Syrian opposition struggles to gain traction in Aleppo
As the sun sets, Osama waits in his idling car near a bustling intersection, blowing cigarette smoke out a window cracked open.
Down the street, a skinny figure is hawking bouquets of white flowers from beneath a beige umbrella.
“Shabiha,” Osama says, fingering the vendor as a member of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s plainclothes militia.
Osama then spots a compatriot in a familiar car, speeding through the intersection. “That’s Hassan,” he says, “sweeping the area.”
The two young men, who, like others interviewed, use noms de guerre for security reasons, were planning a flash protest on a roadway between two well-to-do neighborhoods of Aleppo. The rally would last no more than 20 minutes, sufficient time for hundreds of demonstrators to chant for Assad’s downfall, cause a brief ruckus and peel away before the arrival of reinforced ranks of shabiha, whose name stems from the Arabic word for “ghost.”
It was not to be. Osama, checking in on his cellphone with a contact nicknamed Captain, was told the protest was being canceled. Someone had tipped off the authorities, Captain explained.
The failure was another sign that opposition activists are having trouble organizing even small, peaceful protests in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, which, along with the capital, Damascus, has remained an Assad stronghold.
Almost a year into the national rebellion, one that has turned increasingly bloody in most major Syrian communities, activism in Aleppo remains in a nascent stage. Government opponents have yet to win over much of the population, which includes an affluent business community that greatly values the stability that, in the last few years, had been a hallmark of Assad’s rule.
A pair of deadly car bombings here last week, which the government blamed on terrorists, unnerved many and reinforced Assad’s unvarying message: The opposition will plunge Syria into chaos, bloodshed and Iraq-style sectarian slaughter.
Such mayhem is already occurring in Homs, 100 miles to the south. The city is now a combat zone between pro- and antigovernment forces. Syrian authorities, determined to prevent Aleppo and Damascus from becoming similar symbols of resistance, have established an imposing security presence in each of those cities.
Even relatively small protests here have been met by a brutal government response, leaving more than a dozen dead in recent weeks, Aleppo activists say. Organizers have adopted such precautions as varying their protest sites and choosing locations at the last minute and based on the available escape routes.
Some frustrated opposition activists now argue for taking up arms, a step already embraced by many in rebel-held villages just a few miles outside town. One activist said at least a half-dozen pro-government militiamen have already been killed in Aleppo.
Yet the fear remains that more violent opposition tactics could prove counterproductive.
“The time for peaceful protesting has not passed,” said activist Abu Ammar. “Once you’ve militarized and armed the revolution, you have given it restrictions.… That also keeps out those who are still calling for a peaceful revolution.”
He and others argue for ramped-up demonstrations and economic boycotts striking at the city’s commercial heart. They have called on residents to stop paying taxes and utility bills in a bid to pressure rulers already reeling under economic and diplomatic isolation.
“The government cannot continue if it leads to an economic standstill,” said Abu Abdo, who, like Abu Ammar, is among the leaders of a clandestine group known as Aleppo’s Revolutionary Youth. “We have to improve our tactics; just as the regime is plotting and thinking, we are plotting and thinking.”
Aleppo’s activists remain engaged in the most basic kind of hearts-and-minds campaign, championing the revolution among family, friends and trusted co-workers. In any gathering, the escalating unrest tearing the nation apart is inevitably the dominant theme of discussion.
“We are trying to spread in the society what the goals of the revolution are … not just that we don’t like Bashar and we want him to fall,” said Abu Abdo, citing the need for a more democratic, representative government.
For the moment, Aleppo’s opposition has yet to establish a regular street protest regimen, a stage that many other regions of Syria passed through months ago. Some here feel the burden of unrealistic expectations.
“The other cities are saying they expect something big in Aleppo,” said Hassan. “The day Aleppo rises they expect to see 50,000 coming out in Sadallah bin Jabri Square,” one of the city’s central gathering spots.
“That’s not going to happen,” Hassan said.
In late June, a day that had been dubbed “Volcano Aleppo,” in the hope that the city would erupt in spontaneous anti-Assad rallies, quickly fizzled.
Almost six months later, activists in Damascus and Aleppo laid out a timeline of strikes. A similar effort to bring commerce to a standstill had moderate success in Damascus; it floundered in Aleppo.
Most activist groups in the city have now coalesced under the Aleppo’s Revolutionary Youth banner, tasked with coordinating more robust protests and boycotts. The efforts have led to some of the city’s largest demonstrations, with more than 1,000 participating on a few occasions, activists say.
One major focus now is the university, since much of the student body comes from regions that have already risen up against Assad and because demonstrations on campus include women, who are rarely present at other opposition rallies.
But the campus protests have been random and disorganized, with students from each department acting autonomously.
Activists acknowledge that some demonstrators in Aleppo now carry knives as protection against gun-wielding shabiha. Last week, one militia member was beaten to death, an activist said, voicing the hope that such actions could deter new attacks on protesters.
“Maybe it will become a lesson for others when they see a shabiha with his hands and legs broken,” said Abu Abdo.
At Abu Abdo’s modest home, he and two other activists recently discussed the drift toward a more violent rebellion.
“I see Aleppo going to an armed uprising,” said one of the activists. “It’s wrong, it’s wrong, but with the repression that’s happening now there is no other solution.”
Abu Ammar disagreed. “I don’t think Aleppo is ready for weapons,” he said.
“My friend,” the other activist replied, “I think Aleppo in the very near future is going to face a large armed movement.”
Abu Ammar sat quietly and didn’t respond. His eyes were fixed on the TV, where images of destroyed buildings and burning cars flashed across the screen.
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