Fighting over the rubble: the architectural cost of the Syrian civil war

Two men ride past the remnants of a Mosque and government tanks that were badly damaged in the fight for A'zaz
Two men ride past the remnants of a Mosque and government tanks that were badly damaged in the fight for A'zaz Credit: Will Wintercross

With grand palaces and citadels in ruins, the architectural cost of the Syrian civil war is growing by the day. Richard Spencer reports 

At some point in 2011, the following graffiti began to appear in Syria: “Assad or we burn the country!” It is hard to tell who the exact authors are of the slogans that have surfaced as a commentary on the Syrian civil war, but it seems this was a catchphrase of the army and the Shabiha, pro-regime gangs stirred up in the early days to wreak havoc on opposition supporters. It was a startling admission of a truth that was already becoming self-evident. Driving this war was an atavism beyond other conflicts. Wars fought to gain control over resources, or territory, or to further an ideology have some sort of limit, in that once resources have been sufficiently destroyed, or fighting over the ruins becomes pointless, the war can end. In Syria, it seems that the destruction of the country is the very purpose. 

The consequences for the Syrian people of this impulse have been ruthlessly documented by journalists in dispatches and books, such as The Morning They Came for Us by Janine di Giovanni. Readers and viewers around the world have also seen startling images of physical destruction; the most striking recently was a video taken by a drone-mounted camera which wove through the bombed streets of Homs. However, there is something missing. Picture editors shield consumers from the corpses of children with their throats cut by the Shabiha, the blown-apart bodies as they are removed from the rubble.

Free Syrian Rebels in Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque which was destroyed by regime shelling in 2013 Credit: David Rose


As well as disguising the horror, and protecting the perpetrators, this understandable practice has disconnected our visual appreciation of the ghostly shells of buildings from the grim faces of people turning up in hospitals and mortuaries and refugee camps. These faces used to live in those shells, and parts of their children may still be there.

Neglected, too, is the architectural cost. This is also understandable: “No building is worth a hair of a Syrian’s head” is a phrase that recurs in conversations and in a recent crop of books about the country and its war. It seems an overly tourist-focused concern, to worry about Umayyad stonework, Syria’s distinctive “ablaq” buildings – striped in black basalt and white limestone – when children are starving and dying.

Yet there it is: how can you not stand, as I did in May 2013, in the Grand Mosque of Aleppo, look at the scorched and holed stonework, and the 11th-century minaret reduced to rubble by regime tank shells, without unconsciously fingering the tourist map in your pocket? Marwa al-Sabouni, an architect from Homs, gives absolution, anyway. The Battle for Home, an angry and personal memoir, describes the war and the political oppression and sectarian divisions that gave rise to it by way of the urban infrastructure of her city.

Her monograph is illustrated with line drawings, architectural impressions scarred by holes, pitted walls, piles of fallen brick. Most striking are the Mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid and the nearby Church of St Mary of the Girdle. In a small phrase, she summarises what five lethal years on top of 40 of dictatorship have done: “The undoing of the urban fabric has advanced hand-in-hand with the undoing of the moral fabric,” she writes. “And that is what is written in frightful scars on the face of Old Homs.”

The two undoings are symbiotic. The church and the mosque had coexisted along with their congregations for more than a millennium. But modernisation coincided with Syria’s immersion in military rule. Syria’s cities and their complex societies fell into the grip of all-powerful governors answerable not to their communities but to the first President Assad, Hafez, the current one’s father. As populations grew and country-dwellers became city-dwellers, development opportunities were handed out through patronage and bribery, without a thought to design or planning. (Al-Sabouni describes her own post-graduation years sitting in government offices all day with nothing to do.)

The war damaged streets of Bustan Al Basha district in Aleppo Credit: Will Wintercross


In the suburbs, villages moved together to form new sub-zones: sectarian and local loyalties, rather than being diluted through urban mingling, had their separateness reinforced, and became the only source of identity amid the featureless concrete blocks. Meanwhile, inside the ancient city walls, development was a weapon of assault: “Random and tasteless additions disgraced it everywhere.” A whole section of the Old City was levelled to make a car park. In the face of the wanton destruction, over which they had no control, residents became disillusioned. “Neglect took over the souk as it had taken over everything else, printing its marks on both body and soul, as any illness would do.” It is unsurprising that Homs, both the Old City and new suburbs, became the seat of battle.

After Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, there was an attempt to regenerate the historic centres of Aleppo and Damascus for tourism. This has led to a sympathy for the regime among a new breed of Western orientalists, impressed by the tasteful mixture of ancient and modern these cities came to offer – fashionable bars, occupied by headscarf-free women, set amid the evidence of cultural tolerance provided by neighbouring mosques and churches. To these writers, President Assad appears as a protector of minorities and secularism, even to privilege them, against the Middle East’s Islamist and jihadist wave.

Those who have lived through this process beg to differ. Whether Syrian like Leila al-Shami, author of Burning Country, the most succinct and convincing insider’s narrative of the uprising, or Western like Diana Darke, a British Arabist and writer who bought and restored a courtyard house in Damascus (My House in Damascus), or half-and-half, like Robin Yassin-Kassab, al-Shami’s British-Syrian co-author, they describe with some venom the Assad regime’s long flirtation with Islamist militancy, its hypocritical playing off of sect against sect. The money pouring into the centre of Syria’s richest two cities, Darke realises, further alienates their cross-cultural inhabitants from the excluded Sunni newcomers on the outskirts.

Young Syrian boys play on a government tank that was destroyed in the battle for A'zaz in northern Syria.  Credit: Will Wintercross


The early chapters of Burning Country give historical context: while the Ottoman Empire devolved administration to faith-based “millets” – Christians, Sunnis, Shia and so on ran their own affairs – the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belong was condemned as heretical and deprived of a millet of its own. Its members, 10 per cent of the population of modern Syria, lived an economically and politically deprived semi-existence, until the French used them to build an army core detached from society they could use to hold it down.

This explains much about the destruction of Syria’s cities. These were places in which neither the Alawite regime, nor many of the armed revolutionaries who took over from the uprising’s original protesters, had historical roots. Nine months before I witnessed the carnage in Aleppo’s Old City, I interviewed a man known as Haji Anadan, the political leader of northern Syria’s most powerful rebel militia at the time, the Liwa Tawhid. This was a group based in the countryside around Aleppo that was Islamist but in its lower ranks unideological.

I asked him a question I had myself been asked in Aleppo, whose eastern half his men had seized two weeks earlier: did he not realise that the regime’s retaliatory bombing was likely to kill the people he claimed to be liberating, and destroy their homes? “Let it turn into Stalingrad,” he said. “So long as we finish Assad.” People who had stood by as Assad’s troops had gunned down civilians in Homs could expect no sympathy when the war enveloped their own lives.

My driver at that time, a resident of one of these rougher Aleppo suburbs, said locals described men like him as rednecks. They were always reminded of their outsider status. The countryside around Aleppo was a hotbed of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising against Hafez al-Assad in 1979-82, and many of the current-day rebels saw their fathers, uncles and older brothers killed or taken away and tortured to death in the aftermath.

People walk past piles of rubble and partially destroyed buildings in Salah al-Din, Aleppo Credit: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images


I was reminded of this the other day when I was reading an exchange that included an Assad sympathiser who – unlike many – acknowledged that the uprising had roots in such disaffection. But he defended what had been done – these religious conservatives were holding the country back, he said, and needed to be “swept away”.

Ignoring that implicit sectarianism, the new orientalists say the war is not a popular revolt but an invention of the West’s Gulf allies, who saw an opportunity to inflict their brand of Sunni fundamentalism on the country. But it all began well before they intervened. Philip Mansel, a historian of the Levant who has written a history of Aleppo (IB Tauris, £17.99) that ends with its destruction, quotes a saying of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war: “Lebanon was the engagement party. Syria will be the wedding.”

And before that, before even the French turned the marginalised Alawites into a vengeful warrior caste: in the 1920 Arab Revolt against British rule in Iraq, RAF planes turned their machine guns on fleeing civilians, an episode that shocked even that ardent imperialist Winston Churchill, then War Secretary. (Churchill, however, authorised the use of chemical weapons against the insurgents, though they were never deployed.) On their side of the Sykes-Picot line, the French meanwhile took measures that similarly foreshadowed current events when Syria’s Sunni elite rose against them in 1925. Their bombardment of Damascus’s Old City was so intense that the district levelled is to this day known as Al-Hariqa, The Fire.

And so Assad too burns his country, completing a century-long conflagration.


The morning they came for us by Janine di Giovanni  bloomsbury, £16.99

The battle for home by Marwa al-Sabouni thames & hudson, £16.95

Burning country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami Pluto press, £14.99

My house in damascus by Diana Darke haus, £9.99

Aleppo by Philip Mansel ib tauris, £17.99

To order any of these books from the Telegraph for reduced prices, call 0844 871 1515