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Urban Conflicts and Multiple War Narratives: The Case of Aleppo

[Salaheddin, Aleppo. By Syria Freedom.] [Salaheddin, Aleppo. By Syria Freedom.]

Since media pundits and political figures praised Syrians’ peaceful, democratic and diverse inspiration for freedom, a series of competing narratives have tried to prevail on the conflict: an oppressed people revolting against a brutal regime, a betrayed president facing terrorism and foreign machinations, a struggle between "radical" and "moderate" rebels, a modern nation-state facing regional re-tribalization, a proxy-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a sectarian between Shi’a and Sunni, and so forth. Though none of these narratives is inherently wrong, all fail to fully explain civil strife in Syria. As Kalyvas’ "ontology of political violence" cautions, reading civil wars in binary terms can be dangerous and misleading. Acknowledging a more tangled system of international and deep-seated local rivalries, which usually find new momentum under the conflict’s "master cleavage," provides a more nuanced understanding of how violence plays out, evolves, and morphs in contexts of irregular conflict. Put differently, though the aforementioned explanations were partly corroborated by the events on the ground, the Syrian Civil War–and the battle for Aleppo in particular–features as a complex process involving a plethora of local and supra-local actors–civilians, militias and armies, as well as different backers, rationalities, motivations, and goals. With this in mindand drawing upon both secondary sources and interviews with local urbanists, my exploration of Aleppo’s urban landscape, before and during the war, endeavours to unpack civil strife within this framework of simultaneity, wherein sectarian or tribal cleavages, divisive power structures, and contingent foreign interests all intersect in, and exert their disruptive impacts on, Aleppo’s urban environment.

Aleppo in Conflict

According to the now popular sectarian explanation of the war, such as provided by Fabrice Balanche, Aleppo– with its predominantly Sunni confessional demography– should have been the nest of a Sunni rebellion against a pro-Iranian Shiite regime. Yet, what the conflict’s spatiality and temporality suggest is that other fragmenting logics came into surface once the strife erupted.

A first glance at Aleppo’s war geography shows a macroscopic division between a rebel-held urban east, and a government-controlled west, with the bulk of devastation condensed in the ancient centre–around the Citadel (see n.1 on the map)–and in other urban swathes along the continuously shifting frontline. Within this framework, what may be perceived as merely war-generated urban rifts turn out to be deep-seated divisions well before 2011. And though we should not underestimate the role played by external actors in altering local balances–foreign-funded Sunni brigades on one hand, and Shiite militias from Lebanon or Iraq on the other, who played a prominent role in "importing" confessional strife in Aleppo–the way in which the city developed over the last four decades, and fractured over the last five years, can provide major insights into the current patterns of confrontation.

This map was elaborated by Giovanni Pagani, drawing upon Sources from Conflict Urbanism and Syria Liveumap.
[Figure 1: This map was elaborated by Giovanni Pagani, drawing upon sources from Conflict Urbanism and Syria Liveuamap.]

Aleppo and Its Citizens

From the 1970s onwards, Aleppo experienced a massive demographic growth, and a high urbanization rate. The whole governorate population size quadrupled, from little more than a million to four million people, and the urban population in the city proper soared from 700,000 in 1970 to 2.5 million in 2004. While a substantial increase in the birth rate affected the whole country (Syrians roughly doubled over that period), a major cause for Aleppo’s extraordinary growth was the large and rapid inflow of rural migrants. This migration was partly a consequence of inefficient agricultural reforms, exasperated by four years of unprecedented drought (2007-2011), and partly because of the growing employment opportunities generated by a thriving industrial sector.

It was at this stage that the urban-rural divide became more deeply entrenched in the cityscape: both as a physical schism between the city’s more consolidated fabric and its sprawling outskirts, and as a social cleavage between established urban communities and rural newcomers. Socially, the urban population looked with disdain and superiority at rural migrants, who were often exploited as cheap labor [1]. Spatially, rural mobility resulted in the unregulated development of large informal areas, and in the blurring of the boundaries between the city and its surrounding countryside.

In this context of rapid and unplanned urbanization, it is difficult to conclude whether informal neighbourhoods developed in opposition to the city and its authorities–as their "illegal" status would suggest–or whether they were tacitly approved by the state as a short-sighted solution to a desperate need for housing. According to the Aleppine architect Salwa Sakkal, for instance, the seed of a divide between the wealthier and legally developed western neighbourhoods, and the poorer informally-grown eastern areas may be noticed in Banshoya’s master plan of 1974. The zones reserved for low-income housing–the northern, the eastern and the southern quarters–correspond roughly to the informal areas’ current distribution, except for two limited state-led projects in al-Hamdaniyeh and Masaken Hanano. Differently put, the fact that before 2011 the regime was willing to upgrade various informal settlements–as testified for instance by a joint project of the Aleppo’s municipality and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ)–may suggest that these areas had been somehow taken into account as part of the city’s future development.

Aleppo and Its Regime

Thus, while a striking correspondence between pre-war socio-economic cleavages and the current urban rifts defies any sectarian explanation of the conflict, it would be inadequate to portray civil strife in Aleppo as exclusively informed by material grievances. The urban-rural divide was also a crucial factor behind confrontation, yet the conflict’s evolution and morphology cannot be fully unpacked without accounting for how the regime’s policies affected the built environment, its production and control. This entailed both direct urban planning measures and, more importantly, a thick network of patronage shrewdly weaved by the Assad dynasty.

Direct planning measures were more sporadic in Aleppo than in other cities–for instance Damascus, Tartous or Lattakia–and were mainly implemented in the 1980s. However, a special mention should be made of the al-Hamdaniyeh project (See n.2 on the map), which was implemented by the Military Housing Establishment in 1990. Not only was this one of two public-sponsored housing projects in Aleppo, but the fact that it aimed at housing the army officers’ families, and its spatial proximity to the Military Academy, clearly identified the neighbourhood as strongly pro-regime. As Salwa Ismail showed in the case of Damascus, the spatial practice of facilitating army members–or other security apparatuses–with access to housing was more common in the 1980s than in the following decades, and it was aimed at both fostering cohesion among military officers, and creating urban "buffer zones" for the regime in case of popular protests. From this perspective, although many apartment buildings were subsequently sold to civilians, al-Hamdaniyeh continued to be perceived as loyalist even during the uprisings[2]Despite its proximity to the frontline, it survived the confrontation with limited damages, as can be assessed on the interactive maps published by Conflict Urbanism.

However, it is also important to acknowledge the practices implemented by the government to simultaneously appease its clients, and keep a hold on space production. Far from being limited to Aleppo and its countryside, these clientelistic networks penetrated the Syrian society at various levels, defining patterns of recruitment in the security apparatuses, better access to state services, and economic privileges. Since the 1980s, firstly Hafez al-Assad, and then his son, Bashar, had managed to weave alliances with some peri-urban tribes, who had moved from the countryside to Aleppo’s inner quarters. This process was both part of the broader strategy argued by Dukhan to empower local leaders in exchange for political compliance, and a way to buy lower classes’ support for counterbalancing the traditional Sunni bourgeoisie–which, in 1982, had supported a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt. Indeed, although the Ba’athist official discourse had always condemned "sectarianism" and "tribalism" as a threat to the Arab nation, sectarian and tribal loyalties were exploited at several junctures to fracture the social body and neutralize political dissent, as Ismail discusses.

In this regard, the Berri tribe was probably the regime’s most powerful client in Aleppo, where the clan enjoyed almost complete authority over Bab al-Nayrab neighbourhood, as well as extensive leeway in smuggling drugs, arms, and alcohol in the city since the 1980s, as Salih examines. This form of clientelism can be ascribed to the broader phenomenon of the shabbiha, namely the regime-paid criminal gangs operating out of the rule of law, and widely deployed by Assad to sedate the uprising. The first shabbiha groups were initially created in the Alawite coastal communities in the late 1970s, when they started having an active role in trafficking across the Lebanese border. Over the following decades, especially since 2011, the term has been acquiring a broader meaning, referring to all those paramilitary and criminal factions siding with the regime (Nakkash, 2013), in order to preserve their economic privileges. To this extent, although it is safe to define the shabbiha and their patterns of recruitment as a predominantly Alawite issue, it is not uncommon to find analogous Sunni groups particularly in Aleppo’s area, and the Berri tribe is a clear example of this possibility.

When the conflict erupted in 2011, the Berri clan–whose leader used to be a member of the Syrian parliament before his assassination by the Free Syrian Army in 2012, as well as other tribal confederations with analogous ties to the regime remained loyal, and set up Sunni shabiha militias to fight for Assad (Salih, op.cit.). To this extent, it is not accidental that the historical centre’s south-eastern edges–where Bab al-Nayrab is located (see n.3 on the map)–became an area of major confrontation between loyalist and opposition forces, suffering both enormous human casualtiesm and massive physical destruction.

Moreover, as Syrian architect and development consultant Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj explains, when president Hafiz al-Assad in the late 1980s managed to garner the loyalty of Aleppo’s bourgeoisie by engaging them in a complex patronage system, urban development featured as a major field of activity in the city[3]. While this development was publicly led, it opened doors for indirect private-public partnership, and economic speculation. Urban Expansion Law 60/1979–then amended with Law 26/2000–had originally set the legal framework to enable the government to expropriate large swathes of agricultural land at the city centre’s edges and to develop infrastructure, while businessmen from the urban bourgeoisie, as well as privileged army officers, had a considerable leeway on brown-field development, and apartment sales. In other words, while maintaining a virtual hegemony on space production and use, the government set the conditions to encourage its clients to invest. Moreover, a wide majority of these lands originally belonged to the rural or peri-urban communities. Thus, while real estate speculation appeased the Aleppine bourgeoisie, it simultaneously disadvantaged the countryside, which was largely disenfranchised by the informal patronage networks, and profoundly disenchanted with the government’s policies.


“We liberated the rural parts of this province. We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn’t. We couldn’t rely on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the revolution to them." (A rebel fighter speaking to Reuters in summer 2012.)

The initial absence of armed confrontations in Aleppo showed that when the conflict erupted in 2011, the city was not inclined to revolt. And, while the countryside rapidly rose against the regime, the urban areas remained neutral and silent. To this extent, one could reasonably argue that the regime’s divisive networks had partially succeeded to foster Aleppo’s scepticism towards the rebellion.

When the rebels found a way through the city, they penetrated the poorer informal areas, where recent rural migrants, who were neglected both by state institutions, and the regime’s patronage, had settled. The fact that they happened to be Sunni was more a consequence of pre-war demographic patterns than of confessional resentment. And, although in some areas, local and foreign "sectarian entrepreneurs" managed to mobilize these group’s confessional identities against the Alawite regime, many of their urban opponents shared the same confessional and social background. The divisive effects of the regime’s patronage were particularly evident at the southern and south-eastern edges of the city centre where extensive physical damage was reported, and where many pro-regime clans, including the Hasnasne, Zeido, Baggara, Berri, and Hamida tribes, engaged in a ruthless strife at the neighbourhood’s scale. For these tribal confederations, the revolution was rather an opportunity to prove their loyalty, and rejuvenate Assad’s need for their support. Eventually, when the opposition managed to conquer loyalist neighbourhoods, where many shabbiha militiamen came from, the strife’s brutality reached its peak.

On the city’s other flank, the western quarters’ wealthier population saw Bashar al-Assad as a keeper of political stability, and a source of economic benefits. Hence, maintaining privilege and securing better access to investment opportunities were the main reasons for western Aleppo’s loyalism. Moreover, the government’s hold on this half of the city had been buttressed with heavy military presence: the Air Defence Base, the Air Force Intelligence base, the Military Intelligence base, the Military Academy, and the Artillery base are all located, from north to south, on the west of the Citadel.

To conclude, urban-rural dichotomy, sectarianism, tribal loyalties, and socio-economic cleavages all interact in Aleppo’s war geography. The latter mirrors both the complexity of the Assad regime’s power practices, and a broader set of local grievances that the civil war brought to the surface. Although Aleppo represents a rather particular case, it is neither unique nor exceptional. Further socio-spatial research, however, is needed in order to understand the conflict’s social roots, and how they were spatially reflected in different urban areas. Each Syrian city is fractured along multiple lines, and has its own history of many narratives, where traditional loyalties, entangled power practices, foreign interests, and people’s emotions all exert their divisive effects on the urban prism. Understanding how these socio-spatial patterns intertwine with both pre-conflict urban development, and the war-generated fragmentation will be a key issue to address for any future discussion about reconstruction.

[1] Interview with Thierry Grandin, French architect living and working in Aleppo since the early 1980s.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Skype interview with Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, urban planning expert and development consultant for The Common Space Initiative (Beirut, Lebanon), originally from Aleppo. 

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