Syria’s workhorse dies with Aleppo

A city of merchants and industrialists hurled into an economy of war

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A dozen men stand in silence watching as others brick up the shattered storefront of an industrial hardware shop. A mortar strike blew apart its façade only hours ago in this northeastern section of Aleppo, and three hundred meters down the street fighting continues to rage between government forces and opposition fighters of the Free Syria Army (FSA). No words are shared between the disgruntled merchants and a pair of rebel fighters standing nearby — there is clearly little love lost.

The wrecked shop is in a district called Aaqoora, in the middle of what used to be one of the city’s thriving industrial quarters. Now the hundreds, if not thousands, of small and medium sized factories here are empty. “Not a single one of the businesses in this area is working now… none,” snaps one of the bystanders.

Further down the block a door swings ajar on a textiles factory. Thread still lays taut across the looms and reels of cloth are stacked in the corner of the abandoned room, now strewn with broken glass and smashed plaster. The factory feels suspended in time until a thunderous explosion bellows out nearby — another small part of Aleppo laid to waste. (Click here for a photo tour of the city)

Until the Holy Month of Ramadan began in late July, Aleppo and its more than 2 million inhabitants had, for the most part, been insulated from the violence wracking the country elsewhere. However, when the battle shifted mid-summer from the surrounding countryside into the heart of this city, which is Syria’s industrial and economic workhorse, it unleashed a torrent of destruction that continues unabated.

The plethora of fighting units that make up the opposition FSA have taken control of more than half of the urban area, but the virtually unchallenged air and artillery power of the government’s forces allows them to launch attacks into every corner of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. The bombardments from above are often indiscriminate and devastating. Whole districts lay abandoned with thousands of shops, businesses and homes shuttered, their owners and residents having fled.

Flight from havoc

“People are taking their whole operations to other countries,” says Syrian businessman Abdul Karim-Sayyed. “We can say there is an industrial migration going on now from Syria to Iraq or Egypt or Turkey or elsewhere. The majority are going to Egypt.”

Sitting in his office in Bourj Hammoud on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, he laments the demise of his home. Aleppo used to employ as much as 40 percent of Syria’s industrial workforce, with manufacturing alone accounting for 150,000 jobs; the city produced 35 percent of all the country’s non-oil exports, and in sub sectors such as textiles and pharmaceuticals, this share rose to some 70 percent, according to Madinatuna, (the municipal program also know as the Aleppo City Development Strategy). All this has now ground to a violent halt.

Karim-Sayyed is from the generation of businessmen who successfully emerged from Syria’s first round of economic liberalization under then-President Hafez al-Assad, which began in the early 1990s, when the government started to encourage private investment and the export of Syrian products by private enterprises. Karim-Sayyed’s portfolio of companies were involved in such things as clothing, textiles and furniture exports, haulage and a private bus company in Aleppo. In recent months, however, along with most of Aleppo’s industrialists, he has extricated what capital he can from the violent quagmire.

In the past the Syrian regime kept a lid on the levels of capital individuals and businesses could transfer outside the nation. While there have always been circuitous routes around these restrictions, Karim-Sayyed argues that in the current state of lawlessness whatever barriers there were simply no longer apply.

“There are many ways to get your money out of Syria,” he says. “The border with Turkey is wide open — you take your money there without anyone asking any questions. There are no laws anymore.” 

Ransom as financing

Back in Aleppo, the absence of law pervading the city has given rise to widespread kidnapping, extortion and theft targeting Aleppo’s middle and upper classes and their businesses, spurring many to flee to safer climes. While fighters and leaders within the FSA concede this occurs, they often contend that it is beyond their control.

Abdul Fader is a softly spoken and well-educated man with an affable and polite disposition. He used to work as an Islamic scholar for Aleppo’s Department of Islamic Jurisdiction but now commands some 150 rebel fighters in the city. Fader’s transition from religious scholar to military leader started in August 2011, through leading operations to assassinate Shabiha — a term used to describe the paramilitary supporters of the regime. “Our weapon of choice was the silencer,” he calmly reveals. 

When elements of the opposition started preparing to move the armed conflict from the Aleppo countryside into the city, Fader says the Shabiha were increasingly targeted for ransom kidnappings to fund the procurement of weapons and vehicles. Though the price tag varied due to the “economic condition” of the hostage, the standard rate was anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000. “I believe that in the early days around 50 percent of the funding for the armed uprising came from kidnapping those mercenaries,” says Fader. He claims his men would covertly gather evidence on every potential target for him to review, and that he called off operations against roughly half the cases brought before him on the basis that he could not justify the action under Islamic law.

Other armed groups are less concerned with determining whether potential kidnapping victims are Shabiha or not. The title ‘FSA’ suggests one united fighting force, but the reality is the opposition is comprised of a wide variety of different outfits, including armed criminal gangs who are indulging in kidnapping and extortion for blatant monetary gain.

 

Industrial amputation

Perched on the northeastern high ground overlooking Aleppo is the Sheikh Najjar Industrial Park. As of early 2011, the Syrian Arab News Agency was reporting that the park had accumulated $3.4 billion worth of investments, housed 75 foreign companies and provided employment for some 35,500 people. Only months ago a flourishing hub for Syrian textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and agro-foods, it is now a 44-square-kilometer ghost town. There is no traffic, and it seems the only people around are the guards at the gates of the factories, on the lookout for potential looters or refugees looking for a safe place to squat.

One of the few plants operating, although at a significantly reduced capacity, is the Sultan Carpet Company. A floor manager at the plant, who refuses to give his name, says less than 10 percent of the industrial city is still in operation. Within minutes of beginning to speak, however, a car full of stern-faced men in suits arrives and makes it clear that neither the questions, nor Executive’s escort of two armed guides in battle fatigues, are welcome. The gates to the factory close and the workers are ushered back inside.

While many of Aleppo’s businessmen and industrialists have either fled the country or kept a cold and hostile distance to the armed uprising, some have thrown their lot in with the revolution. Mustapha Chebaan is a large and portly man who wears an army waistcoat over his brown jalibiyeh while hosting guests at the barracks where he leads a brigade of around 200 FSA fighters. The camouflage attire and newly adopted military role veil his previous identity as a major business figure in Aleppo and a member of the city’s chamber of commerce; founded it 1885 it is one of the oldest chambers of commerce in the Middle East and Arab world. 

“When they started to attack the peaceful demonstrations we left the chamber of commerce and we left our businesses to join the ranks of the FSA to support our people in Deraa and Homs and now in Aleppo,” he says. Chebaan made his money by building a contracting company and importing household appliances from China, and he talks of how regime loyalists and Shabiha targeted him and other likeminded businessmen with sabotage, kidnappings of family members and sometimes assassinations for empathizing with the anti-regime protestors. Once Chebaan closed his business, his attention and money was turned towards the financing and arming of the rebels.

His brigade’s barracks is replete with examples of the involuntary redistribution of wealth occurring in Aleppo; the building itself used to house military officers Chebaan accuses of leading the sabotage against him and other businessmen; while it is not possible for his fighters to buy new SIM cards for their mobile phones — as they need to be officially registered — rebels still attain them from kidnapped or killed regime loyalists and soldiers. Even some of the cars Chebaan’s fighters use have been “liberated” from their foes.

Fuel’s dirty business

Running those cars however, has become an expensive and cumbersome ordeal. There are no functioning petrol stations in the parts of Aleppo that the rebels hold or in any of the countryside to the north under their control. “The distribution at petrol stations stopped around a year ago now,” says petrol dealer Abu Farouq. “The owners were kidnapped and held to ransom. They paid up, were released and after that they left.”

Now street vendors sell fuel full of impurities from 120 liter barrels, and the unsteady supply causes prices to fluctuate between $2 to $4 per liter; it used to be less than $1. The dirty petrol also wreaks havoc on car engines, causing frequent stalling and forcing drivers to limit their speed, which can be of critical importance to the fighters in the heat of battle. “Damn this car,” curses an FSA fighter en route to the front line as his vehicle jolts to a stop once again. “I’d be better off trying to escape on a donkey.”

Ali Aleto, a 26 year-old FSA fighter, was among the many men from his village to the north of Aleppo who joined the armed opposition in the city. Shrapnel has shred his back and the wounds are still raw. Aleto’s injuries are a direct result of the fight for fuel that the rebels are waging. In an audacious FSA operation in early August, rebel fighters attacked a convoy of 17 government trucks near the Aleppo International Airport, each carrying up to 40,000 liters of diesel. Aleto was in the cab of one of the stolen tankers when it was struck by a rocket. “It was a close shave for sure, but we made off we six trucks in the end,” he says.

The Bedouin tribes from the east of Syria ensure a regular flow of fuel into the areas under FSA control. “Neither the government nor the FSA control the clans. They are more Iraqi than they are Syrian,” explains Abou Farouq. The Bedouin buy the fuel from areas under government control, such as Raqaa in central Syria, and then transport it to Sfeera, east of Aleppo, from where it is distributed to Aleppo and the FSA-controlled countryside. 

“Everyone involved benefits from this trade. Everyone gets around five Syrian pounds per liter, which amounts to around $6 per barrel,” explains Abou Farouq before adding with an ironic smirk, “Even the regime wants to sell it so they can earn money to buy weapons to use against us. It is business after all.”

 

A withering harvest

The fluctuating availability of fuel and its poor quality is felt heavily in the agricultural districts of Aleppo’s countryside to the north. Standing in his 10-hectare farmstead, Abu Beraa shakes his head as he holds out several small and shriveled potatoes. “I can’t sell these. They should be five times bigger. They will go to waste along with so much more of this crop,” he complains.

The reason for Abu Beraa’s failing crop is his inability to pay for the inflated fuel, fertilizer and labor costs. Fertilizer has risen approximately five-fold over the past two years, fuel has at least doubled this past year and the day rate of laborers is more than twice as much as it was last season. Pointing to one of the men pulling emaciated potatoes from the ground, Abu Beraa says, “One of these workers will work a month now just to be able to bring a canister of gas to his house. They now cost 5,000 Syrian pounds (SYP), and they used to be 410 SYP. That is an increase of more than 10 fold.”

Abu Beraa is not alone with his grievances. “I am scared of a real food crisis in the country this coming winter,” frets agricultural engineer Abu Abdullah, speaking in the Aleppo countryside. The spiraling costs are paralyzing agricultural production, which is compounded by the dangers involved in transporting the goods to market. “There used to be a large trade between us and our neighbors such as Turkey and Iraq, and considerable integration of the markets within Syria but this has all but been cut because of the dangers and costs of transportation,” explains Abu Abdullah.

Dry credit markets are further hobbling agricultural producers. Normally, they would take out a loan at the beginning of each season to cover expenses, and pay off this debt after they sold their harvest. This year, however, with the chronic lack of security and a dearth of confidence in the Syrian pound, lenders are sitting tight on their money; “There is fear of a collapse so no one will lend anymore,” explains Abu Abdullah. “Now people only work in hard cash.”

The woes of the countryside are being passed down the supply chain to fruit and vegetable vendors on the streets of Aleppo — among the few traders still in business besides the corner stalls selling cigarettes and fuel dealers with their roadside barrels.

“Hardly any vegetables are entering into the city,” says a vegetable seller whose shop sits only yards from a recent rocket strike that leveled a family home. “Tomatoes have reached 25 SYP; they used to be 10 SYP, even 5 SYP. The same with potatoes, they used to be seven and now they too are around 25 SYP. People can’t afford these prices.”

Shortages and empty shelves

In the neighboring district of Tariq El Bab, dozens of people stand in a queue at the local bakery for bread that is three to four times more expensive than before the uprising began impacting Aleppo. No one looks comfortable and eyes regularly flicker to the sky. “We come and stand here every day for our bread but we are scared of the planes,” says an elderly man as he waits in line. “They have targeted the bread queues before and only the other day 11 people were killed in such a strike.”

Many other essentials are also running short. In a small village several kilometers north of Aleppo a pharmacist leans on the counter with the shelves behind him all but empty, spare a few packets of the most basic of medicines. A customer walks in asking for tablets for diarrhea and even before he finishes his sentence the pharmacist awkwardly grimaces and apologizes. “The whole trade has pretty much disappeared,” he says. “We see shortages for a number of reasons; the factories have stopped producing, the warehouses have run dry, pharmacies have been hit and transportation is very dangerous.”

Not only has the stock dried up but the government support for medication for the poor has also evaporated. In the summer months diarrhea and nausea are the most common ailments but treatments are running thin. “There used to be support for people in need or the poor from the government, so we could give medications for free to people who really needed it,” says the pharmacist. “Unfortunately now there is no support so we can’t help people who are poor and destitute. They have to go without. Now it is the opposite. It is me that needs the support.”

A dying city

Streets that were once bustling arteries for commerce — trade that sustained the livelihood and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of Syrian families — are now emptied by fear or choked in rubble. Aleppo’s main tourist attraction, the citadel in the center of the old city, is a sniper’s den for regime forces. The boom of artillery has replaced the banter of marketplaces. The city shakes from the warplanes’ rain of death.

In place of normal life there is war, which reaches far behind the front lines and impacts most painfully the noncombatants — those who have fired no bullets and yet pay for this innocence with the torn fabric of their lives.

Zak Brophy was Executive's Economics and Policy Editor from 2011 until 2013.

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