After helping retake Aleppo, Russia seeks to rebuild it

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ALEPPO — Flicking through before-and-after photos of Aleppo's Umayyad mosque on his phone, the city's mufti Mahmoud Akkam said he initially wanted the celebrated landmark to be restored by fellow Syrians.

But when Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman chief of Russia's Chechnya region, offered to repair the damage that the ancient mosque sustained in ferocious clashes four years ago, Akkam felt he could not say no.

"He was very persistent," Akkam said, "and since we are of the same religion and he understands us, we accepted."

Kadyrov is a fierce loyalist of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but has also sought to present himself as an influential figure for Muslims worldwide.

A fund named after his father Akhmat has already transferred the estimated $14 million needed to fund the mosque's restorations.

If it is not enough, "they will transfer more," Akkam told journalists on a tightly controlled tour of Aleppo organised by Russia's military to tout the city's resurgence.

Syria's second city was battered by four years of fighting between rebels in the east and government forces in the west, until an evacuation deal at the end of 2016 brought it under regime control.

One of the bloodiest frontlines was Aleppo's Old City, a UNESCO-listed world heritage site featuring the ancient covered market, centuries-old citadel, and famous Umayyad mosque.

Clashes in April 2013 reduced the mosque's minaret, which dates back to the 11th century, to an unrecognizable pile of blocks.

Russia has been a decades-long ally of Damascus and stuck by its side when the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad broke out in 2011, before devolving into a civil war that has killed over 330,000 people.

In September 2015, Moscow began carrying out airstrikes that have allowed Syrian troops to retake swathes of territory — including Aleppo.

Now that it is back under government control, Russia appears keen to help rebuild it.

Aleppo's skyline features massive posters of Assad against a backdrop of the ancient citadel.

The cacophony of honking and buzz of shoppers in some neighborhoods sounds like that of any metropolis, but much of the city's east still lies in silent ruin.

Analysts say Syria's financial institutions are not in a position to fund reconstruction and nations that have called for Assad's ouster are unlikely to help.

Asked whether the West was helping rebuild Aleppo, Deputy Governor Faris Faris said Europe "only gave us militants to kill Syrian people."

"We will have to rebuild ourselves, with government help. Without European help," he said.

And Akkam said UNESCO had not done enough for the city's heritage whereas Chechnya's Kadyrov "extended his help at a very difficult time."

The pro-Putin leader has helped rebuild Russia's largest mosque, but his fund been criticized as "the least transparent organization" by opposition paper Novaya Gazeta.

Officials also appeared keen to brandish Moscow's help in restoring Aleppo's Al-Furqan school and providing Syrian students there with back-to-school packages.

"Russia has been here for a long time," said deputy provincial governor Hamid Kino.

Russian forces were providing security for aid convoys and helping transport families displaced from Aleppo's outskirts back into their battered hometowns, he said.

"Every day people come back to those towns. Some have their own cars, but for others, we find buses while the Russians bring Kamaz trucks for people's belongings," Kino said. — AFP


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