BEIRUT, Lebanon and ALEPPO, Syria — A student at Aleppo University was beaten to death by security forces during a pro-democracy demonstration June 17, activists said, the first death of a protestor there since the Syrian uprising began and a grim example of the lengths the regime will go to impose its stability on the country’s largest city.
Mohammed el-Ektaa was among a small group of students who held protests on the university campus before being attacked by secret police and pro-government thugs, known as shabiha, said a member of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators’ Union (SRCU), an activist network in the city.
Mohammed’s body was returned to his family by the secret police shortly after the attack. Another student was also beaten and arrested during the protests, said the SRCU, while secret police broke into student dormitories making arbitrary arrests. The SRCU member said he had seen one student jump from his third floor room to avoid being arrested.
Students have been at the vanguard of attempts to bring Syria’s nationwide protests against the 41-year rule of the the Assad family to Aleppo, a northern city of some four million, one of the largest in the Levant, but which has been conspicuously quiet amid the turmoil gripping much of the rest of the country.
“Where are you Halab?” chanted thousands of protestors, using the city’s Arabic name, as they took to streets in towns and cities across the country each Friday since mid-March.
The answer is an interlocking mix of political, religious and economic interests that the regime has been largely successful in co-opting and that have kept Aleppo quiet, but that appears, as the uprising enters its fourth month, to be coming increasingly unstuck, threatening what analysts describe as the regime’s Achilles heel.
“If Aleppo were to rise up it would mean that one of the metrics by which the West is charting the fall of the Assad regime would have been met,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Though predominantly Sunni Muslim, Aleppo’s mosques have long been controlled by the secret police of the Allawite-led regime, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Since its military crushed an armed rebellion in Aleppo led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, the regime has used the state-run Ministry of Religious Endowments to appoint all of Aleppo’s preachers, ensuring worshippers at Friday prayers never again heed the call to turn against their own rulers. The scars of that era remain deep in the older generation of Aleppans.
An advocate of violent jihad in the name of Islam, Abu Qaqa, a Kurd, was allowed to preach in his Aleppo mosque unhindered by the secret police, until he was gunned down in September 2007 after reports surfaced he had delivered a list of Sunni extremists to state intelligence.
Today, however, the murky relationship between the state and Aleppo’s preachers is being challenged by a message less easily drowned out in violence.
“The people are becoming angrier every week and the government is not giving much, just some promises. Every Friday I feel some worshippers want to demonstrate but I call on them to be quiet,” said a prominent Muslim scholar who preaches at one of Aleppo’s largest mosques, asking to remain anonymous fearing reprisals from the state.
“To see hundreds of students demonstrating, even if they are small demonstrations, is symbolic: They are the young and educated. Some sheikhs [preachers] told me they cannot control their people any more and security men are touring around mosques every Friday. It’s only a matter of weeks and Aleppo will see big demonstrations.”
A second, even more significant pillar of the regime’s control over Aleppo now also appears to be beginning to crumble as well: The economy.
Aleppo is Syria’s commercial capital, one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities sitting at the end of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between Asia and the Mediterranean.
Specializing in textiles and industry, modern Aleppo’s economy is largely shaped by its access to, and competition with, the vast market of Turkey, just 30 miles north.
For decades Aleppo’s original Sunni merchant families had done well trading with their co-religionists in Turkey while maintaining stability in the city as part of a deal with the Allawite-led regime of Damascus.
But from 2004, Aleppo’s industries have been hit hard by a flood of imports from Turkey following a free trade agreement between the two nations, built on Assad’s personal friendship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Today, however, Erdogan accuses Assad’s regime of “savagery” against its own people, leading regional calls for the regime to end its brutal crackdown.
“The regime has bribed a lot of Sunni business interests, leaving them to do business while being protected by the security apparatus,” said Dr Imad Salamey, assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, LAU, and an expert on Syrian affairs.
“But eventually the bourgeois will come to feel the regime can no longer provide them with economic stability and that business as usual is no longer viable. They will no longer feel committed to the existing system. I think it’s a matter of time."
In a speech at Damascus University on June 20, Assad acknowledged that the greatest challenge facing his regime as it attempts to crush the uprising “is the weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy.”
“Aleppo was one of the areas that suffered extensively from the regime's bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, so the fear factor still remains,” said Tabler. “When added to the interests of the city's merchants and traders, it’s not surprising protestors have not come out in force. But as the protests have moved into Aleppo's hinterland, this will put the fear factor to the test.”
Sitting behind his desk in a lavishly decorated office, a photograph of President Assad hanging on the wall, a 45-year-old Sunni businessman from Aleppo’s Old City warned the economic consequences of the crisis in Syria could soon fuel further protests.
“Today I am losing money as no-one wants to buy garments and textile. Syrians are buying bread and food stuffs as they are worried about the future. I am seriously considering having to sack or give unpaid vacation to a third of my workforce,” he said.
Late last month President Assad had met with a delegation of Aleppo business leaders, said the textile factory owner. The Aleppan businessmen had stressed on Assad the need to end the crisis in Syria swiftly to avoid massive layoffs.
“The government promised to decrease fuel and electricity prices, but this is not enough for us,” said the textile factory owner. “The government looks to us as their partners who should help them in this crisis. But if the situation continues Aleppo will feel the economic consequences and we will see demonstrations in the city.”
Finally, the political pact that kept Aleppo, and much of Syria’s population, bound to the regime appears also to be coming unstuck in the demands and protests of the students who have led the opposition in the city.
Abdul Qader, 22, a student at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts is one of those.
“During the last four decades, the Baathists were telling us that the government gives us, the citizens, everything for free or with a subsidized price and for that reason we should be silent,” he said. “But now we get no free services and no bread so we want freedom.”
Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand reported from Beirut, Lebanon with a reporter in Aleppo, Syria.