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Aleppo, Syria, long loyal to the government, appears to waver

The nation's second-largest city looks increasingly divided over the uprising. Major unrest there would be a significant blow to President Bashar Assad.

February 08, 2012|By Los Angeles Times Staff
  • A supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad holds a portrait of him near the Turkish-Syrian border city of Kilis, on the road to Aleppo, Syria.
A supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad holds a portrait of him near… (Mustafa Ozer, AFP/Getty…)

ALEPPO, Syria — — In the apartment of an elderly Aleppo woman, the TV was tuned to the pro-government channel Al Dunya.

Patriotic music played over images of a happy and prosperous Syria. On her balcony, a small Syrian flag waved in the night chill.

"I told my cats that if they are with us then they can stay, but if they are against us I'll send them out into the streets," said the woman, a widow who is a staunch supporter of President Bashar Assad.

Her daughter, a teacher who still lives at home, leaned down toward a calico cat warming herself near the furnace. "Do you love Bashar?" she asked. The cat closed her eyes, and they took it as affirmation.

For 11 months, the rest of Syria has been asking the same question about Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city.

Often described as sitting on the sidelines of the bloody 11-month national uprising, Aleppo now appears wavering and uncertain. While Assad's security forces continue to crack down on the antigovernment movement across much of the country, Aleppo's populace seems unsure just where to stand.

"Are you with or against?" is a common question among friends and family. The answer leads to heated discussions.

The debate is of great consequence to the future of the nation. Like Syria's capital, Damascus, Aleppo has escaped much of the mayhem that has engulfed areas where wide-scale dissent has been violently stifled by government forces. A hundred miles to the south, Homs, Syria's third-largest city, is an opposition stronghold and a battleground.

No one is yet predicting such a turn of events in this longtime loyalist bastion, which serves as the nation's commercial hub. But the government is keeping a tight lid on both Aleppo and Damascus, mindful that major unrest in either could truly threaten Assad's rule.

Protests have broken out in the suburbs and surrounding provinces of Aleppo, but the city itself has so far been devoid of large demonstrations. At the same time, more than a dozen residents of the impoverished neighborhood of Marje were reported shot and killed by government forces during Friday protests in the last two weeks. And Aleppo's streets are now nearly empty of once-ubiquitous images of Assad after a series of attacks on shop fronts and car windows during the last two months.

In the city's old, mazelike bazaar, where shoppers, donkeys and motorcycles coexist on narrow cobblestone paths, merchants by and large continue to support Assad. In their shops, which offer everything from gold jewelry to spices, undershirts to wedding dresses, TVs are turned to Al Dunya or a government-run station.

But it is no longer unusual to see people watching the Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel, itself a possible indication of where one stands. Al Jazeera's reports have consistently played up Syrian government attacks on civilians, to the point that the official Syrian news agency now accuses foreign satellite networks of fomenting "sedition" against the government.

"Are you still watching Al Dunya?" asked a man who writes for an online newspaper, as he walked into a relative's home and glanced at the TV.

"Why are you watching Al Jazeera?" replied the woman with suspicion. "Our life is Al Dunya."

If the future here is uncertain, one thing most people agree on is that Aleppo has fast become a city on edge.

In a place where people frequently dined late into the night at restaurants or impromptu sidewalk grills, they now exhibit fear of the dark as reports emerge on kidnappings, holdups and rapes.

People no longer argue with taxi drivers over fares; each worries that the other might be carrying a gun.

When one boy, a scrawny high school student, recently discovered "Bashar fall" graffiti on an elevator door, he decided to remove it. Those around him debated whether the simple act would put him at risk — either from security forces who might think he had put it there himself or from opposition activists who might retaliate against him.

Billboards at most roundabouts and intersections have begun urging patriotism and order. "Freedom doesn't come with chaos," one reads. On the side of an ice cream delivery truck is an enlarged photo of a frozen treat in the colors of the Syrian flag. The ads seem careful to avoid equating opposition to the uprising with loyalty to Assad.

Meanwhile, an economic slowdown is pinching wallets.

Gas, diesel and heating fuel prices have risen dramatically as supplies have dwindled. There is also a bread shortage, and one hairdresser noted an increase in short haircuts as women try to save on conditioners and longer showers.

On days when fuel trucks come to deliver gas, motorists wait in line for hours to fill up, and traffic is snarled citywide.

Government supporters blame the protest movement and rebel fighters for the increasing economic chaos and a sense of lawlessness. Some say the opposition has created an atmosphere of anarchy where criminals see opportunity. Whatever the case, the loyalists say, the city's deteriorating conditions are a strong reason for Assad to remain in control.

More and more, however, it appears those who have not yet taken a side are less sure what to think.

"We talk to those supporting the revolutionaries and what they are saying sounds right, and we talk to those who support the regime and what they are saying sounds right," said a college English major in her early 20s. "We don't know what's actually right."

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