Syrian rebels in Aleppo mostly poor, pious, rural

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

It began in March 2011 in the impoverished southern province of Daraa. A drought hitting parts of the country displaced tens of thousands of people from farming areas, putting more pressure on the economy. The city of Homs, which has been a main center of the rebellion, is known as "the mother of the poor" because the cost of living is lower and its population generally less well off. When Damascus saw its worst fighting yet in July, it was largely in the capital's poorer districts that the rebels operated.

The gap between rich and poor across Syria grew in the more than a decade of free market economic policies initiated by the late Hafez Assad and accelerated by his son, Bashar, when he took power in 2000.

Focused on the service sector, the new policy benefited a tiny segment of the country's 22 million people, particularly a clique of regime-linked businessmen and the mostly Sunni merchant class in Aleppo and Damascus, who have largely stuck by Assad. But the policies also triggered steep price increases that reduced many Syrians to poverty, particularly among the country's broader Sunni majority.

For much of the uprising, Aleppo largely remained on the regime's side, with little rebel activity. The city's businessmen could use their influence, threats and payoffs to make sure of that — with tens of thousands on their payrolls and the countryside dependent on them.

What few anti-Assad demonstrations that did take place early on came from the dormitories of the University of Aleppo, home to students from rural parts of the province.

Then the rebels from the countryside launched their surprise attack on the city in July. They moved into its impoverished, mainly Sunni districts, where residents are mostly of rural origin. They have since used those areas as their base from which to wage their bid to take over the city. To this day, all of Aleppo's rebel-held areas are poor, while the city's affluent parts remain under government control, with life there reportedly continuing much as it had before.

Once inside the city, the ranks of the rebels swelled with Aleppo volunteers bitter over their poverty.

Mohammed Al-Ali, 25, is one of them.

Just back from a two-day stint on the front lines in Aleppo — "the enemy was no more than 15 meters away from our position," he said — Al-Ali is fighting as much for social justice as for freedom.

In a blue tracksuit and tennis shoes, he spoke of a father with a meager pension of $200 and a family so poor he had to drop out of school and take various jobs in shops to make ends meet as prices skyrocketed across Syria in the past decade.

"We sold everything in the house that we did not absolutely need," Al-Ali said.

Besides being a fighter, he earns a monthly wage of $80 as a helper in a field hospital.

"I am hoping that when this is over, I will go to university and study Arabic literature. This is my dream," he said.

The rural fighters also bring with them their more fundamentalist religious outlook, which the trauma of war has only deepened. Most rebels in Aleppo wear beards, a hallmark of piety, and their conversation is filled with verses from the Quran or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. They frame the fight in a religious context and speak of martyrdom as something they wish for.

They often trade stories of miracles showing God's support for them.

Waiting at a field hospital as one of his fighters was treated for shrapnel wounds, a rebel commander who goes by the nickname of Abu Ekrimah recounted one such tale to a comrade.

The burly, bearded commander with piercing hazel eyes — his vest full of ammunition magazines and an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder — told how a long-bearded man with a reputation for piety once gave his brigade's fighters some homemade grenades. He instructed them to ritually wash themselves as if for prayers and then throw them while shouting, "God is great!"

"We followed his instructions, and we could see that when we tossed them, they changed course in midair to score direct hits against the enemy," Abu Ekrimah said.

"God is great!" his comrade exclaimed at hearing the story.

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