The largest demonstrations held in Syria’s second city, Aleppo, since the beginning over a year ago of the revolutionary movement in that country, were held on Friday. In part, they were provoked by the brutality of regime troops toward student protesters at the university in Aleppo on Thursday. The Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad responded with tear gas and batons, and there were some injuries reported. Tens of thousands of people came out in the streets in other cities as well on Friday in a continued effort to topple the regime.
Aleppo is a city of about 2 million (roughly the size of Houston) in a country of about 22 million, and is the most populous urban area (the capital, Damascus, has slightly fewer people but is obviously more politically important). About 12 percent of the population of Aleppo is Christian, and it has Kurds among its Sunni Muslims.
Because the Syrian Christians had been fearful of Muslim extremists coming to power if al-Assad were overthrown, they haven’t been active in the revolt for the most part. (Some of the Christians there are refugees from Iraq, who have horror stories of what happens to Christians when a secular ruling party like the Baath is overthrown, and they have helped induce caution in their coreligionists in Syria and Lebanon). And many Sunni business families in Aleppo, of a secular bent, had the same fears.
But if the regime is going to send uniformed thugs onto the college campus and rough up their children, the Aleppines can be provoked. And they were, on Friday.
If Aleppo continues to turn against the regime, it is a perhaps fatal blow to the Baath. Eventually Damascus itself is likely to be radicalized, and once the capital turns on its government, it is hard for the President to avoid being put on a helicopter. That development still does require that the officer corps split or remain neutral, which is difficult in Syria because the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, commands the tank corps. A coup against Maher by a combination of reformist Allawite junior officers and Sunni colleagues would probably be necessary to achieve that result. (The upper echelons of the Baath civilian and military elite is disproportionately drawn from the Allawite Shiite majority, about 10% of the Syrian population). [++]