Just before the Siege, Better Stay than Run

Aleppo residents now have limited options as the regime forces advance toward the city, some even prefer potential hunger to the humiliation of displacement. 

(Photo: Two young men sitting nearby a building destroyed by the regime's barrel bombs - Bab al-Hadid- Aleppo - 16-4-2015 [Mahmud Abdur-Rahman/Good Morning Syria]).

(Aleppo, Syria) Opposition-held neighbourhoods in Aleppo are on the verge of siege after the regime’s forces and affiliated brigades advanced in the countryside, backed by Russian air cover. These forces lifted the siege off the cities of Nubul and az-Zahra’, cutting off the only road connecting Aleppo to the northern countryside and the Bab as-Salamah crossing to Turkey. While many residents chose to leave to villages in the western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, others had a different say and chose to stay in their city, each for their own reasons.

The Syrian-Russian offensive resulted in the displacement of the residents living in the villages of the northern countryside to the borderline city of Aʿzaz (also controlled by the opposition), in the hope of entering Turkey. However, Ankara seems unwilling to receive further refugees and has established new camps near the border instead.

The advancement of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in villages near Nubul and az-Zahra’ with a Russian air cover has also aggravated the humanitarian situation. These forces seized Mannagh, Deyr Jamal and Tall Rifʿat, displacing their residents as well.

According to statistics by the Aʿzaz Emergency Council, over 10,000 families were displaced following the last operations. Most of these people live in mosques, schools and shelters, as well as borderline camps. Further complicating the situation is the forced migration of the residents of Aʿzaz, which is already receiving displaced people from other regions. In this regard, Good Morning Syria met with attorney Mustapha Hajj ʿAbdullah, the head of the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees (a coalition of activists) in Manbij, who is currently working in Aʿzaz. “The residents of Aʿzaz started fleeing toward the Turkish border as well, fearing the expansion of the SDF’s operations, supported by Russian airstrikes,” said ʿAbdullah.

“Every day, we see and hear of news about Syrian refugees being sexually and economically exploited. People keep calling for their expulsion from the hosting countries. I’d rather die at home than endure this humiliating experience.”

In the light of this escalating humanitarian crisis in borderline regions, the citizens of Aleppo seem to have limited options as the possibility of a siege becomes more tangible. In fact, if the regime forces advance for no more than three kilometres, they could cut off the Castello road in the north and completely besiege Aleppo.

Amidst all the discussions related to the siege and the flow of displaced people toward the countryside, Abu Khalid (1), a man in his sixties, continues to work regularly as a taxi driver in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, refusing what he calls a humiliating displacement. “Every day, we see and hear of news about Syrian refugees being sexually and economically exploited. People keep calling for their expulsion from the hosting countries. I’d rather die at home than endure this humiliating experience,” he told Good Morning Syria.

Moreover, the economic factors and the increasing costs of transportation and house rentals prevent Aleppo residents from leaving the city. This is the case of 40-year-old Hassan, a groceries store owner, who has remained in Bab al-Maqam with his family of six. “How could I afford to take my family away and pay a (new) rental after the prices of houses in the safe regions doubled? I will stay in my house and plant the garden in front of it for a living, and I will not leave,” he said.

These same economic reasons kept electrical worker Abu ʿAbdu and his family from heading to the countryside or Turkey. “I thought of leaving to Turkey or to a countryside village, but the border is closed and smugglers ask for outrageous prices, and so do landlords (in the countryside), since rentals are now as expensive as in Turkey,” he explained.

Despite the fear of replicating the experience of the besieged town of Madaya in Aleppo, some residents refuse the thought of a siege or starvation altogether. Abul-Khayr, a former government employee, believes that precautions ought to be taken, but he finds no need to leave his house in al-Bayadah neighbourhood. “I saved some basic supplies like sugar and flour, but I know that Aleppo is strong enough to repel a siege. Even if there was one, this city that fed me over my past fifty years will not leave me starving now,” he said.

The residents engaged in the revolution are not concerned with the hunger threatening their city in the event of a siege. For her part, Rama, a school teacher in her twenties, believes that this option was already possible in the past. “Since the beginning of the revolution, it was clear that the regime will not hesitate to kill and starve us. What happened in Madaya is not new for the regime, and we are ready to go through the same experience, for we are not better than its residents,” she clarified.

The constant crises afflicting Aleppo, be it the shelling, destruction or potential hunger, have left its residents with few options, and each is trying to adapt to the most convenient choice in terms of capacities and priorities.

Pseudonyms were used to protect the identity of the sources, except in the case of attorney Mustapha Hajj ʿAbdullah.