For Rebel Fight in #Syrian City, Baking Bread Is Urgent Task
ALEPPO, Syria — Just before sunrise, a select group of Syrian rebel fighters steps away from the front lines here for a task their commanders now consider a vital and urgent part of the war effort: baking bread.
A line to buy bread in the town of Aldana, near Aleppo, in northern Syria. Armed rebels help to keep order at some bakeries.
The floppy moons that they produce, pita to Americans, usually go quickly to hungry residents and rebels. Bread is a mainstay of the Syrian diet — it accompanies every meal — and in a city paralyzed by two weeks of war, the bakery lines show that basic commerce has become a battleground of its own.
“The regime has tried to deprive our supporters of water and gas, and now they are using bread,” said Basheer al-Hajeh, a member of Al Tawheed Brigade, one of the main rebel militias in Aleppo. But he said the rebels had learned how to fight back against the government’s attempts to keep bread and other resources out of opposition-controlled areas.
“We took control of the wheat warehouses in Aleppo’s suburbs,” he said. “We have many of them, in several areas, and they might keep us supplied for weeks.”
The struggle to keep bakeries operating is part of a much larger fight over the Syrian economy, especially in Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub and its largest city. As the government of President Bashar al-Assad tries to project an image of normalcy, denying reports of runaway inflation, rebels say they are finding new ways to attract support from the business class and siphon off government resources.
Kamal Hamdan, a Lebanese economist who has worked extensively in Syria, said both sides were engaged in efforts to replace the peacetime economy with wartime alternatives.
“They are expecting a civil war that will take a long time and you have to sustain the daily life of the areas you are controlling,” he said. “It’s part of the game.”
The government has a clear advantage. Its Central Bank reported foreign currency assets of about $17 billion, one month after the conflict started. According to an investment consultant in the capital, Damascus, the government now appears to be asking Russia for loans to continue propping up the economy. Many analysts also suspect that the Syrians have found a way to sell oil, despite sanctions from Europe.
But after 17 months of conflict, the opposition is becoming more and more creative. In Damascus, for example, activists say there are merchants that pretend to support Mr. Assad, only to funnel government-supplied cooking fuel, gasoline, bread and water to the other side.
“We ask them not to defect,” said Moaz, an opposition activist in Damascus. “They will be rewarded later.” Like others interviewed, he would not give his full name for fear of retribution.
Rebels are also managing to create supply chains that route around government-controlled areas with the help of private businesses. In interviews, rebel commanders and opposition activists declined to name their corporate supporters, or to discuss assistance from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but they said the homegrown assistance came in many forms.
In some cases, merchants donate money. In others, they said, business owners support the families of rebel fighters or opposition supporters, in one case 50 families at once. And especially in Aleppo this week, more immediate acts of generosity have emerged, with fresh food suddenly appearing for those in need.
One woman, a dentist who supports the opposition, said she recently helped distribute plates of schwarma, a local grilled meat dish, to 900 displaced people in five schools near a contested area of southwest Aleppo.
As is often the case in war, food has become almost as important as bullets. Aleppo has grown especially desperate. Several videos posted online now refer to a food crisis, and some confirm that bakeries there have become opposition outposts, with long, loud lines snaking around corners as armed rebels keep order, telling customers that they are only paying what is needed to cover bakery expenses.
Abu Mohammed, a rebel baker in eastern Aleppo, said that skirmishes sometimes break out among customers, especially when there is not enough to go around. But his squad — seven to nine rebels baking and distributing bread — try to feed who they can and make sure no one gets preferential treatment, he said.
Mr. Hajeh, the militia member and a spokesman for the main rebel unit in Aleppo, said that top leaders have already appointed someone to run all the city’s rebel-controlled bakeries, arranging grain deliveries and baker schedules. There is now at least one rebel-run bakery in every neighborhood of rebel control, he said. Usually, there are two or three.
“What we do is open the bakery with the owners’ consent and our own people bake the bread,” he said.
Other basic needs have been harder to manage. The rebels said they provide water to some areas, filling tanker trucks from wells outside the city, but milk is essentially unavailable. Gas prices have tripled to about $11 per gallon. Diesel prices and the cost of cooking fuel have skyrocketed, according to residents and black market sellers, while vegetable prices have also spiked.
Cucumber prices have more than doubled. “We try and help with other goods, but we don’t have a lot of capacity,” Mr. Hajeh said.
Major businesses in Aleppo are suffering as well. Mr. Hamdan, the Lebanese economist, said that Aleppo usually accounted for about 30 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product, slightly less than Damascus. But these days in Aleppo trade has essentially come to a standstill.
Several factory owners said in interviews that their exports have dropped to practically nothing. Abu Abdu, 60, who owns a textile factory in Aleppo with about 55 employees, said 2011 was his worst year in five decades of business. And 2012, he said, will probably be worse.
A garrulous Sunni who began working in his father’s factory as a teenager, he said his own views on the conflict have changed with his fortunes. Like many other merchants, he described himself as apolitical, so when the unrest started, the future seemed headed for a version of the past: in the 1980s, the government of Mr. Assad’s father violently crushed an Islamist revolt in Syria, killing thousands of people.
But over time, he said he has begun to question the government’s strength. “In the 1980s, no one in the country or the world knew what was going on with the military crackdown, but today the media and satellite channels are broadcasting and showing the live photos of the military operations,” he said.
As a result, he said, the rebels have been tougher to portray as defeated. “President Bashar al-Assad made big promises that everything will be finished in days, then in weeks, then in months,” he said. “But today, here we are after a year and half and we see and hear the same false words and statements.”
Other upper- and middle-class residents described similar conversions. Many residents of Aleppo now say Mr. Assad’s enemies will multiply every day he keeps up the fight, creating more unemployment, more displacement and more hunger in a city whose business is business.
“I was supporting him because I was looking to him as a moderate, secular and liberal leader, but that was until I saw his crimes in Dara’a, Homs, Hama, Dier al-Zour and now in my city, and against my relatives,” said Abu Fadi, 45, who owns a failing travel agency in Aleppo.
“With his crimes,” Mr. Fadi said, “he is buying a one-way ticket out of the country.”
Source: The New York Times