and be freshly groomed, but look at us," said Abdullah Sayid, pointing to his stubbly chin and the glum faces of the men around him. "Nobody feels like it."

His younger brother Abdel-Hafiz, 32, was killed in the airstrike.

Many Aleppo residents say the huge changes since the fighting began have left them confused. Aleppo, a city of some 4 million people spread around a cobblestone old city and medieval citadel, has long been considered one of the most beautiful spots in what was a very safe country.

Some were torn between their distrust of the mostly rural rebels and their anger at the government for its shelling and airstrikes.

"The events have really hurt the people, especially the poor," said Fares Munir, a 39-year-old tailor sitting with friends in one of the few open shops in the Shaar neighborhood. "We hoped that the government would protect us when the armed groups came in. But it didn't, and now it is shelling us along with them."

Syrian state media continued to try to project an image of normalcy despite the violence that antiregime activists say has killed more than 20,000 people since the uprising started in March 2011.

State TV showed Assad praying in a small mosque in Damascus, near the presidential palace. He sat cross-legged on the floor in a suit and tie and later shook hands with officials. Assad normally prays at the biggest and oldest in Damascus.

International powers are still stalemated over how to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

 
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