Olmert: Aleppo and the Future of Syria

Josef Olmert writes in a guest column for Levantine Routes

The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, is not “the decisive last battle” of the Syrian civil war.  The conflict is clearly leading to the removal of the current leadership from Damascus, as well as Aleppo, but not necessarily from Syria.  The Assad-Alawite –Ba’th regime is preparing the mountainous Alawite region of North-West Syria to be their last bastion, and they can fortify themselves there for a while, even if, as seems inevitable, they will lose control of the main Sunni-dominated regions.

The unfolding Syrian situation reflects the specific demographic and political conditions in the country, which differ from those existing in any other Arab state.  Aleppo with its diversified population and distinct political history is a good representative mirror of the Syrian state at large.  Aleppo’s population has always been a mosaic of many religious and ethnic communities.  The dominant element of the population are Arab Sunnis, but the city always had a sizable and influential Christian component, composed of Greek Orthodox, traditionally more supportive of Arab nationalism than other Christian communities.

Also, members of the various local Eastern Syriac-speaking communities were reinforced in the 1930’s by the influx of Assyrians and Chaldeans fleeing atrocities perpetrated by Sunni-dominated Iraq.  Alongside them was a traditional and affluent Armenian community, whose ranks also swelled by those who managed to flee the Ottoman genocide of WW1.

To this day, the various Christian communities have played a major role in Aleppo’s economy.  Traditionally, there was a competition between the commercial interests of Aleppo and the capital Damascus.  The Aleppo elite was pro-Iraqi, with the old “People’s Party,” pushing a union with Iraq, where the “National Party,” based in Damascus opposed it.

Two other important communities exist in and around Aleppo — Kurds and Druze.  Many of these groups immigrated to the south, all the way to Israel, where thousands of them live in the Druze town of Daliyya near Haifa.

Finally, Aleppo was a home to a big and influential Jewish community, which played a crucial role in the economic life of the city.  On the eve of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, a pogrom took place in Aleppo, and those Jews who still lived there left to join their compatriots in NY, Panama, Mexico, Sao-Paulo and Israel.

In the current conflict, Aleppo was quieter than other regions of Syria, at least in the early stages of the uprising.  Some Syrian watchers made the point that Aleppo was the proof that the struggle in Syria was not a sectarian civil war between Alawites and their allies and the Arab–Sunni majority.

They were wrong.  The current fighting is indicative, as the fighting is between the rebels in the Sunni neighborhoods and the Alawite-dominated military units and militias, because the Christians, much the same as in Damascus, are passive, as well as the Druze and Kurds.

These minority groups have historic reasons to fear the possibility of a Sunni-Arab victory.  The struggle does have a clear-cut sectarian nature, as the various communities perform in tune with their communal interests based on a long historic legacy of fear, suspicion and mistrust.  In a nut shell, this is a reflection of what is happening in other parts of Syria.

Another element of the situation in Aleppo is the issue of foreign intervention.  Shi’ite dominated Iraq is no more the patron of the Sunni Arabs of Aleppo.  To an extent, Turkey is trying to fulfill this role, and according to many reports, the Erdogan Government is giving significant financial support, as well as  weapons and ammunition to the rebels, creating an actual — though undeclared — rebel “safe zone.”  Clearly, in a future, post-Assad Syria, Turkey will have a very high-profile in Aleppo and its environs.

With all that happening, we see that the battle for Aleppo is clearly a significant event in the annals of the Syrian civil war, not the end of it, but rather another stepping-stone in the downfall of the current regime and the subsequent disintegration of the Syrian state.

(Josef Olmert received his PhD at the London School of Economics, and is an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina.  He has published extensively on the Middle East, and participated in Israeli-Syrian peace talks)

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