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Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed

Nicolas Righetti
A 2007 reelection campaign poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hanging in Damascus; photograph by Nicolas Righetti from his book ‘Yes to a Rosy Future,’ which takes as its title one of Assad’s campaign slogans and pairs his glorifying campaign images with -statements from his own speeches, such as ‘We never said we were a democratic country.’ It has just been published by Work Is Progress and Trolley Books.

Aleppo is under siege. Transporting heating oil for people to survive the winter has become a dangerous task. The price of mazout, the cheap fuel that heats most Aleppo homes, is now double what it is in Damascus, when people can find it. In Aleppo’s center, where the Syrian army maintains control with fortified positions, roadblocks, and regular patrols, the only commodity that seems to arrive without hindrance is food. Plentiful produce from local farms is on display on the open sidewalks that have replaced the burned-out fruit and vegetable stalls in the old souks.

The government’s brutal suppression of the rebels, especially the aerial bombardment of densely populated urban areas, has pushed some regime supporters into the arms of the opposition. One young woman, who told me in April that she loved Bashar al-Assad, said that she wept when she saw his air force bombing Aleppo. A physician, whose anti-regime views were familiar to me, said, “The majority of the Syrian people don’t want Bashar al-Assad because of what happened in the last ten years. We want change, but not like this.” This is a topsy-turvy war in which loyalties and animosities can no longer be predicted.

Syria’s war is anything its fighters want it to be. It is a class war of the suburban proletariat against a state army financed by the bourgeoisie. It is a sectarian war in which the Sunni Arab majority is fighting to displace an Alawi ruling class. It is a holy war of Sunni Muslims against all manifestations of Shiism, especially the Alawite variety. The social understandings on which Aleppo prided itself are unraveling. Muslim fundamentalists have targeted Christian churches and Shiite mosques. Arabs have fought Kurds. Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis have crossed the border to fight each other in Syria.

Emigration, a remote option last April, has become common among those with the money, languages, and education to make livings outside. A civil engineer who has served years in prison for criticizing the regime said, “Syrians are destroying each other. Education, how to live together, it’s all being destroyed. You can see it in the official workplaces. The attitudes are different. People who were not religious, even Communists, are becoming more religious.” An uprising that began in March 2011 with the modest hope of reforming the country has degenerated into a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes.

One’s choice of armies depends on experience. Those who have been tortured by government security forces look to the Free Army for deliverance, while anyone whose son or father has been kidnapped by the Free Army demands government protection. During the six months since my last visit to Aleppo, opinions shifted in unexpected ways. The Christians were for the most part in favor of the regime or neutral, hoping to avoid the attentions of either side. When I met the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, at Easter, he said with an encouraging laugh, “Am I worried? Yes. Am I afraid? No.” Aleppo was quiet, though conflicts in the rest of Syria were clear harbingers of the earthquake about to hit. At the time, Mar Gregorios was convinced that the regime and the opposition could resolve their differences: “If we solve our internal problem and sit down and talk, we can have a constructive dialogue. We can gradually rebuild our society.” As bishop of a small community of about 200,000 in Syria, he accepted that the regime had protected Christians while avoiding a commitment to either side.

Now, however, his worry has turned to fear. On the night I saw him in the sheltered confines of his rectory in the middle of Aleppo, he had just received a shock. “I was optimistic for the last weeks, but I visited my school today. Out of 550 students, only fifty are left.” Along with his discovery that every day about twenty of his local congregation were receiving visas for foreign countries, the collapse of the school had changed him from the jocular, relaxed prelate I met in October to a profoundly shaken man with little hope for his country’s future. “The issue now,” he said, “is how to convince the president to step down.” This was the first time I had heard a Christian bishop call for Bashar al-Assad to end the war by leaving office.

Didn’t Mar Gregorios fear the Muslim Brotherhood? “If there is democracy, there will be rights for all the minorities,” he said. “I don’t think fanatics and the Muslim Brotherhood are planning to control this country. They plan to be a part.” Walking back to the Park Hotel at the edge of the public gardens that evening, I heard in the distance the steady beat of artillery and machine-gun fire that no one in Aleppo can ignore any longer. It comes closer at times, then seems to recede to the outskirts, but it is always there, day and night.

Aleppines display a studied nonchalance as the bombs fall nearby. It is bad form to mention the fact that, at dinner, explosions are shaking the table. Yet the conflict is forcing them to make political choices for the first time. A scientist from a government ministry told me:

Five or six friends at work were waiting for the regime to finish. They said they will celebrate in Saadallah Jabri Square. In the last month, they changed their minds. One has a Ph.D. in agriculture. He was totally against the regime. He said we’ll celebrate its fall. Then he came to me and said the Free Army came to his area and destroyed his house. They kidnapped four of his cousins. He told me the whole story. Now we wish the mukhabarat had taken them and not the Free Army. That is the big change.

One of the few activists who gave permission for me to quote him by name was Zaidoun al-Zoabi, a professor at the Arab European University in Damascus until his dismissal for political reasons last February. He lamented, “Aleppo has been destroyed. It was a city with the regime. No more. Now the regime is losing, but we are losing too. The country is being destroyed.” Zoabi struggles to keep alive the original, peaceful revolution that began in March 2011 and was superseded by the armed rebellion. A young Syrian businessman whose family has long been at odds with the regime blames the armed opposition for trying to bring down the regime by force: “You cannot just break a regime like this, it is built to last. The regime is built for this.” The regime, which in its early days immunized itself against coups d’état with the arrest of suspected dissidents in the army and constant surveillance, made itself rebellion-proof in 1979 as a result of an uprising in Aleppo.

The 1979 revolt provides an instructive comparison with the present rebellion. A US Defense Intelligence Agency report, “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies,” of May 1982 analyzed that insurrection and Assad’s response: “In early 1979, encouraged by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood developed a plan to trigger a similar popular revolution in Syria to oust Assad.”2 The Brotherhood’s first salvo was a massacre of eighty-three Alawite cadets on June 16 at the artillery school in Aleppo. That led to widespread arrests and gunfights in Aleppo’s streets. By the following June, in the opinion of the DIA, “President Assad had broken the back of the Muslim Brotherhood challenge.”

The Muslim Brothers who escaped evolved a two-pronged plan for insurgency and a coup against Assad by their sympathizers in the army. The DIA report stated:

In early 1982, however, Syrian security uncovered the coup plot and began to intensify their operations against dissidents within the country. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood felt pressured into initiating the uprising in Hama which began on 2 February 1982.

The Brotherhood hoped Aleppo, Homs, and other large cities would imitate Hama and help begin a new era. The other cities did not rise, and the Defense Brigades of Hafez’s ruthless brother Rifaat annihilated the Brothers in Hama. The DIA put the number of probable casualties at two thousand, although later Amnesty International concluded that as many as 25,000 people died.

For the Iranian Revolution of 1979, read the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011. If Syria was not Iran, it isn’t Tunisia or Egypt either. The new rebellion is pitting Sunni against Alawi and other minorities, but more importantly it seethes with the class resentments that the displaced rural poor acquired when they confronted urban luxury. Droughts between 2007 and 2011 exacerbated the hardships of country life, driving many people into Aleppo.

This was not new. In 1987, I spent time among the peasants along the Euphrates east of Aleppo. Their village, called Yusuf Basha, was earmarked for evacuation under a scheme to build a hydroelectric dam. I returned to Aleppo from the east and saw peasants drying wheat on the sidewalks as they did in their villages. I wrote:

Before, I had seen the city of Aleppo growing along the hilltops, as the suburbs ate into the countryside. Now, I realised that the village had come to the city, planting itself outside and growing in. The poor farmers were bringing their customs, their ways, to cosmopolitan Aleppo, as they were to Damascus and Beirut. They were turning their apartments into compact versions of their mud houses—the families sleeping together in one room, cooking in another, washing in another, each room like one of the little huts around their yards. It was not poverty, but tradition, that put a whole family into one room. This was the only security they had in a city that was at once unwelcoming and alien.3

That return to Aleppo was an enlightening moment, when I saw the city as new arrivals from the village did. If Aleppo had accommodated them, slowly absorbing them into the city’s economic and cultural life, as it had in centuries past, they might not have welcomed rebels from backgrounds similar to theirs. The neoliberal economic policies that Bashar al-Assad introduced when he succeeded his father in 2000 exacerbated their plight. The beneficiaries were newly privatized bankers, Bashar’s cousins who obtained licenses to sell mobile phones, middlemen and brokers with urban educations and customs, not the newly landless trying without money or education to adapt to metropolitan life. For them to react as they are now doing is part of an ancient pattern that I noticed on that return to Aleppo twenty-five years ago:

For the first time in all my years in the Levant, I saw how corrupting the peasant and the bedouin found the city. Arab tradition said that every other generation brought a wave of reformers, religious zealots, from the desert to purify the city. It had happened in Saudi Arabia many times, lasting until the luxury of city life corrupted that generation’s sons. I wondered whether it would happen in Syria.

Twenty-five years later, it is happening. An estimated 40,000 Syrians have paid with their lives, and another two million are displaced, of whom 400,000 have fled over the borders to wait out the war as refugees. The increasingly well-armed opposition recently declared in Qatar that it was uniting in a Western-sponsored coalition, a self-declared unity that is fragile at best. Soon after, a number of Islamist factions said they rejected the coalition and wanted to establish an Islamic state. On November 20, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) also rejected the coalition. With the regime remaining obdurate, all sides seem primed for a long and destructive war.

November 20, 2012

  1. 2

    Defense Intelligence Agency, “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies (U),” Directorate of Research, (b) (3): 10 USC 424, May 1982, p. vii. 

  2. 3

    Charles Glass, Tribes with Flags: Adventure and Kidnap in Greater Syria (1990; reissued as an e-book by HarperPress, 2012), p. 165. 

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