Aleppo busi­ness­men pon­der re­build

Un­cer­tainty clouds fu­ture of for­mer com­mer­cial cen­ter

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los Nabih Bu­los is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

ALEPPO, Syria — WhenMoustafa Kawaie en­tered Layra­moun, an in­dus­trial zone north­west of the Syr­ian city of Aleppo that was re­claimed by the govern­ment in July, he rushed to in­spect his tex­tile fac­tory.

“I en­tered a few hours af­ter the Syr­ian army did, but in the be­gin­ning I couldn’t find where my fac­tory was,” Kawaie said last week, as he trudged along a rub­ble-filled thor­ough­fare cut­ting through Layra­moun. It had been sev­eral months since the area was wrested from op­po­si­tion forces.

Aleppo was once the in­dus­trial and fi­nan­cial heart of Syria, a city of 3 mil­lion peo­ple whose fac­to­ries churned out tex­tiles and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and pro­cessed agri­cul­tural goods. Layra­moun alone was home to ap­prox­i­mately 1,600 com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to Kawaie. But four years of civil war be­tween rebels and forces loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad have si­lenced the fac­to­ries and brought ruin to the city.

Although much of it is now back in the As­sad govern­ment’s hands, busi­ness own­ers are won­der­ing whether it is time to re­build — and whether the city can ever re­gain its eco­nomic might.

As Kawaie looked around the area where his fac­tory once stood, he saw no struc­ture that was free of scars. Ev­ery inch of con­crete ap­peared to have been nib­bled by bullets and shrap­nel. Chunks of con­crete hung from re­bar cores ris­ing from the ground like so many trees. Airstrikes and heavy ar­tillery shelling had caused some build­ings to col­lapse, the floors stacked atop one an­other like fallen houses of cards.

“You have a mem­ory of a place, and then when you re­turn you see all the de­struc­tion,” he said. “It was a big shock.”

Else­where around Aleppo, one sees the car­nage writ large: Over­turned train cars and buses sit atop berms of sand and in­dus­trial Layra­moun, an in­dus­trial zone north­west of Aleppo, shows the dev­as­ta­tion caused by the Syr­ian civil war. Some busi­ness own­ers say they won’t re­build. de­tri­tus that line the road en­ter­ing the city’s govern­ment-held ar­eas.

The city, di­vided since 2013 be­tween govern­ment and op­po­si­tion sec­tors, was the fo­cal point of in­tense fighting this month.

The rebels mounted an of­fen­sive aimed at break­ing a months-long block­ade on their bas­tion in the east­ern part of Aleppo, es­ti­mated to have any­where from 200,000 to 350,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to aid groups.

They pep­pered govern­ment-held west­ern Aleppo with rocket and mor­tar fire, while Is­lamist rebels dis­patched sui­cide bombers with ex­plo­sive-filled tanks to punch through govern­ment lines. But the govern­ment, backed by Rus­sian air power, was able to so­lid­ify its grip on west­ern Aleppo.

On Sun­day, the govern­ment sent an ul­ti­ma­tum to east­ern Aleppo, giv­ing rebels 24 hours to evac­u­ate or face a nine-pronged at­tack that “will be a sur­prise in strength and place and time.”

Aleppo’s im­por­tance, ac­cord­ing to for­mer Syr­ian Eco­nomic Min­is­ter Hu­mam Jaza­eri, comes from its pro­duc­tion of what he called “in­ter­me­di­ate goods.”

“In the value chain of the Syr­ian in­dus­try, it formed the build­ing blocks in tex­tiles, plas­tics, en­gi­neer­ing in­dus­tries and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals,” Jaza­eri said.

But the war crip­pled much of that pro­duc­tion.

“We used to have 70,000 com­pa­nies, from small work­shops to big fac­to­ries,” said Faresh She­habi, head of the Aleppo Cham­ber of In­dus­try. “Nowwe’re op­er­at­ing at 10 per­cent ca­pac­ity.”

Un­like other ma­jor cities, Aleppo wass­low to join the so-called Arab Spring protests against As­sad that be­gan in March 2011.

Busi­ness­men ac­com­pa­ny­ing a group of jour­nal­ists in an or­ga­nized visit to the city last week said the up­ris­ing here was re­lated more to class than to the sec­tar­ian di­vide that char­ac­ter­ized the fighting in some other parts of the coun­try. As­sad is an Alaw­ite, an off­shoot of Shi­ite Is­lam. Much of his op­po­si­tion has been from among Sunni Mus­lims.

“We’re all Sunni here, so the up­ris­ing here in Aleppo was not (caused by) sec­tar­ian ten­sions,” said Ziad, a fac­tory owner who asked to be iden­ti­fied by only his first name for se­cu­rity rea­sons.

Rather, he said, those who spear­headed the re­bel­lion in Aleppo tended to be im­pov- er­ished peo­ple from sur­round­ing ru­ral ar­eas.

By the time the up­ris­ing turned vi­o­lent in 2012, hun­dreds of busi­ness­men had been kid­napped “be­cause (they) didn’t stand with (the) revo­lu­tion,” Ziad said.

One rebel fac­tion, the Badr Mar­tyrs Bri­gade, over­ran the in­dus­trial zones. Led by a for­mer fish­mon­ger turned war­lord named Khaled Saraaj Hayyani, the group sys­tem­at­i­cally looted fac­to­ries even as its cadres used work­shops to pro­duce im­pro­vised firearms used to lob gas can­is­ters on Aleppo.

Ac­cord­ing to a pro-op­po­si­tion watch­dog, the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, Hayyani, who was nick­named “the Butcher of Aleppo,” was re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of more than 200 civil­ians and the wound­ing of more than 900

Some fac­to­ries seized by the rebels were im­me­di­ately sold or had their parts and wiring smelted for cop­per in Turkey. Oth­ers were of­fered back to their own­ers — at a price.

“The call came to me … from an em­ployee of mine. He­told me, ‘We’ll sell you the fac­tory or sell it in Turkey; it was con­fis­cated in the name of the revo­lu­tion.’ ” said Ay­man Tar­ju­man, an Aleppo busi­ness owner.

He re­fused, but oth­ers agreed to deals with the op­po­si­tion.

As troops have ousted the rebels from ar­eas out­side Aleppo, some busi­nesses have re­opened in Sheikh Na­j­jar, a state-of-the art in­dus­trial zone aimed at large cor­po­ra­tions.

But oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to She­habi, re­couped their losses by go­ing re­gional, mov­ing their busi­nesses to Egypt and Jor­dan. Although they wish to re­turn, the govern­ment has to do more to lure them back.

“They need to give us in­cen­tives, we need spe­cial laws. If we had that, more peo­ple would have stayed,” he said.

One busi­ness owner, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied, wasn’t sure.

“I won’t build again. They will at­tack. Maybe in one year, in five … maybe in 10,” he said. “Maybe I’ll fix my fac­tory. (But) I won’t ex­pand.”


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