A tale of two Syrias, told by drones

In one drone video, government-held west Aleppo appears verdant and bustling. Another shows rebel-held east Aleppo as a pock-marked wasteland. (TWP)

Last week, two videos shot by drone of the same city showed the parallel universes that exist within Syria’s miserable, grinding civil war.

The first that emerged was footage obtained by the Reuters news agency of the ravaged eastern Aleppo, where districts under the control of rebel factions have been mercilessly bombed by both Syrian government and Russian airstrikes.

The bird’s-eye view gives us scenes now tragically familiar to those learning about the Syrian war through Western media: a city of ruin and desolation, its buildings pockmarked or destroyed, its roads blanketed in dust and rubble, largely empty of life. Just in the past couple of weeks, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its allies have dropped nearly 2,000 bombs on eastern Aleppo, killing hundreds and flattening hospitals.

Yet, on the other side of town, there’s a very different picture. Footage uploaded on the Syrian Tourism Ministry’s Facebook page reveals a western Aleppo that is pristine and shielded from war. The parks are verdant and lush, the streets are bustling with traffic, and its historic sites are intact and shimmering on a sunny, cloudless day. The pro-regime video, which is scored confusingly with an Arabic riff of the “Game of Thrones” theme, closes with the caption: “Aleppo — Will of Life.”

This has been in keeping with the messaging of Assad and his supporters. Last week, as eastern Aleppo faced a night-long blitz from warplanes above, the state’s news agency posted a video about Aleppo’s supposedly “thriving nightlife.”

The agitprop sparked widespread derision outside the country, which has been brutalized and hollowed out by half a decade of conflict. Aleppo, once Syria’s economic capital and most populous city, has been devastated by the war. In rebel-held areas, a grim, nihilistic fatalism has set in.

“People don’t know what to do or where to go,” a resident of rebel-held Aleppo told my colleague Liz Sly last month. “There is no escape. It is like the end of the world.”

But don’t discount the propaganda of the Syrian regime, either. From the outset of the war, Assad and his supporters have framed their battles as part of a war on terrorism and a mission to restore national unity. They have their own grievances, too: This week, residents of regime-held Aleppo came under attack from shelling by Islamist rebel factions. A number of students at a university reportedly died.

“What most outside observers don’t realize is that there is a coherent and successful strategy behind the Syrian government’s marketing,” writes Syria watcher Annia Ciezadlo. “It may look like tin-pot propaganda to Western journalists, aid workers and policymakers, but they aren’t its intended audience. The Assad government is showing its supporters — even the reluctant ones — that it’s in control. More than that, it’s demonstrating that it’s the only force within Syria that can guarantee a normal life.”

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