One of the Islamic world’s most important historical structures — Aleppo’s 12th-century Umayyad Mosque — has become a prominent non-human recent casualty of Syria’s civil war, its iconic minaret reduced to rubble Wednesday after clashes between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel fighters.
Both sides are adamantly refusing to accept responsibility for the destruction. Syria’s state-run news agency SANA has framed it as a terrorist attack, accusing the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra opposition faction of placing explosives in the minaret and destroying it. Anti-government activists contend that army tank shelling was the actual culprit. This frantic finger-pointing is revealing. As an indelible piece of Islamic history, and an evocative reminder of the glory days of Saladin, the mosque’s importance extends beyond Syria to the rest of the Islamic world — small wonder, then, that neither side wants to take the blame.
Unfortunately, the response to the mosque’s destruction will not change anything in the near term. The increasingly intractable conflict, with a casualty count of over 70,000, has seen its share of ultimately fruitless ‘watershed’ moments. But contrast between the convoluted debate around the use of chemical weapons in the country and the intensity of the denials around the ruined mosque and an interesting picture emerges, one that suggests the true levers to end this conflict are not generalized humanitarian and geostrategic debate but far more local, far more granular. Such an end would likely be dissatisfying to the Western and regional powers currently involved — be it through rhetoric, logistical aid, or sub-rosa military contributions — in the conflict. Redlines are one thing; the destruction of the historical fabric is another. The mosque tragedy, in other words, is an opportunity for the conciliationist elements within the opposition to retake momentum, should they prove able to seize it.