Aleppo burning. Science for Human Rights photo

A City of Two Million, Wiped Out

Fighting devastates Aleppo, Syria amid mass displacement


Two years ago it was a thriving city of more than two million people in northern Syria near the Turkish border — and a U.N. world heritage site rich with the architecture of past rulers: Arabs, Romans, Mongols and Ottomans.

Today Aleppo is a war-ravaged ruin, torn down by a year of intensive fighting between the Syrian government and rebel factions. Tank battles, gunfights and bombardment by government artillery, aircraft and rockets have flattened entire neighborhoods and toppled the minaret of an historic mosque, according to a new analysis of commercial satellite imagery by Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Once a safe haven for refugees displaced by fighting elsewhere in Syria, Aleppo itself became a main battleground in Syria’s two-year-old civil war last summer, when rebel forces launched an offensive to capture the city. The rebel offensive petered out—and in June the government counter-attacked following months of brutal bombardment.

Before (left) and after photos of an Aleppo neighborhood showing bombardment damage. Images Digitalglobe/Astrium, provided by AAAS

“Aleppo has been utterly devastated, its people fleeing the conflagration in huge numbers,” said Donatella Rovera, a researcher for Amnesty International who has visited Syria more than 10 times since April 2012.

Across Syria, more than 100,000 people have died in the fighting, the U.N. said in July. Six million of Syria’s 20 million people are refugees, some of them crowding into makeshift camps in Turkey and other countries bordering the war zone. Pres. Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Damascus has apparently begun deploying chemical weapons.

Amnesty and AAAS have combined satellite imagery with the work of on-the-ground researchers such as Rovera to paint a horrifying picture of escalating violence. A montage of space-based snapshots last summer apparently showed government armored vehicles in action as well as “burned industrial buildings, roadblocks and fortifications,” said AAAS program associate Susan Wolfinbarger.

A blast at Aleppo University. Flickr photo

The new imagery appears to depict the aftermath of three government ballistic missile attacks on residential neighborhoods in February. “These three strikes alone killed more than 160 residents and injured hundreds, in addition to destroying scores of homes, leaving hundreds homeless,” Amnesty claimed.

“Our quarter was full of life, children playing everywhere,” Aleppo resident Sara Al Wawi told Amensty after 20 relatives were killed in a March air strike. “Now we are all dead, even those of us who are alive are dead inside, we have all been buried under this rubble.”

Foreign governments—excluding Russia and a handful of other Assad-backers—continue to weigh the limited options for intervention in the grinding conflict. Proposals for a no-fly zone have met stiff resistance from analysts and military leaders. Politicians have been wary to send arms to rebel groups whose ultimate motives remain unclear.