Conflict Urbanism Aleppo Seminar
Case Study | Playgrounds of War: Conflict Micro-Urbanism in the Battle for Aleppo

Areas of Control

Situation in Aleppo as of April, 2016. (Map Source: Wikimapia)


The conventions of war normalise a collection of tactics, politics, and effects on the urban condition. Closed borders, bombing sorties, military advances, shifting boundaries of territorial control, demographic displacement, targeting of citizens and vital infrastructure; all inform the customary descriptions of conflict, its reporting, visualization, analysis, and public assimilation. Normal reporting of the war has not, however, extended to the urban scale of the streets of Aleppo; a scale as consequential as any other in a complex conflict interwoven into the fabric of the city. Perhaps no theater in the Syrian Civil War can validate the significance of intra-urban warfare as much as Aleppo - Syria’s largest city - currently the scene of an embedded conflict between Syrian Rebels, Government Forces, and the Kurdish Militia. Aleppo’s importance in the conflict is decisive, as Aris Roussinos states, “He who controls Aleppo shall control Syria and define the outcome of the war”.

While regime forces engage in a formal military campaign against rebel-held areas of the city, the battle of Aleppo is being dictated by the small-scale tactical capacity of the rebel forces.
In opposition to to Bashir Al-Assad’s forces, the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, and ISIS, among others, have increasingly advanced their territorial control and political influence in the city, in spite of military disadvantages and decreasing financial support.
The spatial strategies to achieve this, while largely overlooked and understudied, have been decisive in the developments of the conflict.

The Islamic Front is the strongest rebel-force in the opposition with marked influence in what remains of city’s civic life. It has become an active actor in the shaping of Aleppo’s urban fabric; through micro-urban interventions – selective demolition, preservation, adaptation, and ad-hoc patching and construction - the rebel group is taking part in the redrafting of a city. These conflict-driven interventions are misleadingly reported as callous erasure. And while erasure remains a leading operation from either side, the calculated transformation of the urban fabric is part of a process of rebuilding through the conflict that precedes any foreseeable conclusion to the war.

While public ignorance of these intra-urban realities owes much to the impossibility of establishing a safe journalistic presence within Syria, a glimpse of these conditions has been disclosed by raw footage from Syrian nationals and combatants, as well as a few successful reporting ventures.
In September 2014, Vice News published a video report of a two-week stay in the war-torn city.
Hosted by members of the Islamic Front, the journalists documented not only the predictable extent of Aleppo’s physical destruction, but much that cannot be seen in satellite imagery and drone footage:

Ghosts of Aleppo (Trailer)
See full length movie here.

Virtually depopulated, the city’s built environment has been effectively hijacked by all parties and turned into what Aris Roussinos describes, with levity and accuracy on equal measure, as a playground of war.

Snapshot Report

The violent and accelerated pace of available ground footage leaves us, at best, with a dissonant portrait of the urban conditions in the Old City.

Left: “HD POV GoPro Helmet Cam CQB Footage From Aleppo” (Source: War Leaks in Youtube)
Top Right: “Huge Explosion Rocks Carlton Hotel in Aleppo” (Source: Plasternews in Youtube)
Bottom Right: “War in Syria 2015 - Combat Footage From Aleppo” (Source: War Clashes in Youtube)
Bottom Left: “Syria War - Mustafa Martyrs Brigade in Urban Combat Firefight against SAA in Aleppo” (Source: War Clashes in Youtube)

However, by combining the multiple instances of spatial interventions made by rebel groups, it is possible to dissect a single frame of day-to-day Aleppo. Purposefully imprecise, this portrait of the city is far from a forensic analysis, but rather a descriptive resource meant to render a composite image of the combined micro-urban efforts, their relative spatial relations, and the common architectural settings in which they are performed.

Download Snapshot Report

Like a single picture composed of stitched images, this urban section couples distinct viewports to render a cohesive depiction of the conflict at its most consequential scale, simultaneously mitigating the sensory chaos of first-person footage and the abstraction of satellite imagery. Looking west, the drawing reveals the southeastern part of the Citadel (the urban theater right in the center of the Battle for Aleppo) and it unstable spatial demarcations. To the southeast, the areas controlled by the opposition, to the northwest (including the Citadel) the regime-held areas, and in the interstice, the contested positions.

One spatial condition that diminishes the Syrian Army’s military superiority is precisely the compressed nature of these demarcations, as the use of heavy firepower (barrel bombs, guided missiles, chemical gases, etc.) against the insurgency right at the edge of the frontline risks friendly casualties for the regime. For that reason, it has been reported that regime bombing sorties of opposition-held areas is cleared only beyond a 300-500m offset from contested positions; paradoxically making the frontline one of the “safest” areas of the city. A benefit for the opposition, the proximity of these demarcations has allowed them to strategically effect significant transgressions, most significantly in the shape of underground tunnels that extend their offensive capabilities. From 2014 onwards, the Islamic Front has engineered tunnels up to half a kilometer below regime-held areas in order to place explosives right under the foundation of occupied buildings. This tactic has reportedly led to dozens of Syrian Arab Army casualties.

On the other side of the battlefront, the opposition-held positions far from the frontline have also been the site of various spatial strategies designed to support governance, welfare, and civic life. Quasi-governmental institutions like courts, communal kitchens, hospitals, police headquarters, and public archives, have been relocated to nondescript –and sometimes secret, locations, as the existing institutional buildings have been systemically targeted and decimated by the regime.

Produced by Javier Bidot-Betancourt, for the Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo seminar at Columbia University during Spring 2016. See all student work here.

1Quote from 'Ghosts of Aleppo' (Vice news 2014). Similar arguments abou tthe importance of victory for either faction in Aleppo, as well as the reasons behind the concentrated strategic efforts towards that goal, have been made by Norman Hermant,("Fear about the 'mother of all battles' for Aleppo" - ABC News, July 27 2012) and Richard Spencer ("Aleppo is being Syria's Stalingrad" - The Telegraph, 11 August 2012).
2Lacking high-capacity military hardware, formal bases and defense structures, and confronted with the dense urban fabric of the Old City, the opposition groups have redefined the scale at which warfare in Aleppo is being conducted. Most effective in dispersed, mobile offense, the unconventional strategies to remain competent against the conventional weapons and tactics of the regime forces have been granted through granular strategic efforts. These will be presented in the Snapshot Report.
3Due to increased pressure from Western countries against the funding of non-moderate factions, the Islamist opposition groups’ biggest sponsors (the Gulf States, specifically Qatar) sharply reduced, and in certain cases completely ceased, funding of certain groups like The Islamic Front and the Al-Tahwid Brigade. This development peaked in 2014, completely reshaping the quasi-political structure and military competency of the opposition efforts. Lund, Aron. “The Politics of the Islamic Front” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -January 14, 2014)
4Since 2011, 108 journalists have been killed in Syria, 12 of which were confirmed to have died in Aleppo. From: ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’
5“For two weeks over the summer, VICE News embedded with the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebels fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad on one hand, and Islamic State militants on the other. From their secret tunnels beneath the ancient city to their threatened frontline outposts in Aleppo's ruined medieval centre, VICE NEWS followed the Islamic Front as, against overwhelming odds, they battled to retain control of the capital of the Syrian revolution." Description of the 'Ghosts of Aleppo’ video report (Vice News, 2014)
6VICE News. "Ghosts of Aleppo (Trailer)". YouTube video, 01:21. Posted [Sep 2014].
7“It’s like they’ve taken the city. They can wander into any house they want, do whatever they want. Turn it into a base, turn it into a firing position (…) like a playground of war”- Aris Roussinos 'Ghosts of Aleppo’ (Vice News, 2014)
Center for Spatial Research, Columbia University