Conflict Of Cultures Brews In A Distressed Syria

The battles in Aleppo, Syria, are mostly fought in the poorest neighborhoods. Many of Aleppo’s middle class and the rich have already left — more than 200,000 civilians have fled. Many are settling, for the time being, in the Turkish town of Gaziantep.

“We have money, so no need to go through open border; we came to the official border,” says Abu Hussein.

Hussein passed the refugee camps along the frontier and drove into Turkey.

“We escaped from bombing, from fighting, from killing, from missing, from everything,” he says. “You cannot live in Aleppo for the time being because the future is very dark now.”

In Syria, a 17-month-long revolt that began in the countryside is now focused in the capital, Damascus, and the country’s financial hub, Aleppo. Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict, and the fighting is exacerbating social and economic rifts in the population.

Resentment Toward The Rebels

Hussein is meeting with friends from Aleppo: exiled dentists, engineers and teachers who are part of the professional class. They all say they support the revolution and that they welcomed the rebels, who are mostly from the countryside.

But Hussein admits, reluctantly, that many in Aleppo’s business community do not support the fighters, and instead and blame them for bringing the revolution from rural Syria to the city.

The rebels openly acknowledge the resentments. Abu Riad is a commander with the Tawheed Brigade, the main fighting force in Aleppo. He jokes about the sensibilities of city people.

“If they don’t have their bread in the morning, they feel like the world is collapsing,” he says.

Some blame the rebels for the shelling, Riad says, so they have worked hard to win over residents. They’ve been supplying flour and fuel for bakeries, repairing power lines to keep the lights on, creating medical brigades to help wounded civilians.

But there are other fears. Some fighters have been radicalized by the revolution. Videos showing gruesome battlefield executions and reports of foreign fighters joining the brigades have shaken Aleppo’s upper class — even those who support the revolt.

Planning For A Post-Assad Future

There is a culture clash, says Syria specialist Andrew Tabler.

“There is definitely a tension between the countryside and the cities,” 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?”

On the Turkish border, some Syrians are already starting to plan: A lawyer, part of the Aleppo elite, came to meet commander Riad.

The idea, says lawyer Moemen Abdul Rahman, is to create what he calls a “civil protection force” after the regime falls. The force would be a rebel brigade dedicated to protecting private business and government property.

A senior police official, also part of the meeting, says he defected in June and has organized 200 policemen now living in refugee camps ready to step in. They share the goal of stabilizing Aleppo, Rahman says, and getting merchants and the professionals to return quickly so Aleppo can get back to work.

“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,” he says.

The meeting is a small sign that Aleppo’s business community, which has 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. Now, though, they are part of Aleppo’s political future.

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