Aleppo: duress as a weapon of war

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Aleppo has been divided since a rebel offensive in summer 2012 between loyalist sectors on its west side and rebel territory on the east. (Photo: AFP-Karam al-Masri)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Saturday, November 1, 2014

The capital of the Syrian north continues to pay a heavy price for the conflict. The city, which had joined the civil war belatedly, finds itself today open to all possibilities. Despair has found its way to the hearts of its residents, as fears grow of an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invasion, amid warnings against attempts by some to exploit the dismal conditions to promote separatist sentiments.

Two years and two months have passed since the war arrived in Aleppo. While hope was the theme of the first year, patience the second, despair seems to be the most prominent feature of the third year of conflict in the city. The residents of Aleppo, which throughout its longstanding history were always able to quickly stand back on their feet after calamities, are no longer wagering on an end to their present tragedy anytime soon.

We entered the city after a long journey. We were received by scenes of mass devastation, not different from what one sees in all Syrian cities that have been caught in the crucible of war. The ruins of the buildings in the Salahuddin district, which overlooks the Hamdaniya highway, are but a small sample of the destruction that has visited the eastern districts, currently controlled by the insurgents.

The laundry hanging from the balconies of some of the less-damaged buildings is not necessarily a sign of the resilience of the population; rather, it indicates that the occupants of those homes have no option to live somewhere else in dignity, and so chose to stay or return, undeterred by the absence of basic services like electricity and water. These have become a luxury even for the residents of the western districts, which have not seen the same kind of devastation. It is in these districts that we started our first day in Aleppo.

Perpetuating disaster

The crises plaguing services in the city are no longer a fleeting matter. Rather than trying to find radical solutions, the Syrian government has opted for ones that perpetuate the problem.

Drinking water shortages are a recurrent issue, so wells were dug, an inadequate solution. And instead of looking for radical remedies for power shortages, the government allowed private generator owners to sell electricity in Aleppo’s streets and neighborhoods, at a rate of 500-1000 Syrian pounds per ampere per week ($3-6).

Daily supply periods begin at 6 pm and end at midnight. The government, represented by the governor and the city council, believes that supplying fuel to generator owners at official prices is a “service” to the citizens, who have almost forgotten about “government electricity.” but Ahmad, a pharmacist, laughs at this. Speaking to Al-Akhbar, he said, “even in this matter they hurt us instead of helping us. Before this, generator owners were buying diesel from the black markets at more than 150 pounds (90 cents) per liter. When the governorate supplied them with fuel at the official price of 60 pounds (36 cents), it did not compel them to reduce their tariffs. Today, as official fuel prices have risen to 80 pounds (48 cents), the owners of the generators increased their tariffs by 100 to 200 pounds (60 cents-$1.2) per ampere, and reduced daily supply hours by an hour or two.”

Crowded markets but dismal sales

Since the war turned everything upside down, the traditional markets lost their economic importance. For one thing, they were located in the center of the city, which has now become a battle zone, including in districts like Bab Jenin, Bab al-Faraj, Azizia, and al-Talal. The souks of the old town are completely defunct, being at the heart of the fighting with both sides taking turns in controlling them, while large parts of these markets were burned down. The same goes for the major shopping centers on the outskirts of the city.

However, the people of Aleppo, who are renowned for their ability to come up with alternatives when it comes to business and trade, set up new markets in the western districts, mostly consisting of vendor stalls that sell almost everything one imagines – from foods, appliances, and clothes, to furniture, mobile phones, and even laptops and tablets. But although these markets look crowded, sales are at their worst according to the majority of vendors in Adhamiya Street.

Abdel-Qader stands in front of a large vending stall. He used to be the owner of a large factory producing sheets and towels and the like. “It all started when I was able to save the goods in two of my warehouses. I thought it would be temporary, but then I realized that it was going to continue until death came, at any moment,” he said. But Abdel-Qader does not think he is being gloomy. He smiles and says, “That’s not pessimism. Look around you, can it get any worse? Call it realism. Hardly a day goes by without hearing that someone we know was killed, if not by a bomb, shell, or a sniper’s bullet, then because of a sudden stroke. Duress is also a weapon of war.”

Waiting for ISIS or Erdogan

With the start of the battle in Ain al-Arab/Kobane in the countryside north of Aleppo, there has been a state of overwhelming anticipation in the streets of Aleppo. Many here believe that if ISIS can settle the battle in its favor, Aleppo will be next. “If this happens, we will be on a date with a new chapter of death. ISIS extremists consider the people of the western districts apostates, and loyalists of the regime, just like all the other armed groups,” says Mohammed, a barber in his fifties. But would they be really able to control the city that easily? The man replies, “We don’t know anything anymore. They were able to control most of the areas they attacked. Also, if they come, the US air force will come with them, which is even worse than ISIS.”

Here, Nader, a customer at the barbershop, objects. He says, “The situation in Aleppo is different. The army is here and will protect the city. It can do it.” But Mohammed retorts, “Maybe it can, but the powers that be do not want it to. If they wanted, the army could have retaken the whole city a long time ago. I think they have forgotten Aleppo exists on the map.”

Interestingly, we heard similar points of view being repeated multiple times that day. Alaa, a student at the Faculty of Literature, believes all this to be part of a psychological war. His colleague Suha agrees, and adds, “Recently, there have been voices touting the idea that there can be no salvation for Aleppo except at the hands of [Turkish President] Erdogan.” The young woman explains, “The people peddling this view want to sow the seeds for the idea of separating from the Syrian government in the city. Unfortunately, despair provides a fertile ground for such seeds.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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