The business elite that matters, at curtain fall, is that of Damascus and Aleppo. To date, both of them have been pro-regime although ironically it was the elite of both cities that suffered most from the Baath Party when it came to power in 1963. Historically speaking, however, both cities can make or break any political movement—but rarely have they ever been part of anything that threatens their stability and commercial interests.
Let us not forget that Damascus very unwillingly joined the revolt of 1925, and when it did, suffered punishment greater than that of all other Syrian cities combined. It was shelled continuously for 48-hours and entire neighborhoods were set ablaze and looted. Aleppo for that matter was not even part of the Syrian Revolt of 1925. And to be fair to history, although we make reference to the “Aleppo Revolt” in history books, it was the suburbs of Aleppo that revolted against the French in 1919. Aleppo itself remained silent.
In Damascus, the merchants used to moan and groan whenever political parties, or youth movements, called on them to close down their shops for anti-government protests. Simply put, as far as the businessmen were concerned, all that meant was “money lost.” Many merchants would refuse to close, regardless of popular consent, and demonstrators would famously chant: “Saker ya Arsa Saker.” Roughly, that translates into “Close down O’ Pimp. Close down.” That mentality still prevails in the old bazaars of Damascus and in the new posh and trendy corporate culture that has mushroomed around banks, insurance companies, advertising and media firms all over the Syrian capital.
Today, the business elite of both cities is seemingly adamant about not being part of the street demonstrations that have erupted in most towns and villages around the country. That will likely remain the case due to the business interests of Damascus and Aleppo, the weight of their clerics (who are allied to the state), along with the political, social, and economic interests of their notability and business community.
In many cases, that notability is “new money” and rose to power and fame only after the Baathists came to power in 1963. That is why they have overlapping interests with the political elite and are often allied to them by business partnerships and marriage. The silence of both cities, however, won’t last for too long, for three different reasons.
1) Unemployment: The moment rising unemployment kicks in, young people will take to the streets in both Damascus and Aleppo, regardless of what city elders tell them. Many young people already jobless since March, and if the stalemate continues for another month, they could start finding themselves penniless as well.
2) Lack of Community Leaders: Back in the 1980s, community leaders like Ahmad Kaftaro (the Grand Mufti) and Bader al-Din al-Shallah (doyen of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce) used their heavyweight influence to pacify angry citizens in Damascus. People respected them, listened to them, and often carried out their orders with no questions asked. When Shallah asked shopkeepers to break the Damascus strike of 1982, they immediately answered his call. Today there are no community leaders with similar clout and standing in Damascus and Aleppo.
3) Demographics: Damascus, more so than Aleppo, is a melting pot for all Syrians. It is packed with people from rural Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Hama, Idlib, and rural Idlib. It is those people who are likely to demonstrate in Damascus, rather than the Damascenes themselves, and those people, naturally, do not take their orders from the business community of Damascus.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.