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In Distressed Syria, Urban And Rural Cultures At Odds
Originally published on Mon August 27, 2012 10:31 pm
After a month-long offensive in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, rebels are struggling under a fierce counter offensive by the Syrian military and the outcome is far from clear. But the future of Aleppo, the country's financial hub, is already under discussion in secret meetings on the Turkish border.
Over cups of sweat tea in a Turkish border hotel, Moeihmen Abdul Rahman, a lawyer from Aleppo, sits down for his first meeting with Abu Riad, a commander from the Al Tawheed brigade, a coalition of rebel militias leading the assault on Aleppo.
"I think we can create military groups to keep the national peace in Aleppo," says Abdul Rahman, a scheme he proposes to the rebel commander. His argument is a pragmatic one. Aleppo is a business town but many of the merchants and middle class professionals have fled to escape the punishing air and artillery attacks by the regime.
"The biggest concern is to keep in the middle class in Aleppo," he says. The merchants and business class are the financial engine of the city. "They have to start work to make jobs for the fighters so they put down their weapons and go back to their jobs." He proposes a separate unit of fighters to protect private business and government buildings after the regime falls.
It is too early to predict whether these men can work out the details, but this meeting is significant. It is a sign that Aleppo's business community, which had backed President Bashar Assad and his family for decades, is shifting. The rebels are a force on the ground and some of Aleppo's elite recognize the rebels of the Free Syrian army are likely to be a big part of Aleppo's political future.
Thousands of civilians have fled the city, many of them to Turkey. Aleppo's poor are sheltered in camps built along the frontier by the Turkish government. The rich and the middle class drive across the legal border and find their own shelter, often in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, which was a shopping hub for Aleppo residents before the revolt.
"We have money, so we came to through the official border," says Abu Hussein, a professor from Aleppo. He left three weeks ago and has settled in an apartment complex where cars with Syrian license plates filled the parking lot.
"We escaped from bombing, from fighting, from killing, from everything," he says. "You cannot live in Aleppo for the time being because the future is very dark now."
Abu Hussein spends his evenings with friends from Aleppo, doctors, dentists, engineers, all part of the professional class. They say they support the revolution and welcomed the rebels, who are mostly from the countryside.
"Everybody wants freedom," says Abu Hussein. But he reluctantly admits that many in Aleppo's business community do not support the fighters, don't fund them or even hand out water to the fighters, because they blame them for bringing the revolution from rural Syria to the city.
The Rebel View
The rebel commander, Abu Riad, has his own take on the relationship.
A professional military officer, he defected from the army last year. He is also from the countryside and he dismisses the sensibilities of Aleppo's elite with a grin.
"People from Aleppo are different," he says. "If they don't have their bread, they feel like the world is ending. But it's not true that we were not welcome."
The rebels have worked hard to win over residents, supplying flour and fuel for bakeries, repairing power lines to keep the lights on, and creating medical brigades to ferry wounded civilians across the border to Turkish hospitals.
But government forces have relentlessly pounded rebel positions and some in the city have started to blame the rebels for their misery. Civilian casualties from the Air Force bombing raids are dramatically higher than rebel deaths.
"People are psychologically tired," says Abu Riad, after almost a month-long assault on rebel positions. "Some blame us, but a man whose son is killed by the shelling curses Bashar [Assad] and blames the government."
Countryside Versus City
But there are wider divisions. Videos of gruesome battlefield executions, reports of foreign fighters joining the brigades, have shaken Aleppo's upper class, and even activists who fully support the revolt have openly condemned some rebel groups.
"There is definitely a tension between the countryside and the cities, and that's not unusual, that is historic in Syria," says Andrew Tabler, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
While they share the goal of bringing an end to the Assad regime, he says, "The question is how do those two forces who have traditionally been opposed to each other, the conservative countryside and the more mercantile cities, how do they work together politically in a post-Assad Syria."
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The city of Aleppo is known as the financial hub of Syria. Now it is also known as a center of violence and more than 200,000 civilians have fled the city, many of them to Turkey. The poor are being housed in crowded camps along the border. The middle class and wealthier Syrians have made it farther, including to the Turkish city of Gaziantep. NPR's Deborah Amos visited some of those who have fled and she found mixed feelings about the fighting back in their country.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The battles in Aleppo are mostly fought in the poorest neighborhoods, many of Aleppo's middle class and the rich have already left. You only have to walk around in this southern Turkish city - about a two hour drive from Aleppo - to meet them.
ABU HUSSEIN: We have money. We came to the official border.
AMOS: When did you come?
HUSSEIN: We came three weeks ago"
AMOS: Abu Hussein bypassed the refugee camps along the frontier and drove into turkey.
HUSSEIN: We escaped from bombing, from fighting, from killing, from missing from everything, you know. You cannot live in Aleppo for the time being, because the future it is very dark now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: He's come to share an evening with friends from Aleppo - exiled dentists, engineers and teachers. They all say they support the revolution and welcome the rebels, who are mostly from the countryside. But Abu Hussein admits, reluctantly, that many in Aleppo's business community do not support the fighters and blame them for bringing the revolution from rural Syria to the city.
Are they giving money to the revolution?
HUSSEIN: Not yet. Not yet.
AMOS: Are they giving water to the rebels when they come to their neighborhood?
HUSSEIN: Not yet, also.
AMOS: Why do you think that?
HUSSEIN: I cannot talk about this.
AMOS: The rebels more openly acknowledge the resentments. Abu Riad is a commander with the Tawheed Brigade, the main fighting force leading the assault on Aleppo. And he jokes about the sensibilities of city people.
ABU RIAD: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: If they don't have their bread, they feel like the world is collapsing, he says with a grin.
Do they blame you for the shelling or do they blame the government?
RIAD: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Some blame us, he admits. So the rebels have worked hard to win over residents, supplying flour and fuel for bakeries, repairing power lines to keep the lights on. But there are other fears. Some fighters have been radicalized by the revolution. Videos of gruesome battlefield executions, reports of foreign fighters joining the brigades, have shaken Aleppo's upper class, even those who support the revolt. There's a culture clash, says Syria specialist Andrew Tabler.
ANDREW TABLER: There is definitely a tension between the countryside and the cities. The question is how do those two forces who have traditionally been opposed to each other, the conservative countryside and the more mercantile cities, how do they work together politically in a post Assad Syria.
(SOUNDBITE OF STIRRING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Some answers may come here. It's one of the first meetings of its kind. A lawyer, part of the Aleppo elite, came to meet Commander Abu Riad on the Turkish border.
MOEMEN ABDUL RAHMAN: It's the first time I meet Abu Riad, about this project and about this idea.
AMOS: The idea, says lawyer Moemen Abdul Rahman(ph), is to create what he calls a civil protection force - a rebel brigade dedicated to protecting private business and government property after the regime falls. A senior police official is also part of the meeting. He defected in June and says he's organized 200 policemen ready to step in. They share the goal of stabilizing Aleppo, says Abdul Rahman, getting merchants and the professional class to return quickly so Aleppo can get back to work.
RAHMAN: It's the future for Syria. We want to build our country, because we have to save our factories, our markets to create jobs for our fighters.
AMOS: The meeting is a small sign that Aleppo's business community, that's backed President Assad and his family for decades, does not see a future under his rule. The rebels are a force on the ground, rooted in Syria's countryside, but are now part of Aleppo's political future.
Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.