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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Life in the slow lane of isolated Aleppo

The fighting has stopped but international sanctions are killing prospects of renewal, residents tell Gareth Browne

A picture taken through the window of a bus shows a woman standing in a street under the portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, in an unspecified town in Aleppo province, northern Syria, 18 April 2018.  EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI
A picture taken through the window of a bus shows a woman standing in a street under the portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, in an unspecified town in Aleppo province, northern Syria, 18 April 2018. EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI

The “I Love Aleppo” monument in Saadallah Al Jaberi square would seem more at home in the hills of California than it does in the centre of the Syrian city. Its bright, bold lettering a symbol of the city’s once internationalist, commercial identity.

After so many years of fighting, Aleppo, once at the crossroads of the most important trading routes in the world, is no longer a war zone, but it is as isolated as it has ever been.

A year on from the city’s recapture from rebels by government forces, the city is stuck in economic purgatory. Many who fled are too fearful to return and those that have find their rebuilding efforts hindered by extensive financial sanctions on the country.

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Gareth Browne reports from Syria:

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International financial transactions are blocked, bank accounts abroad are frozen and the doctors complain life-saving medicines cannot be imported. In the university, research projects are cancelled because funding, though granted, is inaccessible.

A man washes his car in an unspecified town in Aleppo province, northern Syria. Youssef Badawi / EPA
A man washes his car in an unspecified town in Aleppo province, northern Syria. Youssef Badawi / EPA

Yet under the auspices of the Al Assad government, life is slowly returning to a city often seen as the economic heartland of Syria. The sounds of reconstruction are heard in the horns of taxis and the deafening power saws of the dusty labourers in the Christian neighbourhood of Al Jadideh.

The Syrian Patriachat is not short of money and churches are being rebuilt at an impressive rate across the country.

But most people have neither the means, nor the money to rebuild their lives and it was the opposition areas hit by the regime’s aerial bombardment that suffered the most extensive damage.

Government efforts appear limited to symbolic gestures such as the rebuilding of the Umayyad Mosque, funded by the Chechen government of Ramzan Kadyrov, or areas where the population is staunchly loyal to the regime. “It’s just for show,” Hamza Al Khoury, a student, tells The National.

Wael Muzayek, a businessman who works between London and Aleppo, finds even the simplest of transactions complicated.

“Sometimes I have to travel to Beirut just to receive money, other times I can’t import equipment. If there is no equipment, I cannot employ people. It’s killing business”.

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A serious challenge facing the regime-held areas of Syria is the mass exodus of its people, especially the young and educated. From a total pre-war population of two million, hundreds of thousands have decided to make new lives elsewhere.

The migration, combined with the deaths of thousands in the war has left the country with a severely depleted workforce. The Syria Report, an economic newsletter, noted this week that women now outnumber men in the labour market by four to one.

Syrians standi in a street under the portrait of former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad, in an unspecified town in Aleppo province. Youssef Badawi / EPA
Syrians standi in a street under the portrait of former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad, in an unspecified town in Aleppo province. Youssef Badawi / EPA

Some insist many fled only because of the violence and fighting but many have not returned despite fighting in Aleppo ending more than a year ago. A semblance of stability in Aleppo hasn’t been enough to entice them back. Even officials closely allied with the regime acknowledge that some ‘reforms’ will be necessary to attract people back.

Speaking at a community meeting in Aleppo, the city’s grand Mufti hinted at the changes, though avoided any specifics.

“We need reforms, to get these people back. There is corruption in the state and in the church, but do you stop corruption with more corruption?”

“People are very angry here,” says Angela Farmby an English teacher from Liverpool who has lived with her Syrian husband in Aleppo on and off since 1971.

“The war is over, it’s time to get behind the government. Stop punishing the people in the hospitals and the universities. Assad is not going anywhere.”

But easing sanctions to help Aleppo rebuild would require a major change in policy from western nations who largely consider Bashar Al Assad’s departure from power essential to bringing lasting peace to the country.

Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, says easing the blockade would be tantamount to accepting President Al Assad’s rule.

“It’s 100% an endorsement of Al Assad and an enabler for corruption. Reconstruction is unfortunately the buzz word, but it’s simply a chance for people to get their hands on more money while doing a little bit to help.”

One Syrian who fled the city in February 2014 and secured asylum in the UK told The National that he doesn’t see how he can return home. “The regime is definitely a fear,” he says. “There’s a lack of trust.”

People standing in front of a building destroyed in the Syrian conflict.  Youssef Badawi / EPA
People standing in front of a building destroyed in the Syrian conflict. Youssef Badawi / EPA

In March, an opposition website published a list of 1.5 million names of those wanted by the regime, many of whom had fled overseas.

He didn’t want to be named for fear of recriminations against his family still in Syria. Even if his security was guaranteed, he feels the lack of opportunity is also keeping him from going home.

“It’s difficult to create employment opportunities. It is almost impossible to secure a decent life.”

With no prospect of sanctions being lifted or the popular revolution that many hoped for, the people of Aleppo seeking to rebuild under the Al Assad regime will have to do it on their own.