Two days before black smoke left a pall over Hama, a bloodied symbol of the uprising against the government of Syria, the country’s second-largest city, Aleppo, held a cultural festival featuring a 3,600-foot-long Syrian flag wrapped around its ancient citadel.
On one of the city’s main streets, families have still gathered every night on the sidewalks and in the medians for nighttime picnics. Vendors crowd around selling hookahs, popcorn, sandwiches and coffee. Traffic moves slowly as people park cars by the sidewalk and open doors and windows to let music stream out to entertain the crowds.
To the resentment of many other Syrians as they watch President Bashar Assad wage a brutal crackdown, the people of Aleppo appear to be going about their lives as if the revolt were in another country. Aleppo has seen some small protests over the last five months, but they have paled in comparison with demonstrations in other parts of the country.
“It’s embarrassing,” said a woman from Aleppo who now lives in the United States and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect family still in the city. “They have blackened our faces” in shame.
But Aleppo’s reluctance to join the revolution goes beyond any alleged cowardice. As a financially stable city, Aleppo was already less likely to revolt, and since the nationwide unrest erupted in mid-March, residents have by turns been made complacent by government enticements and scared by the overwhelming presence of security agents and spies.
Whereas Damascus is the capital and administrative hub of Syria, Aleppo is the economic center where much of the money flows, said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian opposition activist and dissident in the United States. Many of the country’s factories, textile plants and pharmaceutical companies are in the city.
In the last several years, as other parts of the country have continued to falter financially, Aleppo has seen an economic revival, in part because of its proximity to Turkey. This renewed prosperity has contributed to the reluctance to join the revolution and disrupt a comfortable status quo.
The city’s merchant class has largely been unaffected by the country’s deteriorating conditions, and while those who compose it may not be fans of the government, they have the most to lose with instability, Abdulhamid said.
Factory and business employees face the threat of being fired if they join protests, one man from Aleppo said.
But the reasons for the city’s inaction extend beyond just the economic.
Many religious leaders in the city are followers of the country’s Sunni Muslim grand mufti, Ahmed Hassoun, who has toed the government line on the uprising, calling protests “mischief.”
The government views Aleppo and Damascus — though the capital has seen a certain amount of protest — as the two cities it cannot lose to the revolution and has implemented safeguards to ensure that, said Ala Sassila, a native of Aleppo and a board member of the Syrian American Council, which advocates for democratic change in Syria. The measures include an overwhelming presence of security forces, police and government enforcers, but also less overt tactics.
Construction code enforcement has all but disappeared as the city witnesses an illegal construction boom; electricians, plumbers and tile workers who have been unemployed for years are now barely able to keep up with the work. Roads in need of repair for years have been repaved. Traffic laws, which had become more strict, are no longer implemented. People steal electricity with no repercussions.
Similar relaxation of laws is occurring in Damascus as well.
Then too, food prices are cheaper in Aleppo; a bag of sugar that sells for about $1.60 elsewhere is about $1.15 in the northwestern city of 2 million.
“They are really trying to give reasons for the people to be happy,” Abdulhamid said. “So for some people these are really wonderful times.”
Additionally, the need for residents to pay bribes to grease government transactions has largely disappeared, said one Aleppo activist, reached by phone. Instead, the practice has been replaced with an unfamiliar respect for residents, as government employees and police tell people going about their normal lives, “You have raised our heads with pride.”
“Go do whatever you want, go play, go steal, as long as you don’t go protest, this is what’s happening in Aleppo,” Abdulhamid said. “Stay quiet, don’t open your mouth.”
Street vendors hawking fruit, old watches, shoes and children’s toys, who were once banned and chased off by police, have multiplied, said one woman who lives in Aleppo. They are now the eyes of the government, she said, helping to break up any gathering of people on the street.
“There are many reasons; there isn’t one reason that you can say is really convincing,” the woman said of why more protests haven’t occurred in the city. “The security people out on the streets now outnumber the regular people.”
The Aleppo activist said most residents are with the revolution and that many are “boiling.” But unlike other cities that have risen up and suffered the human toll, Aleppo is still scared.
“And now they are saying, I don’t want what happened to Hama to happen to us,” he said, referring to a city that has sustained a large number of casualties as a result of a crackdown by security forces. “They haven’t yet had courage like the rest of Syria.”
Many residents of the city still place their hopes in Assad, the Aleppo resident said, and fear that the civil war-like strife that formerly characterized Iraq and now Libya could happen in Syria as well. She doesn’t think the city will rise up because in some ways it has already separated from the rest of the country.
Further deepening the feeling of isolation, residents no longer venture outside the city because of rumors that they will be attacked by other Syrians out of anger.
“That’s not good for national unity, that’s not good for this new Syrian identity that is developing,” Abdulhamid said. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll even shift the capital to Aleppo by the end of Ramadan.”