AMMAN (Reuters) - Since protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government erupted 11 months ago, the ancient Silk Road city of Aleppo, with its leafy streets and faded, old-world hotels, has been spared serious violence.
The uprising spread again to Syria’s main commercial hub on Friday as one person was killed in fighting near Aleppo and demonstrations erupted within the key metropolis that had until recently remained largely on the sidelines.
Overnight shelling of the town of Anadan, a few km (miles) from Aleppo, killed one man and wounded five others after insurgents and army defectors attacked roadblocks manned by loyalist troops. Rebels in Tel Rifaat, another town to the north, blocked the main highway to Turkey.
Residents in several neighborhoods inside Aleppo reported hearing gunfire. Assad loyalist militiamen, known as ‘shabbiha’, fired at random overnight in the Hananu neighborhood as the refrain “God is great” echoed from houses in defiance of security forces who deployed in the area after growing pro-democracy demonstrations this week.
Syrian state media did not comment on the Aleppo unrest, which may be another sign that the revolt against 42 years of Assad family rule is spreading to Syria’s main city centers. The activists’ reports are difficult to verify as foreign media access is restricted.
“Protests are now regular in Aleppo outside the walls of the old city,” a woman teacher who works at a private school said.
“There is no petrol or heating oil and the discontent is spreading. Previously we would hear of scattered protests only in the university and in poor districts but now middle class areas are moving.”
Najdat, another activist, said “relative constraint” exercised by Assad’s forces since the start of the uprising so as not to enrage Aleppo’s inhabitants appears to be fading.
“Previously they would arrest people and let them go after a couple of days. As the demonstrations slowly gathered pace, beatings became more common. Now they are using live ammunition,” he said.
Aleppo, Syria’s second city situated near the border with Turkey, has stayed mostly on the sidelines in the uprising.
The once cosmopolitan hub, famous as the culinary capital of the Middle East, played an important role in world economic history, intermediating commercially between East and West and supplying goods to Europe.
Its importance waned with the Ottoman invasion in the 16th century, plunging it into a spiral of decline when Assad’s Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup, nationalized the economy and drove the established merchant families and most of its vibrant Armenian and Christian trading community outside the country.
The city’s economy had improved in the last several years as Assad signed trade agreements with Turkey, helping to placate its mostly conservative population.
But commercial activity plummeted when tensions rose with Turkey as it became increasingly critical of Assad’s crackdown. Economic agreements between the two sides effectively have been frozen, damaging Aleppo’s emerging business class.
Months of relative calm in Aleppo were shattered when shabbiha militiamen killed at least 10 people after pro-democracy demonstrations erupted last week in the city which, together with adjoining towns, has a population of several million people, activists said.
The killings, the deadliest in the city during the 11-month uprising, happened in the tribal Marjeh neighborhood after security forces fired at a rally demanding Assad’s removal, they said.
Some activists said those killed were all demonstrators while others said most were killed in clashes that followed the shooting on the protest.
Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, had used a carrot-and-stick approach to placate Sunni merchants, who have has seen their status undermined by the rise of a young group of businessmen related to, or connected with, Bashar since he inherited power in 2000
Bashar strived to prevent upheaval in the city. He spent a week in Aleppo shortly before the uprising erupted in March, replaced the municipal council and was shown frequently on state media with Ahmad Hassoun, the state-appointed Mufti, whom authorities consider to be the highest Muslim religious authority.
Hassoun is from Aleppo. His son was assassinated three months ago, with the authorities blaming “terrorists” for the killing. Other government-appointed clerics and the city’s influential Sunni Muslim merchant class have maintained ties with Assad, who is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
“The difference between Aleppo and the rest of Syria is that Hassoun and the other clerics have remained quiet, and that the shabbiha the regime has recruited are actually Sunnis from the city, not Alawites,” one businessman in the city said.
Editing by Michael Roddy