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Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed

This year, Aleppo will produce no soap. The late-medieval souks in which craftsmen fashioned blocks of the famous olive oil and laurel savon d’Alep succumbed to a conflagration during battles at the end of September. The Jubayli family’s soap factory inside the Mamelukes’ thirteenth-century Qinnasrin Gate survived the inferno, but relentless combat has left it inaccessible to workers and owners alike. By late November, following the harvest in the groves west of Aleppo, residue from the olive oil presses should be boiling in vats and poured onto carpets of wax paper stretched over stone floors. Sliced into two-by-three-inch blocks, the bars would be stacked to dry for six months before being sold. Deprived by war of the soap, fabrics, processed foods, and pharmaceuticals its region has so long produced, Aleppo is drawing on reserves of basic commodities, as well as cash and hope. All three are dwindling rapidly.

“You don’t need to go to Aleppo,” an Aleppine friend in Beirut told me. “All Aleppo is here.” Some of Aleppo’s exiles, mainly the industrialists who provided much of the region’s employment, were congregating in the cafés along Rue Hamra, some pro-regime, others anti-regime, delicately preserving friendships despite political disagreements. Playing bridge and backgammon, they await the day when it is safe to return, if it ever comes.

When I was in Aleppo last Easter, those mercantile exiles had yet to leave and their businesses were still functioning. Aleppo’s soap was plentiful in the labyrinthine souks of vaulted stone near the Citadel. Most people shared relief bordering on complacency that their city had avoided the violence engulfing the rest of the country. Aleppo’s cosmopolitanism, they seemed to feel, made it different. The only pogrom against its Christian minority had taken place in 1851, when the number of dead was small, and the crime was never repeated. The city’s relative prosperity kept much of the population satisfied, despite the suppression of political opinion.

Aleppo was Syria’s workshop and marketplace, and its region generated as much as 65 percent of the national wealth apart from oil. Factories making textiles from Syrian cotton, as well as medicines and furniture, dominated the industrial zones outside the city and provided work to thousands. The regimes of Hafez al-Assad since 1970 and his son Bashar since 2000 had left the gracious city center with little to rebel against, even if the rural poor—driven into the suburbs by drought, unemployment, and ambition—had legitimate complaints that went unnoticed in the lavish villas along the River Qoweik. Many of Aleppo’s inhabitants were old enough to remember the last time the city was the scene of a rebellion, in 1979. Its outcome gave them little hope that a repetition would be anything other than disaster. Yet with the revolt in the countryside creeping closer on all sides, the ancient city had no more chance of remaining aloof than a log cabin in the midst of a forest fire.

In normal times, the best way to travel the two hundred miles from Damascus to Aleppo was by road, with a lunch break in the gardens beside Hama’s Roman aqueducts. When the rebellion expanded in May 2011 from Deraa in the south to Homs, cutting the Damascus–Aleppo highway, flying became a safer option. In April of this year my flight was uneventful, and so was my taxi ride along the main highway into town where I checked into the welcoming, late-Ottoman Baron’s Hotel.

Syria-MAP-122012
Mike King

On my return six months later, Aleppo’s airport was nearly deserted. Taxis no longer risked the trip from town without the guarantee of a fare, so I had arranged for friends to send a driver they trusted. He grabbed my bag and ran to his car, turned the key in the ignition, and made a hasty sign of the cross. Then he broke into a sweat. About a quarter-mile from the airport, an abrupt U-turn took us off the highway to a deserted access road. The few buildings here had been hit by high-velocity ordnance and all of them, except a warehouse that Syrian government troops were using as a command post beside sandbags and a limp flag, were gutted and empty.

About a mile on, a truck-mounted antiaircraft gun on a bank above the road loomed into view. The driver turned back onto the desolate highway. Suddenly, burned tires, cement blocks, and debris blocked the road and forced us into what would have been oncoming traffic, had there been any. Gas stations were wrecked, and gasoline trucks lay charred beside the road. Rough cinder block houses for the poor stood on either side of us, pocked by artillery. A few miles farther, as we entered the city proper, the driver relaxed at the sight of pedestrians and a few cars. Near a traffic roundabout, people at a makeshift street market were hawking bright red and green tomatoes, huge potatoes, eggplants, zucchini, apples, and pomegranates. The driver pointed at the carts, which had not been there in April, and said, “They wanted freedom. Here’s their freedom!”

The city has acquired internal borders. On my first night back, a friend walked with me to the edge of the safe Sulaimaniya neighborhood. Where once we would have walked easily from Sulaimaniya into adjoining Jdaideh without noticing any difference, Jdaideh had become another world. Cars had been parked to block the entrances to its streets, and none of its lights were on. Sulaimaniya’s street lamps shone on modern cafés filled with men and women enjoying coffee, sweets, or narguiles. Jdaideh, only fifty yards away, had been depopulated since the rebels entered it a month earlier. Wherever the rebels went, the army attacked them and residents fled.

I wanted to visit the souks in the morning, but my friend told me that continued fighting there made it impossible. Who burned the souks a few weeks earlier? “That was the Free Syrian Army,” my friend said. “We are caught between two bad powers. As you know, I don’t like the dictatorship. But these people are showing themselves as worse.”

Another friend said of the rebels who had come to dominate large swathes of his city: “They entered Aleppo. Aleppo didn’t enter the conflict.” He is a businessman, happy to be quoted last spring but now insisting I not print his name. Members of his family have been kidnapped, and he has paid large sums at the end of tortuous negotiations for their release. Where Aleppines once feared the state’s many mukhabarat, intelligence agencies, they have become wary of additional retribution from the Jaish al-Hurr, the Free Army, and its associated militias. Another friend said, “The opposition thought Aleppo would welcome them. It didn’t, except in the outskirts, where the very poor and the rural people came in.” While espousing the revolution, some in the poorer districts nonetheless sought to exclude the rebels from their neighborhoods. In one of the poorest, Bani Zayd, where many people sift through the city’s garbage to make a living, the area’s elders delivered a letter to the Free Army:

We cheered the Free Army. But what is happening today is a crime against the inhabitants of our neighborhood. For there are no offices for government security or the shabihah. However, the groups that have taken position in the neighborhood cannot defend it…. We, the elders of Bani Zayd neighborhood, are responsible for making this statement and demand that battalions of the Free Army which have entered the neighborhood leave it and join battles on hot fronts…. This would ensure the return of calm to the neighborhood and would end the random shelling [by regime forces] of a poor neighborhood housing thousands of displaced people.

Bani Zayd’s residents were natural supporters of the revolution, but their commitment did not extend to tactics that left them vulnerable to retaliation by the regime. The Free Army’s inability to defend most of the areas it occupied has turned other potential supporters against it. What is the point, they ask, of inviting the regime to bombard an area that cannot be held? There was particular resentment in Aleppo of the rebel occupation of the souks in late September. Before that, they were much as a former Australian ambassador to Syria, Ross Burns, described them in his definitive study of Syrian antiquities, Monuments of Syria: An Historical Guide:

Largely unchanged since the 16th century (some go back as far as the 13th), [the souks] preserve superbly the atmosphere of the Arab/Turkish mercantile tradition. In summer, the vaulted roofs provide cool refuge; in winter, protection from the rain and cold. While many of the products on sale have been updated, there are still areas where the rope-maker, tent outfitter and sweetmeat seller ply their trade much as they have done for centuries.1

The majestic lanes of markets and ateliers were the city’s commercial hub, but also the embodiment of its spirit. Although the rebels accused the regime of starting the fires, most people, even the rebels’ supporters, blame the rebels. The Free Army followed its assault on the souks with two one-thousand- and one five-hundred-kilogram bombs in cars near an officers’ club and the main post office in Saadallah Jabri Square, the city’s central park, on the morning of October 3. A Syrian journalist who witnessed the explosions that killed more than forty people and left another 125 injured told me, “There are divisions within the Free Army. If it had a few hundred people, they could have occupied city hall and proclaimed Aleppo a liberated city.” That they didn’t was as much a measure of rebel disunity as of tactics that strike blows here and there without capitalizing on them.

The battle for Aleppo is a war for Syria itself. Another Aleppine who asked me not to print his name said, “If Aleppo falls, the regime will falter.” In both political and military terms, Syria’s commercial capital is vital to both sides. Yet both the regime and its armed opponents are alienating the people they are ostensibly trying to cultivate, as they jointly demolish Aleppo’s economy, the historic monuments that give the city its unique charm and identity, the lives and safety of its citizens, and the social cohesion that had, until now, made it a model of intersectarian harmony. Another friend confided, “The revolution died in Aleppo. They thought they would win the battle of Aleppo. They thought the people of Aleppo would support them.”

Outside the city, the rebels launched an all-out assault on the industries that kept Aleppo alive, burning and looting pharmaceutical plants, textile mills, and other factories. This hurts the industrialists, many of whom are waiting out the war in Lebanon, but more so their employees. While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.

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    I.B. Tauris, 1992; revised edition 2009. 

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