Will Aleppo Rise Up?
Activists in Syria despair that the country's economic capital has yet to join the revolution. But the regime's growing use of violence could tip the city over the edge.
In the early days of the Syrian revolution, those hoping for the speedy demise of President Bashar al-Assad's regime held their breath for Aleppo. Syria's largest city was one of the epicenters of the revolt against Hafez al-Assad's regime in the early 1980s, and was second only to Hama in the number of sons who were disappeared by its feared security forces. But as the months dragged on and the city failed to rise, our emotions moved from anticipation to frustration. Why was Aleppo immune from the protests that have swept across Syria?
In the early days of the Syrian revolution, those hoping for the speedy demise of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime held their breath for Aleppo. Syria’s largest city was one of the epicenters of the revolt against Hafez al-Assad’s regime in the early 1980s, and was second only to Hama in the number of sons who were disappeared by its feared security forces. But as the months dragged on and the city failed to rise, our emotions moved from anticipation to frustration. Why was Aleppo immune from the protests that have swept across Syria?
Aleppo’s silence — save for demonstrations at its university and a few scattered Friday protests — became grist for jokes among revolutionary Syrians. "Aleppo wouldn’t rise even if it took Viagra," despaired one of the famous signs wielded by protesters in the northern town of Kafranbel.
But Aleppo’s dismal reputation among Syria’s revolutionaries is slowly changing. The regime’s hold on the city has been increasingly challenged: Recent Fridays have witnessed sizeable protests, and the residents of the lower-income neighborhoods of Fardous, Marjeh, and Sakhour are taking to the streets regularly.
Aleppo is also becoming increasingly violent. Assad’s security forces shot dead 13 people in the city last Friday, according to local activists — on par with the number of fatalities in other hotspots. On Feb. 10, twin car bombings targeting Aleppo’s Military Intelligence bureau killed 28 people. The growing Free Syrian Army presence in the areas around the city is also making it hard for Aleppo to remain a bystander to the revolution.
Still, Aleppo remains a long way from playing a role in the revolution that is commensurate with its size and historical influence. Activists have said that Aleppo remaining on the sidelines has made an already arduous revolution more difficult. "Without Aleppo and Damascus joining the revolution, we are going to need foreign intervention," Bara Sarraj, a former political prisoner in the infamous Tadmor Military Prison, told me.
The explanations proffered by Aleppan activists and businessmen for the city’s inertia differ. Of course, several reasons could be at play simultaneously. But the diversity of reasons provided is perhaps the most indicative fact of how baffling Aleppo’s aloofness is to activists.
One common explanation is Aleppo’s prosperity under Bashar’s rule. As Syria’s economic capital, Aleppo was primed to benefit from the government’s push to open up the market. In an ironic twist, the war in Iraq also appears to have been a boon for the economy. According to one businessman, several traders from Aleppo received payments on million-dollar contracts they never had to fulfill after the demise of Saddam’s regime. The influx of Iraqi refugees, he said, also caused a rise in rent and land prices. "My office rent went up 30 percent," he told me. "Even houses in poor neighborhood tripled in value."
A growing Aleppan elite felt it owed its prosperity to the stability the regime provided. Given Syria’s rampant corruption, money and politics are intertwined — and most of Aleppo’s upper crust, especially those who have become rich in recent years, have ties to the government that the revolution threatens to shatter.
Even Aleppo’s underclass prospered, relatively speaking, in the past decade. Manual and low-skilled jobs were abundant. State propaganda and misinformation about the revolution also played a significant role in keeping the uneducated working class reluctant to play a part in the "conspiracy."
"This revolution came at the wrong time for Aleppo," the businessman said. "The last 10 years were good for the city. Many Aleppans were reaping the rewards of investments made earlier in the last decade."
Aleppo’s size — its population numbers four million — has also been an obstacle for Syria’s revolutionaries. In hotspots such as Daraa and Homs, much smaller cities, social cohesion enabled organizers to plan protests without being compromised by Assad’s ubiquitous intelligence services. In a major metropolis like Aleppo, that kind of trust is harder to come by.
According to a popular Aleppan blogger and activist who goes by the pseudonym Edward Dark, many of Aleppo’s local coordination committees — the grassroots networks that are the lifeblood of the revolution — have consequently been infiltrated and broken up. "A good example was when we tried to organize protests after Taraweh prayers [services held at night during Ramadan]," he said. "We would choose a random mosque and only agree on it half an hour before, then spread the message to local activists. We would turn up at the mosque and find lots of security forces and thugs waiting there already."
Aleppo’s diversity may be another reason its revolution has had a difficult time getting off the ground. Its large Christian minority has either been supportive of the regime or silent, and other minorities — such as Kurds and Turkmens — are still on the fence.
But these reasons pale in comparison to what is undoubtedly the most important reason for Aleppo’s relative quiescence: regime violence. Just as activists hope Aleppo’s uprising will be the final straw that breaks Assad’s back, the regime understands that it cannot afford to lose Aleppo — a large border city that would be extremely difficult to return to its control once lost. Assad, therefore, has thrown massive numbers of security men and loyalist thugs known as "shabbiha" into the city.
The regime has also played its violence more smartly in Aleppo. While shabbiha in other hotspots of Syria tend to be Alawites from Syria’s coastal regions, the forces in Aleppo are overwhelmingly Sunni from the surrounding Arab tribes. According to Edward Dark, the al-Birri clan is the regime’s primary enforcer in the city. "They don’t even try to hide it and openly boast of receiving weapons and arms from the regime," he says. "There are lots of others too, usually convicted criminals involved in various smuggling or drugs. They were offered pardons and funds in order to help the security forces in the crackdown."
"Aleppo didn’t break the wall of fear", says @AnonymousSyria, another popular blogger from Aleppo. "Even if some people want to protest against the regime, they don’t go out in fear of detention and torture, or even death. Aleppo isn’t ready to pay the price yet."
As long as Aleppo has remained under control, the regime has restrained its use of violence in quelling protests. But as the recent spike in deaths has shown, the regime has started to use lethal force in areas where protests can no longer be controlled, such as the Aleppo suburbs. That’s a stupid move, because, as we have seen, the greatest generator of more protests is a murdered protester. The relentless cycle of brutality that has brought the revolution to all corners of Syria is coming to Aleppo as well — albeit slowly.
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