By Anne Barnard
3rd October 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Chaos continued to spread in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, on Monday, as rebels attacked the towering municipality building with rockets, sending civil servants fleeing from one of the few government buildings still functioning as dozens of soldiers worked to defend the city center.
“We don’t want to hurt the employees, but we want them not to come to work or they will be killed,” Sa’id Abu Abdo, 25, an armed insurgent, said in Aleppo after the attack. “We will liberate each building in the city.”
In a city that was once considered a bastion of support for President Bashar al-Assad, and for a time was spared armed conflict, two months of pitched battles have taken a heavy toll, disrupting the city and threatening to open new rifts among ethnic groups that have long coexisted there.
Compared to six weeks ago, the contrast observed on Monday was striking. Municipal services have collapsed in many areas, and Christian, Kurdish and wealthy Sunni Muslim neighborhoods that had felt secure when fighting began have been the site of clashes once limited to the poorer Sunni areas. In one Aleppo neighborhood, corpses lay uncollected, gnawed by cats and dogs, and piles of garbage attracted clouds of black flies.
Most of the city’s malls and many health centers in antigovernment neighborhoods were closed. Even police stations appeared abandoned; the force draws mostly from rural and working-class areas where support for the uprising is strong. Some residents reported that their neighborhoods had been without drinking water or electricity for weeks.
Some Christians, historically a vital part of Aleppo’s bustling ethnic mix, have taken up arms to guard their neighborhoods and churches. Many of Syria’s minority communities have either sided with President Assad, fearing his fall would leave them vulnerable to the Sunni-led opposition, or stayed out of the conflict because they did not trust either side. One man patrolling his largely Christian neighborhood with a Kalashnikov rifle said the government was arming Armenian Christians in what he called an attempt to draw them into the conflict.
“Today it is clear for us that the Muslims from the countryside want to destroy our city,” he said. “They have nothing to lose.”
He identified himself as Gano, an Armenian member of what he called a popular committee recently organized to defend the neighborhood, Aziziyah, which was sheltering refugees from other Christian neighborhoods where fighting had broken out.
But he said he mistrusted the government, which he said was trying to revive an armed Armenian group it had once supported against Turkey.
“No way, because we will be a legitimate target for the Muslim rebels,” he said. “The regime wants to use us. We want to live in peace or leave. We are a minority in this country and cannot face the Muslim majority.”
As the fighting raged across the city Monday, 11 people were killed and 20 wounded when a shell fell on the Othman Bin Matghoon Mosque in the neighborhood of Masaken Hnano during dawn prayers, the Local Coordinating Committees, an anti-Assad group, said. The Syrian state news service said that government forces had retaken control of two rebel neighborhoods and quoted residents as saying they “stressed their rejection of all acts of terrorism and sabotage committed by the mercenary terrorists,” its shorthand for rebels.
The road from Damascus to Aleppo was crowded on Saturday with government troops headed for the city.
In a city that has been a commercial hub for millenniums, business seemed to have almost halted; shopping malls were closed, and the few open shops were selling bread for five times its normal price.
In the city’s medieval center, much of the old marketplace lay in smoking ruins on Monday. Heavy, ancient stone walls had collapsed.
Nearby, the 12th-century citadel at the heart of the old city appeared to be damaged, its heavy wooden door pockmarked with bullets and a few stones broken from its gate. Government soldiers had taken up positions there, as well as in the old city’s Umayyad Mosque, where snipers could be seen on the minaret.
Even residents who supported the uprising appeared dejected about the damage to the city, where traces of fire and ash littered the old city and smoke lingered from a blaze the day before in the paint and chemical supply shops of Bab al-Nasr.
“It is a very sad city — it has been sad for the past few months,” said an anti-Assad activist who gave his name as Mohammed.
Abu Mahmoud, a wealthy, white-bearded garment merchant, exuded sadness even inside his well-appointed, undamaged home. He said he was on the verge of fleeing to Turkey, where his sons had opened a small clothing business.
“The rebels came to liberate the city,” he said. “But we got destruction, not freedom. The Assad forces don’t care about the stones or the people. The regime is ready to destroy each house, each shop and each building to keep the power for the Assad family.”