BEIRUT: Suleimanieh Street in the northern Syria city of Aleppo was empty three hours after the bombing attack Sunday, except for the Shabbiha. The explosion, just 300 meters away, rocked George’s house. The walls shook. Glass was blown from windows nearby. George watched from the balcony as ambulances screamed toward the bomb site. Smoke rose high into the sky. Unable to go out for fear of being recorded, it was only later that George crept from his home to survey the damage.
Not a single policeman or army uniform was in sight. Instead, plainclothes Shabbiha, in jeans and jackets, Kalashnikovs in hand, watched from positions on corners. They had cordoned off the surrounding streets, ushering curious onlookers away.
Beyond them was the scar. The charcoaled car, packed with 200 kilograms of explosives, according to state media, had been moved. Above, where the force had blown out walls and windows from a residential building, symbols of domestic life were crudely exposed to the street below.
Sunday’s blast, apparently targeting a government security building in the Christian quarter of Suleimanieh, killed three people. It was the second time Aleppo had been targeted by large scale bomb attacks. On Feb. 9, two powerful car bombs exploded outside the security headquarters minutes apart, killing 28 and wounding over 230.
Residents and analysts say Syria’s second city Aleppo is on the brink. The country’s business headquarters, it is home to Syria’s merchants, who, closely aligned to the government, have profited from the lucrative trade association with nearby Turkey. It is also home to a substantial minority Christian population and has proved a reliable bastion of support.
But a deterioration of general law and order has been accompanied by a steady increase in protests and armed clashes on the city’s outskirts.
George, a Christian, says Aleppo no longer feels safe.
He adds that theft, kidnappings and random violence are on the rise. In December, an acquaintance was shot by an “unknown gunman” in an inner city suburb.
“Until December we felt a bit removed from this. There was an attitude that ... the problems were not ours. Now, everyone wants to leave,” he adds.
“[Before my friend was shot], I had sympathy for the pain that people were suffering in other cities, but experiencing it ourselves was totally different,” he explains.
George says Aleppo residents have gone one of two ways: “Either you cling to the regime for protection ... or become more determined that the regime must go.”
A friend, H, told George he wanted to get his wife and daughters out.
“The security situation is not good. He said he would leave if he knew he could afford to start again from scratch,” George says. That was the day before the explosion.
George adds that he has the sense that Christian support is waning.
“The constant presence of the Shabbiha is an irritation,” he says. “A lot of people support the regime but they don’t like these people. They are not the army, not the police ... who are they to tell me what I can and can’t do?”
“They walk around with guns, ordering people where to go ... that doesn’t make me feel safe.”
On Feb. 9, Shabbiha gunmen reportedly shot and critically wounded a 10-year-old boy accidentally amid heightened tensions following dual car bomb attacks in the center of the city. The little boy is still in hospital, with a bullet in his spine.
A government civil worker relates his work conditions.
“Whenever there is something going on in the city, you don’t see people in the office. They are out on the streets, with guns,” he says. “I see them out ‘on duty’ during work hours.”
Kidnapping is also rife.
“We are hearing about kidnappings almost every day, and the police are unable to do anything to stop it,” says George. “They are not even getting involved sometimes ... when you go to the police to report about a kidnapping they are telling you to negotiate with them!”
George believes the spate of bombings in Aleppo is designed to scare the Christian community: “You definitely hear more criticism rising among Christians. People are just fed up.”
Reports from Aleppo could not be independently verified.
Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma and publisher of the Syria Comment blog believes Sunday’s bombing represents a significant shift for the city and a change in tactics by the armed opposition movement.
Rash and disorganized, he says, the armed opposition were overrun in Homs and Idlib and necessarily “had to go back to the drawing board.”
Convinced Sunday’s bombing was the work of opposition groups, although unlikely coordinated by the any organized opposition like the Syrian National Council, he says the use of guerilla tactics is a significant shift.
“We’re going to see them resort to hit and runs, suicide bombings, IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and guerilla tactics,” he adds.
Sowing discord, he says, will “force the regime to respond in a way that will alienate them from the population, like we saw in Homs.”
Protests are now weekly occurrences in the poorer districts of al-Marjeh, Firdos, Salaheddine and Anadan, outside Aleppo.
“It’s not reported on the television, but everyone knows everything is not fine,” says George.
Tensions were thrown into sharp relief when Shabbiha forces raided the Kalamoon university, violently dispersing anti-regime protests on the grounds and beating students in a series of protests in April and November.
Arriving in the area roughly two weeks ago, Free Syrian Army members have been engaged in clashes with army members in the Atareb, Hreitan and Azaz regions outside Aleppo.
“A lot of the people came to Aleppo from these cities,” says George.
Others came from rebel-held areas of Idlib after they came under a shelling assault by Syrian forces this month.
Landis says the opposition “cannot afford for Aleppo and Damascus to get out of this revolution.”
“The regime is hoping they can keep this a poor man’s uprising. ... The opposition is ... not going to let that happen.”