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Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed

Written by Charles Glass, in the New York Review of Books
December 12, 2012

[The following article appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of the New York Review of Books.]

This year, Aleppo will produce no soap. The late-medieval souks in which craftsmen fashioned blocks of the famous olive oil and laurel savon d’Alep succumbed to a conflagration during battles at the end of September. The Jubayli family’s soap factory inside the Mamelukes’ thirteenth-century Qinnasrin Gate survived the inferno, but relentless combat has left it inaccessible to workers and owners alike. By late November, following the harvest in the groves west of Aleppo, residue from the olive oil presses should be boiling in vats and poured onto carpets of wax paper stretched over stone floors. Sliced into two-by-three-inch blocks, the bars would be stacked to dry for six months before being sold. Deprived by war of the soap, fabrics, processed foods, and pharmaceuticals its region has so long produced, Aleppo is drawing on reserves of basic commodities, as well as cash and hope. All three are dwindling rapidly.

“You don’t need to go to Aleppo,” an Aleppine friend in Beirut told me. “All Aleppo is here.” Some of Aleppo’s exiles, mainly the industrialists who provided much of the region’s employment, were congregating in the cafés along Rue Hamra, some pro-regime, others anti-regime, delicately preserving friendships despite political disagreements. Playing bridge and backgammon, they await the day when it is safe to return, if it ever comes.

When I was in Aleppo last Easter, those mercantile exiles had yet to leave and their businesses were still functioning. Aleppo’s soap was plentiful in the labyrinthine souks of vaulted stone near the Citadel. Most people shared relief bordering on complacency that their city had avoided the violence engulfing the rest of the country. Aleppo’s cosmopolitanism, they seemed to feel, made it different. The only pogrom against its Christian minority had taken place in 1851, when the number of dead was small, and the crime was never repeated. The city’s relative prosperity kept much of the population satisfied, despite the suppression of political opinion.

Aleppo was Syria’s workshop and marketplace, and its region generated as much as 65 percent of the national wealth apart from oil. Factories making textiles from Syrian cotton, as well as medicines and furniture, dominated the industrial zones outside the city and provided work to thousands. The regimes of Hafez al-Assad since 1970 and his son Bashar since 2000 had left the gracious city center with little to rebel against, even if the rural poor—driven into the suburbs by drought, unemployment, and ambition—had legitimate complaints that went unnoticed in the lavish villas along the River Qoweik. Many of Aleppo’s inhabitants were old enough to remember the last time the city was the scene of a rebellion, in 1979. Its outcome gave them little hope that a repetition would be anything other than disaster. Yet with the revolt in the countryside creeping closer on all sides, the ancient city had no more chance of remaining aloof than a log cabin in the midst of a forest fire.

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One’s choice of armies depends on experience. Those who have been tortured by government security forces look to the Free Army for deliverance, while anyone whose son or father has been kidnapped by the Free Army demands government protection. During the six months since my last visit to Aleppo, opinions shifted in unexpected ways. The Christians were for the most part in favor of the regime or neutral, hoping to avoid the attentions of either side. When I met the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, at Easter, he said with an encouraging laugh, “Am I worried? Yes. Am I afraid? No.” Aleppo was quiet, though conflicts in the rest of Syria were clear harbingers of the earthquake about to hit. At the time, Mar Gregorios was convinced that the regime and the opposition could resolve their differences: “If we solve our internal problem and sit down and talk, we can have a constructive dialogue. We can gradually rebuild our society.” As bishop of a small community of about 200,000 in Syria, he accepted that the regime had protected Christians while avoiding a commitment to either side.

Now, however, his worry has turned to fear. On the night I saw him in the sheltered confines of his rectory in the middle of Aleppo, he had just received a shock. “I was optimistic for the last weeks, but I visited my school today. Out of 550 students, only fifty are left.” Along with his discovery that every day about twenty of his local congregation were receiving visas for foreign countries, the collapse of the school had changed him from the jocular, relaxed prelate I met in October to a profoundly shaken man with little hope for his country’s future. “The issue now,” he said, “is how to convince the president to step down.” This was the first time I had heard a Christian bishop call for Bashar al-Assad to end the war by leaving office.

Didn’t Mar Gregorios fear the Muslim Brotherhood? “If there is democracy, there will be rights for all the minorities,” he said. “I don’t think fanatics and the Muslim Brotherhood are planning to control this country. They plan to be a part.” Walking back to the Park Hotel at the edge of the public gardens that evening, I heard in the distance the steady beat of artillery and machine-gun fire that no one in Aleppo can ignore any longer. It comes closer at times, then seems to recede to the outskirts, but it is always there, day and night.

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