What We Know about Aleppo – and What We Wish We Knew

March 10, 2014

We are only a few short weeks from the third anniversary of Syria’s uprising. Syria initially followed Libya and Egypt into the so-called “Arab Spring,” but somewhere along the way took a morbid detour. In addition to being “the greatest humanitarian crisis in modern history,” the Syrian civil war confounds analysts who struggle to keep up with the confusing links between the micro and macro levels of the conflict. As an employee of Caerus Associates, but also someone who has studied Syrian dissident politics since 2008, I am confident that our recently published report on Aleppo represents some of the most detailed publicly available information on Syria to date.

What did we find?

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) disappeared from opposition-held Aleppo as fast as they initially rose to power there. In September 2013, the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group was only present in one of Aleppo’s 44 opposition-held neighborhoods. By December 2013, ISIS was considered “strongest” in 12 of 44 neighborhoods, the most of any group in opposition-held Aleppo. But their brutal intimidation tactics were unpopular among residents: ISIS controlled disproportionately the largest number of restrictive checkpoints (checkpoints that stopped more than 50% of all people and vehicles trying to cross), and the largest number of checkpoints that residents avoided entirely. By January 2014, however, our study showed they declined from 12 neighborhoods to 10. Since then, ISIS lost their headquarters to the Islamic Front, a new coalition of large rebel brigades that are fighting back against ISIS, and were rejected by Al Qaeda central. Our research team suggests that, as of this writing, ISIS may not have a visible military presence in any of Aleppo’s neighborhoods.

Civilian responses to hardship in Aleppo suggest that governance capacity may be developing in opposition-held areas. For almost two years, the Syrian regime has dropped bombs on civilians waiting in line to buy bread in Aleppo. Human Rights Watch called the attacks “recklessly indiscriminate” in an excellent video report as early as August 2012. In mid-2013, bakeries responded by working with neighborhood councils to deliver bread directly to residents’ homes so that residents did not have to wait in lines. When we began our study in late September 2013, we found that only 10% of all bakeries were open to the public; the rest delivered bread through neighborhood councils. Two months later, not a single bakery was open to the public. This evolution had a dramatic impact on bread prices: in September 2013 the mean price for a bag of bread (7-8 flat loaves) was 54 Syrian Pounds (130 SYP=1 USD). The standard deviation was 12, meaning that bread prices varied significantly. By January 2014, bread prices rose to 75 SYP, and the standard deviation plummeted to 1.5. This means that while bread prices rose, the higher price fluctuated less. The fact that bread prices were even across all opposition-held Aleppo suggests that there is some coordination between neighborhood councils. The fact that they are slightly higher – at 74 or 75 SYP as opposed to the previous mean of 54SYP – suggests these councils may even charge a premium for distribution. This is important because it shows that governance capacity, communication, and coordination may be improving despite intense ongoing violence.

The Syrian regime retains military superiority but little political legitimacy. The Syrian regime controls only one-third of Aleppo’s 56 neighborhoods, but it deploys 70% of all military checkpoints we counted in the city. It also controls a vast majority of the “strong” checkpoints: checkpoints at which 20 or more men are deployed along with heavy weapons such as missile launchers and tanks. Despite its strong military position, there is very little support for the Syrian regime. Only 12.1% of Aleppo residents believe the Syrian regime is the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” according to a survey of over 550 residents from across the city. And that 12.1% was only statistically relevant in 3 of the 22 neighborhoods controlled by the regime. There were more residents in regime-held Aleppo that believed the Syrian regime was the “greatest threat to the Syrian people,” another question we asked in the survey, than those who believed it was its most legitimate representative.

What do we wish we knew?

While we believe our research provides unprecedented detail into the fluid dynamics of Aleppo’s complex conflict, there are plenty of limitations. We will highlight some of the top insights from the data but also draw attention to issues that still need to be closely examined. For example, the Aleppo conflict map provides extraordinary detail, but in many cases only identifies where to look, not why certain areas are the way they are. That is why we decided to make this research publicly available – in the hopes that others can help us improve our understanding of the Syrian conflict.

There are two ways we believe others can help make sense of this data.

First, there are gaps in the analysis of the data. For example, there is much more in the data that could shed light on the relationship between checkpoint control and neighborhood control. Do some armed groups need many checkpoints to control a neighborhood, while others far fewer? What conclusions might we be able to draw about armed groups that control many neighborhoods with fewer checkpoints? There is also substantial work that can be done to review changing resident perceptions over time, when compared to the evolving presence of armed groups. For example, we ask residents who they believe resolves local crimes or disputes. Do resident attitudes in neighborhoods overtaken by ISIS change to favor Islamic law or do they remain in favor of civil code? There are many similar questions interested researchers can answer in our data.

Second, there are important information streams that were not included in the scope of our research. For example, we were unable to compare our data to deaths in Aleppo city, despite ongoing efforts to document this by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SoHR) and others. Their data is difficult to access, and requires cleaning to be geo-located to Aleppo’s neighborhood level. We also wanted to incorporate event data into our report, but did not have the capacity to do. We wanted to find a systematic way to include significant activities (“Sig-Acts”) in the city by neighborhood. The goal of incorporating both information streams would be to see how our data compares to areas with the most violence in Aleppo. We did not have the capacity to hand code “Sig-Acts,” nor did we have the time to clean the SoHR data. Hopefully, others might.

By publishing our research findings and making available the raw data itself to humanitarian agencies, conflict experts, and scholars, we hope that others can help us make sense of Aleppo’s complex conflict. We believe this research pushes the boundaries of sensemaking in Syria, but there remain important outstanding questions. Syria challenges conventional methods of understanding conflict. We look forward to engaging with others trying to understand Syria.


Nate Rosenblatt is a Senior Middle East/North Africa Analyst at Caerus Associates, a strategic research consultancy.


Photo credit: yeowatzup