13 February 2012
Aleppo betrayed by attacks that are foreign to its nature
Aleppo is a town of eminent consequence, and in all ages its fame has flown high. The kings who have sought its hand in marriage are many, and it place in our soul is dear.
- Ibn Jubayr, Arab-Andalusian traveller, June 1184
Last week's suicide bombings that killed at least 28 people in Aleppo are drawing Syria's second city into a conflict that it had struggled to avoid for the past year. President Bashar Al Assad blamed Al Qaeda terrorists, while the Syrian opposition accused the regime. American officials, despite Washington's hostility to Mr Al Assad and the recent closure of the US embassy in Damascus, told McClatchey Newspapers correspondent Jonathan Landay they thought Mr Al Assad was right.
Landay, one of the best reporters in a usually supine Washington press corps, reported on Friday: "The officials cited US intelligence reports on the incidents, which appear to verify Syrian President Bashar Assad's charges of Al Qaeda involvement in the 11-month uprising." Officials blamed Al Qaeda for the Aleppo explosions targeting security service buildings as well as bombings of government offices in Damascus in December and January.
They also told Landay that the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda, on the orders of Ayman Al Zawahiri, was "seeking to exploit the bloody turmoil in Syria to reassert its potency".
As if on cue, Al Zawahiri popped up in a video recording on Sunday to declare his support for the Syrian rebellion with a call for each Muslim to help "his brothers in Syria with all that he can, with his life, money, opinion, as well as information". Despite the rejection by many opposition secularists of Al Zawahiri's moral and military support, Al Qaeda has inserted itself into the Syrian conflict. In Iraq, its targets rapidly turned from American occupation forces to Shiites, Kurds, secularists and democrats. Its suicide bombings hastened the flight of Shiite, Sunnis and Kurds from once-mixed neighbourhoods into walled urban ghettos (or out of Iraq altogether). One can only fear for Syria's Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds and those Sunnis whose interpretation of Islam fails to meet Al Zawahiri's exacting standards.
No city in Syria is more mixed, more diverse, than Aleppo. Until now, Aleppo has stood for just about everything Al Qaeda of Iraq opposes. Toleration has been its hallmark since Ottoman times. It invited foreigners to trade within its walls in centuries when the Sunni patricians of Hama and Damascus would not so much as shake the hand of an infidel. When the Turks massacred Armenians in the First World War, Aleppo opened its doors. A flourishing Armenian community lives in Aleppo even now, alongside Arab Christians and Muslims. It is not uncommon for Christians to be invited to evening iftars by their Muslim friends or for Muslims to visit Christians on their feast days. There are friendships and business rivalries that cross sectarian lines, and few in Aleppo would choose to forfeit that in a conflagration like Lebanon's or Iraq's.
Aleppo is a trading entrepot, once on the Silk Route, in the northern plain whose pistachio groves and cotton fields have formed the basis of its economic prosperity. Its citizens, in common with most other Syrians, have their criticisms of a regime that has been brutal and allowed corruption to flourish. But Aleppins I know cannot embrace either a past marked by the almost annual military putsches of the 1950s and 1960s or a future defined by religious bigots who will destroy the enlightened basis of their prosperity. Yet someone is bringing the fight to Aleppo, as well as in the past week to Tripoli in Lebanon. It will undoubtedly spread further and take many more lives as long as outside powers prefer stoking the fires to putting them out.
If, as his sources told Landay, Al Qaeda is seeking to exploit the turmoil in Syria, it is not alone. Russia, China and Iran have not asked Syrians what they want, any more than the United States, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council have. Yet they have lined up with the opposing sides in a conflict that needs conciliation rather than confrontation. Outsiders are sending weapons to both sides, which can only escalate the killing. The western world demands that Mr Al Assad resign before negotiations begin, although that prejudges the outcome. The regime wants the opposition to disarm, although they believe this would put them in a position of intolerable weakness. Is there no way out?
If outsiders were interested in helping the Syrian people, rather than taking hard-line positions on behalf of one side or the other, they would listen to Syrians. December's YouGov-Siraj poll for the Doha Debate indicated that 55 per cent of Syrians do not want Mr Al Assad to step down. Syrians appear to prefer negotiations leading to authentic elections in which they can determine their own fate. This may include their right to vote for (or against) Mr Al Assad and the Baath Party. Why can't the United States and Russia, the two most powerful backers of the opposing factions, sponsor a conference that both sides must attend?
One of the most authoritative historians of modern Syria, Patrick Seale, wrote recently: "There is a hint in the air of a revived cold war." Syria did not do well out of the last one, when the Soviet Union and the United States sponsored one violent coup after another. Today, Syria is becoming a battlefield for the US versus Russia, Israel versus Iran and Saudi Arabia versus the "Shiite Crescent" it envisages from Iran to Lebanon.
Aleppo until now had not changed since the English traveller William Eton described it in his 1789 A Survey of the Turkish Empire: "Aleppo (Haleb) is the best built city in the Turkish dominions, and the people are reputed the most polite." Their courtesy and hospitality, of which I have on many occasions been the happy recipient, may yet succumb to the violence that is engulfing Syria.
Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books