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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.

glass_2-122012.jpg
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. 1

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

  2. 2

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

  3. 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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