A Tale of Two Syrian Cities

In government-controlled Damascus and western Aleppo, the two rival centers of Syrian life seem destined for very different fates.


DAMASCUS and ALEPPO, Syria — In the upscale Damascene neighborhood of Mezze, Fadl al-Muhammad greeted customers enthusiastically. It was Nov. 7, the opening day of Yummy Falafel, his chic new restaurant, and glossy pictures of colorful spices and ripe carrots pulled from the earth covered the green walls. “Regardless of what you hear in the media, life has to continue,” the 43-year old management consultant said. “By opening this restaurant and two others, I’m trying to show that the crisis isn’t affecting us. That we are investing in our country.” 

At the Tche Tche café just 200 miles north in Aleppo, work was far from Ali Shwahni’s thoughts. He and his friends were smoking water pipes in a gray, cloud-filled room with three television monitors screening a British soccer game no one was watching. Rebels seized his family-owned textile factory, which he has not seen in almost three years, leaving him unemployed. “Our family has suffered, just like everyone else’s,” the 30-year-old said.

Regional rivalry among Syria’s four major cities has historically plagued the country, inhibiting the growth of a sense of national identity in the country. But it is the competition between Damascus and Aleppo, both of which have staked a claim to be Syria’s leading city, that has been most contentious. Though Damascus is the capital, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city before the war and its commercial hub. Before the Baath Party ended parliamentary democracy in 1963, each city had its own political party; rivalries between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Aleppo and Damascus factions, meanwhile, sparked an internecine conflict in the 1960s and 1970s that decimated the organization. According to a Catholic archbishop cited in U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Damascus’s Sunnis even refused to accept the country’s most senior Muslim cleric because he hails from Aleppo.

The five-year civil war has only exacerbated this rivalry. As the clashes in the capital have receded, people have largely resumed their pre-conflict lives while trying to forget the fighting further away. But in the government-held western districts of Aleppo, where until recently mortars fell daily and the din of airstrikes reverberated hourly, coping with conflict proved more difficult. The contrast between Syria’s leading cities and their respective experiences with the war are just two more reasons why the country will have such a hard time rebuilding and healing the scars of the worst conflict of the 21st century.

President Bashar al-Assad does not think so. When I met him in late October, he was upbeat as his troops were preparing their assault on rebel-held east Aleppo. The swift capture of this enclave has only boosted his spirits: “The [social] fabric that you talked about is much better than before the war,” he told me and a small group of Americans. “You had things you didn’t see before the war. That will add many, let’s say good things to that dialogue. It will make [it] more mature.”

The disparity between Aleppo and Damascus reveals that his optimism is misplaced. Damascus’ celebrated night life has certainly continued: The scene on November night at the Marionette in the Old City could have been out of any American bar. As a popular Arabic song blared from fuzzy speakers, all the pubgoers rose and sang. Crammed around a dozen or so tables, they filmed their friends waving their hands and shaking their hips on their smartphones to post on Facebook and Instagram. The war was as far from their minds as Aleppo’s front lines. The destitute civilians scavenging for food in rebel-held eastern Aleppo had nothing in common with the cosmopolitan classes here that poured back shots and sipped exotic drinks that cost $4, more than the daily wage of a midlevel civil servant.

“We can’t live in a crisis mentality all the time,” said Hassan Zaza, a 30-year-old Kurdish director of lighting for a private film and television production company. “We have to forget what is happening over there, in faraway places.”

Zaza lives in Rukn al-Din, the Kurdish quarter of Damascus. Unlike their brethren in the northeastern part of the country — approximately 350,000 of whom do not have citizenship — Damascene Kurds have never been drawn to ethnic politics and have been more integrated into Syrian life. Indeed, Zaza’s brother died fighting with government forces in the southern city of Deraa in 2013. “This is our country and no one can take it from us,” he said, knocking back a whiskey and Coke.

Muhammad, the proprietor of Yummy Falafel, does not spend his nights reveling. Instead, he pores over data. He conducted a market survey to determine the items on the menu of his new restaurant, duplicating the sort of assessments he previously carried out for the European Union, the World Bank, and oil and gas companies as a management consultant. Muhammad’s business acumen was apparent; patrons shuffled in and out lauding his sandwiches. He intends to open another seven branches in the next six months.

But in Aleppo, industrialists are counting their mounting losses. Rafa’at Shaameh owns three factories in the modern industrial zone of Sheikh Najjar, on the city’s northern outskirts. A succession of rebel groups — and finally the Islamic State — pillaged his textile and steel-cutting machines. Though government forces have retaken Sheikh Najjar, Shaameh thinks it will take years to bring his factories back on line. “We estimate losses in the millions,” he lamented.

At the Tche Tche café in Aleppo, owner Ghalib Zabuba is merely trying to turn a profit. Before the war, he charged $4.50 for a water pipe. Today, it is only 50 cents. “If the people are suffering, so will our profits. How can I make money on their grief?”

Unlike Damascus’ Marionette, with its young and hip crowd, Zabuba’s clientele is conservative. Most of the women wear headscarves and alcohol is not served. It mirrors Aleppo’s reputation as a more traditional and religious city than Damascus.

In late October, Zabuba closed the café after a mortar shelled a middle school and killed three students. Rebels in eastern Aleppo frequently target the government-held part of the city, but their lack of accuracy usually results in civilian casualties. After every fatal attack, the number of patrons at Zabuba’s dwindles to a handful.

Fares al-Shehabi, chairman of the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce and a parliamentarian who supports the government, blames the United States for his city’s destruction. Of the city’s 15,000 factories and 20,000 small and medium enterprises, he says, only 10 percent are functioning. “America’s darling rebels gave us these gifts,” Shehabi told me in the industrial city of Layramun on Aleppo’s northwest fringes.

Shehabi was eager to show a group of Western journalists how the rebels pillaged the city’s industrial zones. The hollowed-out rubble where textile looms once hummed were silent and everything that could be carted off had long made its way to Turkish industrialists who have bought factory machinery at basement prices.

The story in Adra, an industrial city about 10 miles northeast of Damascus, is less lachrymose. Rebels only held it for nine months in 2014 and the factories did not sustain the extensive damage Aleppo’s plants did. In 2015, revenues reportedly totaled 1.06 billion Syrian pounds, and the Ministry of Industry planned to establish 600 new firms there.

But in Aleppo, such investment has yet to arrive. President Assad’s success in recapturing the city represents an important military victory for the regime — but it also means that he has inherited responsibility for rebuilding the devastated areas and mending its social fabric.

If the government marginalizes Aleppo and neglects the reconstruction of its industrial areas, it will only aggravate the tense relationship between the northern commercial hub and Damascus.

“We suffered a lot from our support for the government,” an Aleppo factory owner said. “We need to see results — quickly.”


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