People shop at a market in Aleppo in 2011
A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows people shopping at a market in Aleppo in 2011 as opposition calls for a general strike in Damascus and other cities appeared to go largely unheeded. Aleppo business owners spurn the armed rebellion that has ruined both their business and the city. © - AFP/SANA/File
People shop at a market in Aleppo in 2011
Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: September 8, 2012

Aleppo merchants shun the armed struggle

Ghali Zabubi owns two cafes in Aleppo's upmarket Sunni district of Mogambo. One is an opposition hang-out and his heart is with the revolution, but he also spurns the armed rebellion that has ruined both his business and the city.

"Many people here expressed solidarity with peaceful protests against the regime, but 90 percent are totally against the use of violence and the language of arms," says the owner of Che Che cafe, where patrons smoke shisha water pipes after sundown despite the rattle of nearby gunfire.

Residents fear the destruction of a city which Zabubi says they built with their own hands despite being the focus of "punishment" by the regime.

In the 1980s, part of the population of Syria's commercial capital backed a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, and the late president Hafez al-Assad -- father of Bashar -- took his vengeance by neglecting the northern city.

"The paradox is that 2011 and early this year were exceptional for business," Zabubi says.

"Until the rebels came (on July 20), manufacturers from Homs and Hama came here to escape the violence. As far as tourism went, Syrians had replaced the foreigners. But now everything is ruined."

Zabubi suffered huge losses when a $71-million (56-million-euro) tourism project in which he invested was derailed when fighting broke out between the army and rebels at the site, 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of the city.

Unlike other Syrian cities, Aleppo and its 2.7 million inhabitants stayed on the sidelines of the protest for months, provoking jeers from protesters who even paraded one banner declaring: "Even with Viagra, Aleppo cannot rise."

In the Christian quarter of Aziziyeh, Elias and Johnny, both 38, are at their wits' end.

The first runs a family heater business that employs 200 people in Maysar, a rebel-held district in the southeast, while the second runs a food distribution company with 30 people on staff.

"Aleppo's three commercial centres -- the industrial area of Sheikh Najar (northeast), the Old City and the Liramun region (northwest) -- are all shut down. Can you imagine how many workers are going without pay? Do you think they're with the rebels?" Elias asks sarcastically.

"I'm not with the regime but I support the military 100 percent. I want them to restore order so people can work," he says.

"And plenty of the rebels are foreign Islamists. What are they doing in our city? I'm sure 90 percent of the real people of Aleppo, rich or poor, share my opinion."

-- 'All these sacrifices for the Islamists?' --

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Even among some activists there is a feeling of disillusionment.

"All these sacrifices for the Islamists, the people of Al-Qaeda, to take over? It's unbearable," says Khaled, a liberal lawyer.

While he was pro-revolution from day one, now Khaled is thinking of leaving the country altogether.

"If I fall into the hands of the Syrian army I'll be tortured for sure. But life with those others is certain death," he says.

A popular saying goes that if a man from Aleppo is offered the choice between his life or his money, he will choose the latter.

This is not out of greed, but because the merchants of this ancient city have a reputation for being tough in business, and for transforming trade into an art.

The residents of Aleppo believe that their city is the oldest in the world, and they exhibit an obvious disdain for people from villages in the countryside.

"The rebels came from outside the city and took over Salaheddin district first, since that is where people originally from Idlib (in the northwest) live," explains Omar, a Sunni businessman.

The provincial governor of Aleppo, Mohammed Wahid Akkad, appears bewildered as he sits in his city centre office, where two windows have bullet holes.

"What's happening is disheartening, this city was so prosperous," he says.

"Now if you want to meet members of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, you go to Lebanon. Here, their factories are closed."

For the armed opposition, the conflict is coloured by class disparities, even if some businessmen quietly finance the rebels.

Abu Firas, a member of the Revolutionary Council of Aleppo, asserts that nearly 70 percent of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is from the poorest segment of society.

"They are simple people who have been exploited by the middle and upper classes," he tells AFP by phone.

"It's normal for wealthy people to oppose the rebellion."

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