Aleppo joins Syria’s Islamic revival,

Gulf States Newsletter
July 25 2004

Aleppo joins Syria’s Islamic revival, Damascus responds by courting
old foes

Cosmopolitan Aleppo has joined Syria’s Islamic revival, highlighting
a trend the Baathist regime can ill afford to ignore – which is why
President Assad is courting the Muslim Brotherhood his father smashed
two decades ago. GSN reports from Aleppo on the mood in the city and
from Damascus on rumours of political games-playing by the regime and
its Islamist opponents, and rapprochement with Turkey.
Syria’s northern capital has long been the region’s most cosmopolitan
town, its population including Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Jews and
Arabs. This diverse heritage remains to this day, with the mix of
churches and mosques resembling Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus’
eclectic mishmash of religious orthodoxies. But tensions are running
high in Aleppo 2004 version: the Kurdish riots in parts of northern
Syria in March drew in Aleppo’s Kurdish minority – curfews were
imposed on their quarter – and the city is in the grip of an Islamic
revival. Only a handful of women, mainly Christian, now go around in
public without the hijab.

Throughout Aleppo’s famous souk, Koranic slogans hang from the
arcaded ceilings. This is a somewhat different town to the one that
provoked Egyptian-born World Trade Center lead attacker Mohammed
Atta’s ire during the 1990s, when the then star student’s research
into Aleppo’s architectural heritage played a role in his conversion
to Jihadist militancy. Atta had a long-standing affection for
Aleppo’s souk, the subject of his thesis at Hamburg Technical
University in the 1990s. According to the travel writer Jonathan
Raban, here, “Atta had found an age-old, smelly world of half-lit
arched passages, violated by shameless and greedy kufr
(non-believers).” Atta saw the souk as being under siege by tourists
and their architecture of fast-food restaurants and hotels.

A decade later, Atta might find Aleppo a more convivial prospect. One
theory for the popular revival of Islam is that the secular Arab
Baath Socialist Party Regional Command regime, weakened by the death
of Hafez Al-Assad and assailed by US policy-makers as a ‘state
sponsor of terrorism’, is unable to exert its grip as tightly here as
it can in its Damascus power base. In Aleppo, wearing the hijab can
be construed as a personal gesture of opposition to the regime.

The city boasts some firebrand preachers, including Sheikh Mohsen
Al-Qaaqaa, who was removed from his mosque in Q1 04 having previously
cultivated a private militia and openly called for Syria to become an
Islamic state.

On another level, the demise of Syrian secularism appears a
by-product of a shift in sentiment throughout the Middle East in the
wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Even Damascene women are turning to
the headscarf in increasing numbers.

But even an Islamicised Aleppo is unlikely to lose its cosmopolitan
edge, and the tourist coaches still queue outside the city’s famous
citadel. The city is increasing its ties with Turkey, only a short
drive across the border. Since Syria expelled Kurdistan Workers’
Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, relations with Ankara have
improved across the board; President Bashar Al-Assad visited in
January. Recent faltering ties between Turkey and its regional
strategic ally Israel – fanned by reports that Israeli special forces
are training and co-operating with Kurdish Peshmerga militias in
northern Iraq – are playing well in Syria.

If Aleppo is able to leverage its geographic influence as a regional
trading post, enabling Turkish products to penetrate Arab markets
further south, it could play a key role in fostering the emerging
bilateral economic relationship. GSN was in the city when in late May
when Turkish State Minister Kursad Tuzmen, a regular visitor, came
with 400 Turkish businessmen and 33 MPs to explore increased
commercial relations. Such was the minister’s enthusiasm, he happily
participated in communal dancing.

With its own Kurdish flank to look after and both countries wary of
US influence in the region, Damascus has reason enough to throw in
its lot with Ankara. A dose of Turkish secularism may also help to
offset the Islamic fervour gripping Syria’s second city

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress