Academia attacked

The Economist, January 16, 2013

Despite pleas from international agencies to keep the fighting between combatants, Syria’s war continues to inflict a staggeringly high toll on civilians. On January 15th two explosions at Aleppo University killed at least 82 people, mainly students, and left scores more wounded. Video footage from the scene showed damaged university buildings, including a dormitory, with belongings scattered on the ground.

Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and former commercial hub, has been ravaged by war since July, when rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime moved into the city. The university has been a noticeable hub of dissent and its students have been attacked by security forces in the past. But the university lies inside the regime-controlled area of the city, and most of the government’s large attacks have been aimed at rebel-held areas.

This has sparked a dispute over who is responsible for the attack. Activists say the blasts were the result of regime missiles, with some reporting warplanes in the area. Artillery and warplane shelling by the regime has increased in and around the city in recent days as a patch of bad weather has cleared.

State media, though, told a different story: “terrorists” (the regime’s term for the armed opposition) fired two rockets at the building, according to the governor of Aleppo. Rebels do possess mortars and occasionally misfire them, but fighters claim their range is too limited to reach the university from the nearest rebel-held area. An Islamist rebel group called Jabhat al-Nusra has set off bombs in Aleppo before, but a subsequent backlash has seen it refrain from further attacks in civilian areas.

Aleppans fear the latest attack, one of the worst the city has seen, may be part of a spike in violence. Aleppo’s myriad front-lines have scarcely moved in weeks of fighting, as both sides struggle to get the upper hand. Many in the city and beyond just want the fighting to stop. Education is one of many things to have been sacrificed during the war, as schools and universities have closed due to damage or use by internally displaced people. Those students who have struggled to stay in the classroom may now think twice.