BEIRUT: Large parts of Aleppo’s historic souk smoldered Sunday after a fire sparked by clashes between government and opposition forces a day earlier ravaged the UNESCO world heritage site. The souk’s devastation prompted an outpouring of anger from residents frustrated with the cost of a revolution they say is destroying Syria’s rich cultural and historical legacy as well as the lives of its 22.5 million people.
The 18-month uprising, which began with peaceful protests, has morphed into a violent insurgency. So far both sides have failed to gain the upper hand and up to 30,000 people have been killed, according to activist groups.
A black plume of smoke hung over the ancient market quarter Sunday. Shopkeepers could only look as the inferno ripped through textile and perfumery sections of the market, ravaging family businesses dating back generations.
“I inherited my store from my father,” one shopkeeper told an AFP journalist in the city. “I have worked here for more than 40 years. I never imagined this would happen.
“I feel paralyzed. This is a dirty war, and we are the ones losing out.”
The market – Souk al-Madina – comprises a network of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades and was once a major tourist attraction and a busy cosmopolitan trading hub on the ancient Silk Road from China.
Its many narrow alleys have a combined length of 13 km, making it the largest covered market in the world, and it sells everything from soap to jewelery to clothing.
The fire started in the early hours Saturday during clashes in circumstances that remain unclear.
Activists told The Daily Star the fire was caused by government forces using incendiary bullets to attack rebels positioned at the entrance to the souk during a major offensive in the city that started late Thursday.
The flames spread rapidly, partly because many of the small retail units tucked beneath the market’s ancient arches were full of fabric, and have now ravaged at least 1,500 shops and are still burning, activists said.
“The Free Syrian Army were positioned at the entrance to the souk. The regime started shelling and that’s what caused the fire,” activist Mohammad Saeed said via Skype from Aleppo.
He acknowledged public anger over the devastation.
“I don’t deny that people are angry, but they know that this is the regime’s doing,” he said.
Activists and fighters have described fighting moving street to street to neighborhoods across the city. Residents complain the presence of rebels attracts a violent response from government forces, with civilians suffering the brunt of the violence.
“They [FSA] don’t have any kind of strategy that I can see,” said one resident who asked not to be named.
“We don’t want the regime but we don’t want to die. I just want one of them to finish it, either the regime or the FSA, and return to our normal lives.”
“They are putting civilians in danger. It’s the civilians who have nowhere to go.”
Some anti-government activists expressed anger toward their own fighters for taking up positions in the old city. “We all know that this is a criminal regime and it will do anything,” said one activist who also declined to be named. “That is why the fighters had no business being in the souk. Why did they go there?”
But others defended the rebels’ behavior and said FSA fighters had worked to extinguish the fire.
“For all those asking why the fighters are in the Old City, we say we have only entered to liberate it,” Yasser, an activist from the city, told AFP.
There were more heavy clashes in Aleppo Sunday, with rebels saying they had attacked the Neirab military air base.
They also reported fighting in Arkoub, east of the city, and at Bab Entakia and Salahaddine.
Saeed said fierce clashes were taking place at strategic Al-Jandool, where rebels were poised to take control.
Elsewhere in the country, Syrian state television reported a suicide bomber had killed at least four people in the northern city of Qamishli.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least eight members of the security forces had been killed in the explosion which it said targeted a police station.
Activists also reported fresh clashes in Damascus and at least eight bodies were reported to have been found in the northern suburb of Barzeh. Clashes were also reported to have erupted in some parts of Homs city.
Speaking to a conference of the ruling AK party in Turkey, Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi – who has said he opposes military intervention in Syria – said he favored a diplomatic solution facilitated by the Arab League, the United Nations and individual countries across the world.
He said the Syrian people were being “butchered and killed day and night” and that he fully backed their struggle to overthrow Assad.
“We will not be calm, we will not settle down until this bloodshed stops and until the will of the Syrian people to choose their own leader is realized and until this current oppressive leadership disappears,” he said.
“This oppressive regime is spilling the people’s blood and the Syrian people must gain full liberty.”