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After helping retake Aleppo, Russia seeks to rebuild it

A man takes a picture of destroyed buildings on a street in the northwestern border town of al-Bab on February 23, 2017 after Turkish-backed Syrian rebels fully captured the town from the Islamic State (IS) group. Al-Bab, just 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of the Turkish border, was the last IS stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. / AFP PHOTO / Nazeer al-Khatib

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 unrecognisable pile of blocks.

Retake, rebuild
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 air strikes 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 neighbourhoods 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.

Allies like Russia and Iran have stepped in to fill the void.

Syria signed a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday with Tehran for the provision of five gas units to help generate electricity and restore power to Aleppo.

And on Wednesday, Moscow said it will send some 4,000 tonnes of building materials and construction equipment to Syria to help “rebuild vital infrastructure for settlements freed from terrorists”.

The delivery — including 2,000 tonnes of metal water pipes and hundreds of kilometres of high-voltage cables — was being transported by train to a port in southern Russia for onward shipment to Syria.

‘A long-time’ ally
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 criticised as “the least transparent organisation” 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.

Around 3,500 people were bussed back in the past month-and-a-half to towns recaptured by Syrian troops, said General Igor Yemelyanov, who heads the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria.

And within the city, Moscow has dispatched its military police to prevent looting and maintain order.

Most are from Chechnya, though some are from other majority-Muslim areas in the Russian Caucasus, said one Chechen officer.

“We have the same faith,” which helps understanding the locals, he said.

Driving new Russian Tigr all-terrain infantry vehicles, the forces wear red berets and arm bands branded with the name “military police” in Russian.

“When we were here in January there was a lot of looting. Now it’s stopped,” he said.

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