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Syria: The Citadel & the War

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Ed Kashi/VII
The Citadel, the medieval fortress at the center of Aleppo, Syria. The city has recently been the scene of clashes between government forces and opposition groups.

Archaeologists believe that human beings settled on the hilltop that became Aleppo—some 225 miles north of Damascus—around eight thousand years ago. Cuneiform tablets from the third millennium BC record the construction of a temple to a chariot-riding storm god, usually called Hadad; while mid-second-millennium Hittite archives point to the settlement’s growing political and economic power. Its Arabic name, Haleb, is said to derive from Haleb Ibrahim, Milk of Abraham, for the sheep’s milk the biblical patriarch offered to travelers in Aleppo’s environs. Successive conquerors planted their standards on the ramparts of a fortress that they enlarged and reinforced over centuries to complete the impressive stone Citadel that dominates the city today.

“It is an excellent city without equal for the beauty of its location, the grace of its construction and the size and symmetry of its marketplaces,” wrote the great Arab voyager Ibn Batuta when he visited in 1348. During the Renaissance, Aleppo was Islam’s third most important city after Constantinople and Cairo. The modern Lebanese historian Antoine Abdel Nour praised it in his Introduction à l’histoire urbaine de la Syrie ottomane:

Metropolis of a vast region, situated at the crossroads of the Arab, Turkish, and Iranian worlds, it represents without doubt the most beautiful example of the Arab city.

Its beauty reveals itself in the elegance of its stone architecture, redolent of historic links to Byzantium and Venice; and in the diversity of its peoples—Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, eleven Christian denominations, Sunni Muslims, a smattering of dissident Shiite sects from Druze to Ismailis, ancient families of urban patricians as well as peasant and Bedouin immigrants from the plains—that makes it a microcosm of all Syria.

Documentary records of Ottoman Turkey’s dominion over Aleppo from 1516 to 1918 portray communities of Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in the same neighborhoods. Unlike Tunis, where Jews were obliged to rent living space, Aleppo’s governors imposed no restrictions on house ownership by members of any religious group or by women. It was not unusual for large mansions to be divided into apartments in which Muslim, Jewish, and Christian families dwelled with little more than the usual rancor that afflicts neighbors everywhere. Unlike more xenophobic Damascus, Aleppo encouraged European traders to trade and live within the city walls. The European powers, beginning with Venice in the sixteenth century, established in Aleppo the first consulates in the Ottoman Empire to guard the interests of their expatriate subjects. Reputed descendants of Marco Polo, the Marcopoli family, retained the office of Italian honorary consul well into the twentieth century.

In a neglected corner of the old Bahsita Quarter, behind several old office buildings, stands a monument to Aleppo’s historic mélange. The Bandara Synagogue was built on a site of Jewish worship that predates by two centuries the 637 AD Arab-Muslim conquest of Aleppo. Its courtyard of fine cut-stone arches and domes resembles the arcaded cloister of the nearby al-Qadi Mosque. The Jewish community of Aleppo, like its larger counterpart in Damascus, gradually made its way to New York after the founding of Israel. The last Jews departed en masse in 1992, when then President Hafez al-Assad lifted restrictions on their emigration. Suddenly, Damascus and Aleppo were bereft of an ancient and significant strand of their social fabrics. The synagogue, restored by Syrian Jewish exiles, is the forlorn relic of a community that thrived for ages before vanishing under the weight of war between Syria and Israel. It is also a harbinger of what Aleppo’s Christians see as their fate if the latest uprising in cities such as Homs leads to all-out war or domination by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists.

“Am I worried?” Archbishop Mar Gregorius Ibrahim Yohanna, metropolitan in Aleppo of the Syrian Orthodox Church, asked rhetorically. “Yes. Am I afraid? No.” The archbishop’s concern is widespread among Christians of both Arab and Armenian origin, who claim to make up nearly 10 percent of Aleppo’s two and a half million people. (Their percentage, while half what it was fifty years ago, may have halved again to 5 percent, owing to Christian emigration, low birth rate, and the steady influx of rural Muslims into the city. The Syrian government does not publish statistics by religion.)

The archbishop, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Britain’s Birmingham University on Arab Christianity before Islam, insisted that Christians should not take sides between the government and its opponents. Unlike the Christians of Lebanon, Syrian Christians do not have their own political parties or armed militias. Mar Gregorius told me, “The only weapon we can use is to leave the country. I don’t believe it’s right.” Those who are leaving, even if only for the duration of the conflict, provide a rationale similar to the one Syrian Jews gave me in 1992: they were escaping not the Assad regime, but the Muslim fundamentalists who might overwhelm it.

“Many Christians have left,” Dr. Samir Katerji, a fifty-eight-year-old architect and member of the Syrian Orthodox Church, told me. “Many Armenians have bought houses in Armenia. Even the Muslims are leaving.” Katerji, who designed the amphitheater for outdoor films in the Aleppo Citadel, had “visited my aunt’s house,” a local euphemism for going to prison, several times. The security services arrested him for his outspoken criticism of the Assad regime and the Baath Party. “I feel the majority of the Syrian people is against this government,” he told me over a drink in his office. “It’s a very bad government. Governments and armies everywhere are dirty, even the Vatican.” While lamenting Syria’s lack of basic political freedoms, including free speech and assembly, he acknowledged that “we have social freedom. We are free to declare our thoughts and beliefs and to practice our Christianity.” He condemned murderers within the regime, but had no faith in its armed opponents: “Inside the opposition are also murderers who will not allow stability.”

Instability brought on by armed rebellion, mass demonstrations, regime violence, and economic sanctions has unsettled Syria’s many minorities. The Alawites—whose doctrines are related to those of the Shia branch of Islam, and whose rule is opposed on principle by many Sunnis, who make up some 75 percent of the Syrian population—are concentrated in the west near the Mediterranean. The Kurds live mostly in the east beside the Euphrates and the Druze in the south in Jebel Druze, so each of those minorities has a territorial base from which to negotiate their survival no matter who takes power. (In Beirut, just before I crossed the border to Syria, Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader, told me he had advised his fellow Druze in Syria to join the rebellion. “They swim in a Sunni sea, not an Alawite sea,” he said, mentioning what happened to the Algerians who sided with the French during the war of independence: many were killed and the remainder found refuge in France.)

The Christians, however, are thinly dispersed among Aleppo, Damascus, Wadi Nasara, Qamishli, and other parts of the country. Having witnessed the flight of nearly two million Iraqi Christians to Syria during Shia–Sunni fighting after 2003, they anticipate a similar exodus from Syria if the anti-regime rebellion descends into a tribal and sectarian war between Alawites and Sunnis that will trap them in the middle. Reluctant to leave their ancestral homeland, which they regard as Christianity’s cradle, they are confronted with demands from both the revolutionaries and the regime to declare themselves. They have resisted as communities so far, although individual Christians are fighting for and against the regime. The Armenian Catholic archbishop of Aleppo, Monsignor Boutros Marayati, told me, “We cannot say one side has truth and the other does not, because both sides have faults.” He added that 171 Armenians in Homs have died as members of the security forces or in crossfire, but not as deliberate targets of either side.

Minorities who benefited from the policies of the Alawite minority regime hesitate to turn their backs on it during a time of crisis. Moreover, many Christians view the opposition’s driving force, despite its many secular and liberal adherents, as Sunni fundamentalism battling a powerful Alawite minority. The fundamentalists, they believe, will, in the name of political liberation, deprive them of the social freedoms from which they have benefited. An Armenian high school teacher, whom I have known for many years, became uncharacteristically loquacious when explaining her support for the Assad regime:

I’m free. I am safe…. “You’re a kafir [unbeliever]”: I have not heard that phrase for thirty years. At the school, some of my friends are Muslim Brothers. They respect me, and I respect them. Who is responsible for that?… Look at this terror. Is this what Obama wants? Is this what Sarkozy wants? Let them leave us alone. If we don’t like our president, we won’t elect him. From a woman who is sixty years old, and I’ve been free for thirty years. I should be afraid to go out? I should cover myself? Women should live like donkeys?… We are citizens. We are equal.

She, along with many other Aleppins in the past year, has installed a steel-reinforced front door to her house. This is one sign that the security she and many other Christians felt under Assad père et fils, the regime’s primary justification, is dissipating. Tales of the rape, kidnapping, and murder of Christians in Homs, the city halfway between Aleppo and Damascus that has become the bastion of this revolution, have created unease among their coreligionists throughout Syria. At the same time, cameras have recorded civilian deaths there from attacks by government forces. In Aleppo, bombs that damaged buildings occupied by the security forces took with them nearby Christian apartments, schools, and churches.

After I left Aleppo, regime security forces raided dormitories at Aleppo University. Each side, as with all previous clashes, provided a version of events that bore no relationship to the other’s. Opposition groups said troops attacked students who had taken part in peaceful demonstrations, killed at least four of them, and—according to US officials cited in The Washington Post—arrested hundreds of others. Those sympathetic to the regime blamed rebel students from Homs and Idlib, who had transferred to Aleppo after their colleges closed because of violence.

Aleppo is tranquil most of the time. There are no soldiers on the streets, and the nightlife that was suspended out of caution in the first months of the rebellion has returned to downtown and the outdoor cafés along Azizieh Square. But Aleppins of all faiths wonder, for how much longer?

On April 13, Good Friday for the Orthodox churches, I spent the morning walking through the Aleppo Citadel. Families traversed a stone footbridge, supported by seven Roman arches over a dry moat, from a pedestrian plaza at ground level ascending more than two hundred feet to the Citadel entrance. On the stone walk in front of a row of outdoor cafés, a man in a Nike baseball cap played soccer with his son and daughter, about three and four years old. A few families were having breakfast, others coffee and soft drinks. A man pushing a kiosk on bicycle wheels sold cotton candy. The aroma of apple-scented Persian tobacco, smoked through ornate waterpipes by women and men, was in the air. In the dry moat, a half-dozen preteens played soccer. Since the conflict began in March 2011, no tourists have checked into the ancient hospital that is now the five-star Carlton Citadel Hotel. Its restaurant terrace, however, filled with Syrians at lunch.

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Robert King/Polaris
Members and supporters of the Free Syrian Army at a protest against the parliamentary elections, al-Qusayr, Homs, May 7, 2012

In the spring of 1987, also at Eastertime, I made notes in one of the local cafés just as I was doing twenty-five years later. Thousands of Christians were then visiting one another’s churches and exchanging flowers, without provoking so much as an awkward glance from their Muslim neighbors. Unlike wartime Lebanon, where foreigners were being kidnapped, Syria then seemed solid, unchanged, and unchangeable, like the Soviet Union that provided what little international backing it had. The Assad regime had been in power since 1970, the Alawite minority since a coup in 1966, and the Baath Party since 1963.

The combined military-party-family structure of Assad’s regime had survived the two-year uprisings by Sunni Muslims under Muslim Brotherhood leadership in this city and in Hama that ended violently in the spring of 1982, with the killing of thousands of Sunnis by Assad’s forces. Israel decimated Syria’s air force and armor that summer. There was an attempted putsch by the president’s brother in 1983. Syria resumed control of Lebanon with American approval in 1985, and it acquired a Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, whose steady humiliation of the Israeli army in south Lebanon helped Assad to raise his standing in the Arab world.

For all his political strength and canniness, Hafez al-Assad had a weak heart that made his mortality a source of opportunity for his enemies (Israel Radio announced his death about fifteen years early) and apprehension by his friends. He groomed his toughest, oldest son, as did his fellow dictators in the hereditary republics of Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, to assume power as naturally as the crown princes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, and Qatar. That child, Bassel, died in a car crash in 1994, so a younger son, Bashar, was drafted from his London medical studies to assume his brother’s place as heir. On his father’s death in 2000, Bashar, with his British-born wife at his side, promised reforms that he failed to carry out. The Baathist slogan, “Unity, Progress, Socialism,” still plastered on the Citadel in 1987, was already fading from the assaults of sun and rain. Twenty-five years later, it has no meaning.

Syrians seemed in 1987, if not content, reconciled to a fate that was preferable to the regime of terror they observed in Saddam’s Iraq to their east and the anarchy of Lebanon in the west. (The Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, said of Beirut’s gunmen at the time, “They don’t even obey the law of the jungle.”) The type of mildly dissident intellectuals that Saddam Hussein would torture to death before assassinating their families would in Syria receive a dressing down from security officials and sometimes a few weeks behind bars to restore them to the path of Baathist righteousness. Torture was reserved for more serious dissidents, the army’s would-be coup-makers, and also, after 2001, suspected terrorists discreetly transferred to Syrian custody by the CIA. It was cruel, it was efficient, and, until students demonstrated against it in the remote southern border town of Dera’a in March 2011, it seemed as strongly established as Aleppo’s Citadel.

When Dera’a’s students opened the gate of protest, almost everyone suddenly became a critic of the regime. Even servants of the state complained of corruption among the president’s immediate family and the security services’ use of surveillance, informers, detention, and torture to maintain elite privileges. The foreign media officer at the Ministry of Information, an attractive young woman named Abeer al-Ahmad, surprised me by offering introductions to “opposition leaders.” They were, however, the “official” opponents, candidates for this May’s parliamentary elections. The regime allowed the campaign, along with a new constitution and ostensible suspension of the long-standing state of emergency, to meet some of the demands of the real opposition led for the most part by youth in the streets.

The young, born too late to have seen the regime’s brutal suppression of the rebellions backed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Aleppo and Hama between 1980 and 1982, came of age during an era of superficial reforms. After Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, government schools abandoned military-style uniforms for primary and high school students and granted everyone access to modern telecommunications. (Under his father, even international news agencies needed government permission to install a fax.) This illusion of liberty seemed to whet an appetite for the reality. Youngsters who did not understand the older generation’s experience of prison and torture ignored their elders’ caution by calling on other youngsters to join them in the streets.

Orwa Nyrabia is a thirty-five-year-old film producer, who among other activities organizes the Damascus Film Festival. He has worked with younger colleagues to organize peaceful demonstrations and street theater to undermine belief in the all-powerful, all-knowing regime. He confesses to embarrassment that he has avoided arrest while all the youngsters in his office have spent short periods in jail. For him, the protests that erupted in Dera’a in March of last year were not surprising. “It’s been cooking for a while,” he told me in the coffee shop of the Omayyad Hotel. “In my domain, documentaries, we showed films on dictatorship in Burma and China. The censors passed it, but the audience came out discussing Syria.” When his film festival asked audiences to vote for best film in 2008, the newspaper headline was, “First free vote in Syria.” He said, “The regime blackmailed us with accusations that we were about political provocation. I told them I’m a total liberal businessman.”

Most regime opponents, apart from the “official” candidates, have dismissed the elections on May 7 as irrelevant. Most recall a joke told about the referenda staged every five years by Hafez al-Assad to endorse his tenure. An official brought him the results: “Mr. President, you have won again with 99.9 percent approval. Only 450 people voted against you.” The president glowered. The official pleaded, “What more could you want?” The president replied, “Their names.”

Nyrabia said that when young people in Dera’a campaigned to ban smoking in public places as far back as 2005, “It was really to have a campaign.” The opposition is finding its way, learning from mistakes and making new ones. It lacks the experience of the regime, as well as the armory it uses for control. “Two weeks ago, I was talking to the leader of a militia,” Nyrabia, who is half-Alawite and half-Sunni, said. “There is a danger of becoming sectarian. They are becoming anti-Alawi rather than anti-regime.” The reason for this, he and his friends believed, was that Saudi Arabia provided arms and funds to those rebels closest to its own Wahhabi ideology rather than to liberal democrats. This, combined with threats against those who don’t share that ideology from Syrian mullahs broadcasting on satellite television from Riyadh, frightens the minorities more than anything else about the opposition.

So far, the regime is holding out. There have been few defections of senior officials from it, less an indicator of loyalty than of cold calculation that the opposition is a long way from achieving power. Few soldiers have deserted the army to join the rebels. Some people from Homs told me of their anger at the rebels’ Free Syrian Army, whose strength remains unclear, for making their city the crucible of the revolution, then abandoning the populace to its fate when the regime counterattacked. The UN estimates that approximately ten thousand people were killed during the fighting between March 15, 2011, and April 22, 2012; other estimates are higher and lower. There are reports that thousands more have fled from Assad’s attacks on cities such as Bashiriya in Syria’s northwest.

Like Vichy France, Syria today is divided into regime supporters, résistants, and attentistes who await the outcome before choosing sides. Most of those I spoke to in all three camps rejected military intervention by the US, Britain, France, and, especially, Turkey to solve their problems. The Armenian Catholic Archbishop Maryati recalled that many Armenians in Aleppo came from the massacres in Turkey and were forced to leave their country in 1915. “They found in Aleppo a secure shelter, have the rights of any Syrian, and became part of the Syrian identity. They had many martyrs who defended Syria. Psychologically and spiritually, we have some worries—especially intervention by Turkey. We are afraid to be forced into a new emigration.”

Even the non-Armenian bishops who spoke to me in Aleppo and Damascus dreaded invasion by the Turkish army. Turkey, they pointed out, does not allow churches to conduct services freely as Syria does, and it prevented Arabs in Hatay province, part of Syria until the French gave it to Turkey in 1938, from speaking their own language. In Syria, they can speak whatever language they want. In Aleppo, Muslim children make up the majority in most Christian-run schools where much of the teaching is in French. As the Armenians fear the Turks, Alawites and Christians fear Sunni Salafists who chant:

Massihiyeh ala Beirut,
Alawiyeh ala Taboot.
Christians to Beirut,
Alawis to the coffin.

Syria’s anti-imperial history dates from its violent rejection of the French occupation from 1920 to 1945, when the French destroyed much of Damascus and other cities to maintain their rule. The near-universal view is that the US, which until 2004 turned over terrorism suspects to Syria for brutal treatment, objects less to the regime’s repression than to its alliance with Iran. If the US and Israel are contemplating an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it would make sense to sever the link between Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon to limit Hezbollah’s ability to respond with rockets against Israel. Some Syrians fear that the revolution has become a tool of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to defeat Iran.

That was not why the uprising began or why so many have become part of it. The perception that outside powers are changing the revolution’s objectives can only rob it of popular support, particularly at a time when the regime has the upper hand militarily and opponents resort to sending car bombs into security buildings and into busloads of policemen—attacks that kill as many civilians as soldiers.

One Christian said to me in a whisper, “I shit on this revolution, because it is forcing me into the arms of the regime.”

—May 9, 2012

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