By: Hadeel Al Shalchi
ALEPPO, Syria – At an Aleppo checkpoint that marks the division between the Syrian army and rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad, a resident approaches to congratulate soldiers for “cleansing” his neighborhood of “terrorist militias”.
“I know the positions of the terrorists,” he says, using a term which the government adopted to describe Assad’s opponents. “I can help you clear them out. May God save you and Bashar.”
Unfortunately for him, the checkpoint is manned by rebels. When they realize he has mistaken them for Assad’s soldiers, they beat him and detain him.
The incident in the Saif al-Dawla neighborhood hints at how far the rebels – after 17 months of street protest and armed insurrection against Assad – still have to go in winning over the population of Syria’s biggest city, which mostly watched on the sidelines through the first year of the crisis.
Even after opposition fighters took over half of Aleppo last month, suspicion of the rebels lingers in the country’s commercial hub, where businessmen have long been rewarded for loyalty to the Assad dynasty.
Some who support the rebels are still wary of saying so publicly. Other residents grumble that the fighters have brought bloodshed to their relatively peaceful city. Many more may be trying to sit out the conflict to see who emerges victorious.
“There are some in our communities in Aleppo who want Bashar to fall but they don’t agree with the armed resistance,” said an activist who calls herself Nur al-Islam.
Islam, who sneaks out of her house to film the fighting and upload footage on the Internet, said opposition members in upper class districts of Aleppo believe the Free Syrian Army acted precipitously by trying to seize territory instead of achieving more modest goals first, like protecting anti-Assad street demonstrations.
Unlike cities such as Deir al-Zor and Homs, which have endured months of army bombardment, Aleppo had only recently witnessed significant unrest. “They didn’t see tanks in their city or mortars fall on their heads, so they don’t see the need for the rebels,” Islam said.
ASSADS BOUGHT AND ENFORCED LOYALTY
The fighters themselves are not from Aleppo but rather young men from the countryside. Their dialect is different than the one spoken in the city, and they tattoo their arms with poetry and primitive pictures of hearts and arrows.
Their battle to win hearts and minds in Aleppo has run up against residual loyalties for Assad motivated partly by long-held business interests.
Fawaz Zakri, 47, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council and a local grain merchant, said that Assad and his father, who ruled for three decades before his death in 2000, had worked hard to make sure the city remained loyal.
“The Assad regime bought the loyalties of businessmen and religious scholars in the city,” Zakri said.
“Since the 1980s the regime has always been trying to avoid any political unrest starting up in Aleppo because it is the country’s economic heart.”
Authorities granted Aleppo’s merchants lucrative contracts “so even if a businessman doesn’t really agree with the regime, he will keep quiet so that he doesn’t lose his interests,” Zakri said.
The legacy of fear from 42 years of Assad family rule is also hard to shake off in Aleppo, even though other towns have been in open revolt for more than a year.
Mahmoud Basha, 21, had one more year at Aleppo University to graduate as an electrical engineer when the troubles in Syria started. “My father saw the brutality of how citizens accused of being opposition members were treated in our city,” he said.
“He saw them get dragged in the streets by tanks. So he said, ‘I will never let this happen to my son,’ and joined the Baath,” he said, referring to the party that has dominated Syria for half a century.
Basha, now a rebel with the Abu Bakr al-Sediq brigade, said that his father to this day is pro-Assad, opposing his work with the rebels. “The Assad government disciplined Syrians to obey and fear them. This barrier of fear isn’t easy to shake.”
Salma, a 35-year-old activist who lives in a smart neighborhood of Aleppo still controlled by government forces, has spent weeks sneaking into rebel-controlled areas to film fighting and document its impact on ordinary lives.
Like many opposition activists and fighters, she uses a pseudonym because of the real threat of being caught by Syrian security forces, especially since she still lives in a neighborhood under their control.
Between filming on her small handicam, she spends a lot of time arguing with the rural fighters about why the people of Aleppo don’t seem to be embracing the revolution or the Free Syrian Army rebels.
“This regime is bloody, our families have lived through the horror of seeing their sons return as vegetables from Assad’s prisons, if they return at all,” she said. “I wouldn’t even speak badly about the Assad family to my immediate family – that’s how scared we were.”
On the front line, rebels are contemptuous of the hesitation shown by their urban compatriots. They say their revolt was a cry from those, unlike the city dwellers, who never had opportunities to get education, wealth or power.
“Our revolution is one of dignity. The man who has no wealth has no dignity, and we are not able to attain that wealth,” said Zakariya Ghair, 45, a calligrapher from Azaz.
“I could never get a chance to start a business unless I knew the right people to bribe. People got sick of this treatment and life and they wanted freedom from it, and hence our revolution,” he said
“People in Aleppo are already comfortable and treated very well by the Assad regime. Why would they rise up?”
Other fighters do nothing to hide their bitterness.
“They are all cowards and traitors. There are no men in Aleppo,” Omar Abu Shami told Reuters on the front in Salahedinne district. “I was pulling bodies from Salahedinne and the people around me just stared and wouldn’t help. Aleppo needs someone more vicious than Bashar to wake them up.”
As his comrades rest between battles, the revolutionary tunes on their cell phones sing out their frustration.
“We are being slaughtered, Aleppo. Where are you, Aleppo? Homs, Hama, and Deraa have all risen. Where are you, Aleppo?” one song runs mournfully. “The women of Bayada and Latakia are screaming, Aleppo. Where are you, Aleppo?”