To date, most residents of Syria’s two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have tried to look the other way vis-à-vis the uprising that has broken out in every town and city across the country since mid-March. In these two cities, the markets are still open, banks are still in operation, merchants are still trading, entire families are dining at restaurants, young couples are getting married and, in many cases, enjoying the summer in complete denial of what is happening throughout the rest of Syria. So long as Damascus and Aleppo remain quiet, or neutral at best, the Syrian authorities believe the situation will be under control.
A closer look, however, shows that this argument — although applicable four months ago — is now nothing more than wishful thinking. First, it is wrong to compare Damascus to Aleppo because sympathy with the Syrian uprising is high in the Syrian capital, but low and close to non-existent in Aleppo because of the city’s distance, its relative immunity from the economic crisis (thanks to flourishing business relations with Turkey), and the unique relationship the city has had with President Bashar Al Assad, who has paid it plenty of attention since coming to power in 2000. Additionally, Aleppo paid a terrible price for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of 1982, and sees how the state is retaliating in other cities today, like Hama and Deir Ezzor. It does not want to suffer a similar fate.
It would be wrong to imagine that residents of the old quarters of Damascus — Shagour, Bab Sharki or Bab Srijeh — would be seen on the streets of the Syrian capital, demonstrating against the regime. This is not French Mandate Damascus, after all, where these quarters are filled with swashbuckling quarter bosses like the ones we see in the popular TV series Bab Al Hara. The reason, basically, is that these quarters in the Old City are now empty; the original residents sold their property years ago, transforming their homes into trendy restaurants and boutique hotels. They collectively moved to the suburbs of Damascus, and today, the original inhabitants of the Syrian capital reside in hotspots like Muadamiyeh, Zabadani, Qaboon, Harasta and Duma. It is the Damascenes then who are demonstrating in these districts, in addition of course, to the original inhabitants of these districts. The sameapplies to Aleppo and its suburbs.
Within the new districts of Damascus and Aleppo, the business elite has been staunchly pro-regime although, ironically, it was the business community of both cities that suffered most from socialism of the Baath Party when it first came to power in 1963. That will likely remain the case for now, due to the weight of their clerics (who are allied to the state), along with the political, social and economic interests of their nobility and business community. In many cases, that nobility is “new money” and rose to power and fame only after the Baathists took over in 1963. The have overlapping interests with the political elite and are often allied to them through business partnerships and marriage, giving them no reason to demonstrate against the existing order.
Historically speaking, however, both cities can make or break any political movement — but rarely have they been part of anything that threatens stability and their commercial interests. In 1925, for example, rural Syria erupted in revolt against the French Mandate. Damascus very unwillingly joined the revolt of 1925, and when it did, suffered punishment greater than that of all other Syrian cities combined. It was shelled continuously for 48 hours and entire neighborhoods were set ablaze and looted. And Aleppo was not even part of the revolt of 1925. To be fair, although we make reference to the “Aleppo Revolt” in history books, it was the suburbs of Aleppo that revolted against the French. Aleppo itself remained silent. When the revolt calmed in 1927, it was the business elite of both cities that devised the theory of “honorable cooperation” with the government—diplomacy to extract political change, rather than armed revolt.
In Damascus, the merchants used to moan and groan whenever political parties, or youth movements, called on them to close down their shops for anti-government protests in the 1950s. Simply put, as far as the businessmen were concerned, all that meant was financial losses. That mentality still prevails in the old bazaars of Damascus and in the new posh and trendy corporate culture that has mushroomed around banks, insurance companies, advertising and media firms all over the Syrian capital.
The silence of both cities, however, won’t last for too long, for three reasons.
1) Unemployment: The moment rising unemployment kicks in, young people will take to the streets in both Damascus and Aleppo, regardless of what city elders tell them. Many young people are already jobless since March, and if the stalemate continues, they could start finding themselves penniless as well. Ramadan, no doubt, will be a turning point for these two cities.
2) Lack of community leaders: Back in the 1980s, for example, community leaders like Ahmad Kaftaro (the Grand Mufti) and Bader Al Din Al Shallah (doyen of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce) used their influence to pacify angry citizens in Damascus when they sympathised with the Brotherhood. People respected them, listened to them, and often carried out their without any questions. When Shallah famously asked shopkeepers to break the Damascus strike of 1982, they immediately answered his call. Today there are no community leaders with similar clout and standing in Damascus and Aleppo because the Baathists have not allowed any such independent leaders to emerge.
3) Demographics: Damascus, more so than Aleppo, is a melting pot for all Syrians. It is packed with people from rural Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Hama, Idlib and rural Idlib. It is those people who are likely to demonstrate in Damascus, rather than the Damascenes themselves, and those people, naturally, do not take their orders from the business community of Damascus.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria