BEIRUT – The Baron Hotel in the battered Syrian city of Aleppo is packed with memories for owner Armen Mazloumian that bullets and bombs can never destroy.
He recalls standing behind the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser as he delivered a speech, snickering as a child when told a guest was called Agatha Christie and listening to his father’s tale about visits by David Rockefeller.
“The Baron Hotel tells the history of Aleppo,” Mazloumian, 63, said last week by phone from the establishment, which was opened by his grandfather in 1911. “I can’t describe the sadness in my heart now.”
The hotel was the place to stay during Aleppo’s cosmopolitan heyday. With most of its 45 rooms damaged by shrapnel, it mirrors the decline of Syria’s commercial hub into a battleground whose fall would mark one of the biggest turning points in almost four years of civil war.
President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebel groups have been in a race in the past few weeks to make significant gains as international attention focused on Aleppo. Turkey is requesting no-fly zones over northern Syria and United Nations special envoy Staffan De Mistura proposed a halt to fighting starting with Aleppo.
“Right now, Aleppo is a geopolitically strategic location for, not just Syrian actors, but for regional actors, most notably Turkey,” said Kamran Bokhari, adviser for Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor. “If the regime is able to regain control over that region then it means that Assad is far more secure than he already is. He will have the two major cities.”
Aleppo is almost equally divided between government forces and several rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
While Islamic State extremists have no known presence in the city, they seized an area estimated at more than 10,000 sq. km, roughly the size of Lebanon, in Aleppo province, he said.
Syrian troops and mostly Islamist rebels attempted and failed to take strategic areas from each other, said Abdurrahman. De Mistura arrived in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep Monday to meet rebel groups, including those fighting in Aleppo, his spokeswoman, Juliette Touma, said by email.
De Mistura said in November the cease-fire initiative would start in Aleppo because the city has been under pressure for years and “is not far from a possible collapse.”
“We need to stop that from happening,” he said in Damascus. “Aleppo is iconic, a symbol of culture, of multiculture and of religious and historical heritage in Syria.”
For Assad, taking Aleppo is part of a strategy to keep the country’s main four population centers, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, who once lived in Syria.
“If he takes Aleppo, the struggle for Syria will be over in many ways,” said Landis. With Aleppo and its countryside, Assad would control 75 percent of the population while the opposition has at least 50 percent of the territory, he said.
In the early stages of the conflict, which started in March 2011, Aleppo and Damascus were largely untouched by the violence that was devastating other parts of the country.
By July 2012, army troops began clashing with rebels who had seized several neighborhoods of Aleppo, which had a pre-conflict population of 3.2 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. The violence spread. Assad’s troops used barrel bombs, improvised ordnance in which explosives are packed in sections of pipe and dropped from the air, against rebel-held areas.
Thousands of people have been killed, factories have been looted or destroyed, tens of thousands of people have been displaced as neighborhoods were razed to the ground and commercial activities declined.
The Baron Hotel, on the side of the city controlled by the government and about 80 meters from the front line, had most of its windows shattered from the impact of bombs.
The only occupants now are Mazloumian and displaced Syrians who stay for free in a dozen rooms. A generator provides a few hours of electricity a day.
In its heyday, crime author Christie wrote on the hotel’s terrace, said Mazloumian. He remembers spotting an “ordinary woman” leaving the hotel when he was about 9 years old and found the sound of her name amusing.
Among the other prominent people who either stayed or stopped for a meal were Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, former French President Charles de Gaulle, travel writer Freya Stark and Lawrence of Arabia.
He said his father loved to tell the story of Rockefeller, who first visited the hotel with some U.S. officers in 1945. On a later trip, the elder Mazloumian escorted the U.S. tycoon down to the bar to take a souvenir picture.
“Ah, the past,” Mazloumian said with a sigh. “The hotel will never be what it was.”