Targeting Aleppo: This time with research, not bombs

The Aleppo Project at the Central European University (CEU) is taking an innovative approach to researching the impact of the war that is destroying Syria’s second city. The project’s three research fellows are focusing on connecting with displaced Syrians from the city and others whose voices are rarely heard when it comes to peacemaking or reconstruction.

“People can be used to create greater resilience in rebel-held areas that have suffered the most,” says AlHakam Shaar, a research fellow with CEU’s Center for Conflict Negotiation and Recovery who is from Aleppo’s Old City.

“The fact is that refugees tend to go in and out of the city quite a bit,” Shaar tells Syria Direct’s Kristen Gillespie.

“People have enormous abilities to change the way the city operates and to improvise but they don't necessarily get the support and help from the aid community to do that.”

The researchers employ a variety of tools to measure data from Aleppo, from interviewing refugees and residents to using satellite imagery to developing an algorithm to track the destruction of Aleppo.

Refugees of wars around the world and across history suffer a second displacement when they try to return home. “Corruption, mismanagement and a poor understanding of urban life meant each reconstruction was more expensive and disruptive than it might have been,” the researchers say in their mission statement.

Anyone looking to contribute to the study can email aleppo@ceu.eduor message via Facebook for more information.If you live in Aleppo or know someone who does, please share the survey, available here.

Q: How destroyed is Aleppo?

People are being subjective about answering that. This is one of the things we need to look at more closely.

For example, when I was in Turkey, some of my friends had just arrived from Aleppo. Some said, Aleppo is lost, it's 90 percent destroyed. But I went there last October (because my house is in the old city, in the Qadi Askar district,) the destruction was no more than 20 percent.

On March 5, a barrel bomb was dropped on my street, killing 23 people, including one of my two neighbors who had the key to our house. Muhammad Deeb Sheikh-Kroush used to water the plants and feed the tortoise in our courtyard.

The other neighbor survived but lost a cousin in that bombing. This is at least the fifth barrel bomb attack in a 100-metre radius from my house. All of these are documented in YouTube videos that show the aftermath.

But again, I'm being subjective about how destruction is measured.

Armenak Tokmajyan is a fellow here. He is Armenian-Syrian, reaching the development of the war in Aleppo and would like to say something about this.

Armenak: It's really difficult to say how much Aleppo is destroyed and we're in the early stages of research. I'm not sure we'll be able to say for sure.

But there are certain common patterns that you can see. There is a division in the city between rebel-held areas and government. The government is using barrel bombs, which have massive destructive power, so there are certain rebel-held areas especially north of Aleppo's citadel that are some of the most dangerous places; a no-man's land.

Those places are heavily destroyed, along with some other areas that have been heavily bombed by the government. The opposition constantly shells the regime-held areas but at a lower intensity since they do not have advanced weapons that can cause massive destruction. This indicates that the regime-held areas are less subject to massive destruction.

It wouldn't be accurate to just give a percentage.

Q: Is it fair to say it is not as destroyed as we outsiders believe it to be? That perhaps in some areas it is not as bad?

Professor Robert Templer: One of the things we're doing is looking at satellite images of Aleppo and then using an algorithm that can tell the difference between a straight line and a jagged line. When a building is destroyed, it goes from appearing as a straight line on a satellite image to a jagged line. So you can work out which areas are surrounded by jagged lines rather than straight lines.

What we're doing right now is testing the algorithm and checking it against places we know are destroyed. Eventually we'll be able to have a comprehensive assessment of the damage done to Aleppo.

Q: Is it true that the citadel was bombed and that the old souq is also destroyed?

There's definitely a big part of the souq that is burnt. But this is one of the front lines, so it's hard for people to get there and identify exactly how much was damaged. The citadel - there were videos of the slope of the citadel hill being shelled and there are many buildings around it that are definitely destroyed, including the National Hospital, which later became the Carlton Hotel. It was completely destroyed by the Islamic Front.

The Serail, the government palace, is roughly half destroyed.

Q: The government is launching phase two of its battle to take back Aleppo by encircling this enormous city and focusing on the perimeter to do it. Will this endanger the city further?

That's hard to tell. If the rebels keep some of their positions in the middle of the city, along the division line, then there will probably be a blockade there. How likely is that, I don't know.

Armenak: Encircling cities, this siege tactic is quite an old, but effective, one. The regime proved to be effective in doing that. It is difficult to guess what is going on in the regime's mind but two things are obvious - first, this tactic was useful in Homs and other areas, so they are trying to do the same in Aleppo.

The early records of this battle show that opposition groups have been successful in stopping the regime in making a full circle around the city. This indicates that the regime won’t be able to implement its tactic easily. Second, this increase in the intensity of the conflict in the north of Aleppo can also be related to De Mistura’s ceasefire plan, which was still on the table.

Theoretically, before any possible ceasefire, the conflicting parties try to hold their ground and maximize their control in order to have a better negotiating position at the table. De Mistura’s plan, however, was rejected by the opposition and today the situation in the north is on hold.

If the regime succeeds in putting a siege into place, the effect will be devastating on the city. Prices will go up, they would be able to cut all the roads and not let any humanitarian aid come in. As previous examples show, the regime is also likely to use this situation as a political weapon to negotiate.

Q: Let me ask about all the fighting around Aleppo and how it's impacting your work. When you are carrying out a survey, can you count on accuracy as conditions on the ground are changing so quickly?

The point of the surveys is mostly forward-looking. We're trying to collect information that will be used at some point in the future when reconstruction starts. It's important to capture that information, and particularly from refugees, while it is still relatively fresh in people's minds and they are still thinking about a return home.

Q: One of the things you are looking at is how donors can help in this siege situation. What are your impressions of how donors can help Aleppo, or is it too early to answer that?

There is an increasing recognition that the standard categories that donors tend to think of for refugees, for example as people living in camps, are not particularly valid because people are going back and forth. There's a lot of information that can be gathered about the situation on the ground from people going back and forth.

Those people can be used to create greater resilience in rebel-held areas that have suffered the most. It's there that aid agencies have not been very effective because they tend to view these situations in a much more static manner. The fact is that refugees tend to go in and out of the city quite a bit. People have enormous abilities to change the way the city operates and to improvise but they don't necessarily get the support and help from the aid community to do that.

There is a whole number of things that could be strengthened; everything from cash infusions which are often useful in terms of allowing people themselves to determine what assistance they need and how they're going to use it.

An example is the provision of better emergency supplies, better solar panel systems for charging phones, or whatever it might be, improving communications among groups, supporting improvised local government in various ways; donors have not been good at addressing these issues in the midst of a conflict. They tend to be too rigid, they tend to be too formulaic and too static in their viewpoint about what is possible.

Q: From the perspective of journalists in war zones, there is often derision toward the aid organizations that make what can only be called puzzling donations that do not match needs on the ground (Jordan donating plastic lawn chairs during the 2006 Lebanon war, for example.) What you are saying is that we have to listen to people on the ground and find a way to get it to them without having countless people in the middle?

Center for Conflict Negotiation and Recovery Director Robert Templer: Several aid agencies are risk-averse. They mainly receive money from governments. Those governments are constantly requiring monitoring, evaluation, audits; a whole array of complicated bureaucratic processes. But those processes are invariably not realistic in conflict situations where you need to have much greater levels of flexibility.

The ICRC has a great reputation for flexibility and operating effectively on the ground. There is a tendency to provide, as you say, the wrong materials or not necessarily understanding what the needs are or how to get things to people.

In a situation like this where you have relatively open transport routes between rebel-held Aleppo and Turkey, if you give people cash, then the goods will find their way to Aleppo and then you have far less disruption of local markets themselves.

If you pump food into a place, then you end up undermining farmers, shopkeepers - everyone who makes their living selling food. If you give people cash, then you create a greater market. There are some risks of inflation but they tend to be relatively temporary and markets tend to correct themselves as long as the supply routes are open.