The medieval minaret of Aleppo’s most important mosque, just down the street from Aleppo’s famous citadel, fell yesterday, the latest casualty in the uncontrolled violence which has engulfed Syria. When I visited Aleppo in 2010, before the “Arab Spring”, I was struck by the relatively quiet neighborhood and the shiny expensive car parked just outside the mosque. That quietude has long been lost in Aleppo, which has proved to be one of the deadliest battlegrounds of the Syrian Civil War, despite being one of the last cities in Syria to experience battle firsthand.
The regime and the rebels quickly exchanged blame for the fall of the minaret, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. This is not the first time the mosque was damaged, nor the first ancient minaret to fall, but it has hit the Western news to a greater degree.
What’s at stake in the fall of the minaret? Surely, the allegations of chemical weapons deployment by the Assad regime, made yesterday by Israeli officials and seriously considered today (after initial poo-pooing) by US officials, has much higher stakes. But perhaps the two are parallel, in some dangerous ways.
Who brought down the minaret? According to the Washington Post, the opposition described the army deliberately and repeatedly targeting the minaret until they hit it, while the Syrian state news ascribed the collapse to the local branch of al-Qaida, known as “Jabhat al-Nusra” (more fully, جبهة النصرة لاهل الشام, “the frontline of aid to the people of Syria). The Syrian National Coalition asserted in a YouTube video, “The Assad regime has done everything it can to destroy Syria’s social fabric. Today, by killing people and destroying culture, it is sowing a bitterness in people’s hearts that will be difficult to erase for a very long time.”
Both sides have a lot to gain if their version of events is believed. If the regime’s account is believed, then fears of empowering al-Qaida might further prevent the US from intervening against the regime, especially in light of calls today by Sen. John McCain and others to provide weapons to the rebels against Assad. On the other hand, the opposing accounts of the regime targeting a UNESCO World Heritage site which is an Umayyad mosque might succeed in mobilizing both Sunni outrage (leading to an increase in personnel to fight the regime) and Western liberal outrage (leading to an increase in military provision).
Neither account seems plausible to me. After the damage to the same mosque last October, Assad issued a decree promising to repair the edifice, so I presume that Assad and his forces would be sufficiently aware of the danger of provoking greater opposition than to see the value of taking down the minaret, even if it could be used as a sniper perch. On the other hand, although Jabhat al-Nusra is certainly interested in manipulating media reports for its own side, I would be surprised if it took down the minaret in the mosque which it controls solely for the purpose of trying to play on jihadi or Western liberal sympathies. It would be a form of destruction too liable to arouse mixed feelings among the ranks, and then too damaging if leaked. I think the most likely explanation is that the explosions that are part of the battle for the mosque, presently controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, incidentally took down the minaret as well, an event unforeseen by either side but quick to be blamed on the opponents.
But similarly with the allegations of chemical warfare, it is not at all clear what can be believed. There seems to be evidence that chemicals (especially sarin) have been used in small quantities, but who is doing the using? If the regime is using the nerve agent, it might be “using those weapons in small amounts to gauge U.S. reaction” as suggested by the Chicago Tribune editorial. US failure to react could then mean increased deployment of chemical weapons. On the other hand, if an anti-regime group had developed the ability to synthesize small quantities of sarin, it could release those in order to blame the regime. Since sarin, once mixed, only has a shelf-life of up to several months, whatever sarin has been used recently has been mixed since the beginning of the Civil War. There are certainly groups active in Syria which would have no qualms about employing sarin if they could.
All of this means that more investigation is crucial, although the fact that the regime has blocked the arrival of UN Chemical Weapons investigators into Syria suggests that Assad is worried about the result of an investigation. If increasing foreign intervention in Syria seems inevitable, since neither side appears able to defeat the other nor willing to dialogue, the precise nature of the intervention becomes more significant for averting a more intense international conflict between those members of the UN Security Council which have favored Assad (Russia and China) and those which have favored his opponents. The UN Security Council exists, after all, to prevent the UN from doing anything which would spark World War III.
In the meantime, the minaret is destroyed, along with many other bystanders in the conflict. Whoever “wins” the war will have to deal with the loss of Syrian population, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism, social stability, and culture. Even if these things were not particularly targeted for destruction by either side, both sides’ violent intransigence have led to the destruction of much that Syrians and the world have loved about Syria.