What's Really Driving Assad's Assault On Aleppo

When the Syrian regime drops bombs on the country's largest city the other target is the negotiating table in Geneva.

A Syrian government soldier stands in the snow in central Damascus.
A Syrian government soldier stands in the snow in central Damascus.
Lara Setrakian and Karen Leigh

In the past three weeks the Assad government has escalated its aerial assault on Aleppo, dropping “barrel bombs” that have killed more than 500 people. Meanwhile, on the ground, rebel groups have been fighting each other, pushing internal refugees into rebel-held areas.

The regime offensive is part of a strategy to gain a stronger foothold in the city, which has been split into regime and rebel sides since fighting escalated in July 2012. Since then the battle for Aleppo has been at a stalemate. The goal for each side, analysts say, is to grasp as much territory as possible before the start of peace talks in Switzerland, scheduled for Jan. 22.

What will be the net effect of the Aleppo offensive, once the regime reaches the negotiating table? We asked experts to weigh in.

Riad Kahwaji, Institute for Near East & Military Analysis:

Barrel bombing is nothing more than regime’s version of strategic bombing — you bomb your enemy into submission. The purpose is to demoralize the community, send them into despair and get them to revolt against the rebels.

It’s significant because it’s the second biggest city in Syria. If you control Aleppo you control the north. But we know that’s not going to happen. The barrel bombings started right after the government’s northern offensive failed – the offensive that started at Sufair. They managed to capture that town and some villages around it, but when they reached the airport they were repelled and pushed back, and so the whole offensive failed. And when they were stopped there, they started barrel bombing, which shows that the regime’s military plan has failed – usually strategic bombings happen when they are incapable of scoring any true victories on the ground.

The offensive won’t lead them to win Aleppo. Because the struggle in Syria right now is ideological, the people who are being bombed are only going to hate the regime more. It’s not getting them to hate the rebels. And the regime is just asking for revenge.

The regime will be disappointed because in Switzerland, they will find that it’s maybe now given the rebels a strong case to demand a no-fly zone over Aleppo. It’s one possibility. But you cannot expect to have genuine talks for peace when you are bombing the other side.

It could be that enough damage will be created between now and then in Aleppo that the international community would demand a no-fly zone. Would Assad adhere to it? That depends on the strength of the international campaign for it. If there is a decision to enforce a no-fly zone, that would mean there would be jets up in the sky from a third party. If the U.N. calls for a safe corridor, it would have to come with the ability to enforce it. I don’t think the regime will benefit in terms of concessions from the rebels at Geneva II.

Chris Phillips, Lecturer, Queen Mary, University of London:

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Assad’s going to take Aleppo – for him, it’s much more about reinforcing the notion, to the international community and various rebel groups, that the regime is winning. Moving into negotiations, if they actually happen, Assad will feel he’s in a stronger position if he can maintain the illusion that his side is winning the civil war. He wants to build and maintain momentum going into the talks.

What’s in it for Assad? The more Aleppo comes under assault, the more it will be perceived as having a negative effect on the rebels, increasing their disorganization. He wants to increase this narrative that encourages Western actors to reconsider Assad staying, to consider him the best of a bad bunch. The increase in attacks in Aleppo is about reinforcing that narrative.

No one is under any impression that the regime has changed its methods. The use of barrel bombs doesn’t surprise anyone. Bear in mind that the Western stance is such: they believe Assad has used chemical weapons, so the fact that he uses a new type of bomb isn’t going to change its view of him. If the White House and the West do decide to at least informally acknowledge the possibility that Assad might stay in power, it will have nothing to do with how brutal his hand has been in Aleppo.

Neither Assad nor the outside world seem to care about Assad’s image. If the West does cut a deal with him, it won’t be alongside some major facelift or PR exercise to improve his image – it will be with the acknowledgment that this guy is a brutal dictator, but we can’t do anything about it.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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