Ali was clearing debris from a room that used to be part of a hospital. The ceasefire in Aleppo was still tentatively holding, and the 12-year-old boy was taking advantage of a lull in the fighting to carve out a new place to live. Shihan, a government-held area, used to be right on the front line; now, after years of fighting, it lies in ruins. Displaced people were moving into the bombed-out ruins.
“We need to clear this room and the room next door, because this is going to be our new home,” Ali told me.
A few days later, however, and the war was back on. Jets were pounding rebel-held areas and shells were flying in the other direction, hitting the government-controlled parts of the city. Little chance of peace for Ali, now.
I’ve reported from Syria 13 times in the past three years, and in many ways, Ali’s plight tells the story of this civil war.
Ceasefires have come and gone, each side has gained and then lost territory, the violence has worsened and the only thing that has risen has been the death toll.
All the “liberated areas” the government has shown us have had one thing in common. Homs looked just like Al Qusair, which was the same as Mleha, which looks just like Darayya. All flattened, barely a building left untouched. The losers have been killed or displaced, the winners inherit a smoldering pile of rubble. The cycle shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
To enter the government-held parts of Aleppo, you need to travel through the suburb of Ramouseh. It used to be an industrial area with a lot of car service garages and some military installations. When we made this journey in February we passed through a big military entry checkpoint in some warehouses. Since February, rebels led by hard-line Islamists — until recently affiliated with al Qaeda — had attacked this area trying to break the Syrian Army’s siege of the opposition-held districts of Aleppo. They were beaten back by government forces and Russian and Syrian airpower.
When we came through the same area at the beginning of September, the checkpoint was still there, but the whole district looked like a category 5 hurricane had ravaged the place. Complete destruction brought on by the fierce battle and — as usual — virtually no change in the military situation.
Usually, a conflict that goes on for more than five years with such little progress towards a resolution disappears from the media. But Syria has not. The simple reason for that is that no journalist who has been to Syria and covered the conflict here can just leave it behind.
Syria is steeped in ancient history that has profoundly influenced the world’s culture and civilization in both the West and in the Middle East. During my repeated extended trips there, I have found that Syria’s people — no matter which side they are on — are kind, gentle, friendly and generous. And they don’t deserve what is happening to their country.
The problem is that Syria has become a battlefield for world and regional powers and that the warring factions hate each other so much that they are still pursuing a military solution even though there seems no way for either side to ever achieve it. The opposition labels Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad a war criminal, while Assad himself calls all those who are against him terrorists who must be fought by the use of arms, as he said in a recent interview.
A Syrian man checks the damage following an air strike in the rebel-held Ansari district in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 23, 2016.
The US and Russia cannot stop the sides they respectively support from fighting, because neither side is willing to give even an inch.
Unfortunately it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. Anyone who says they have a simple solution is fooling themselves. As one ceasefire after another falls apart, world leaders are realizing the same thing.
So the international community and Syrian leaders from all sides are failing people like 12-year-old Ali — who is working so hard to try and clean up the bombed out hospital he wants to live in, because it has walls, unlike the tent he and his family stayed in before. If all those involved in this war can’t even give him that, they should be ashamed of themselves.
Frederik Pleitgen is a senior international correspondent for CNN. He has reported extensively on Syria’s civil war.