Restive Aleppo remains focus for Syrian opposition to Assad regime

Rebellion continues in the northern Syria city of Aleppo even after a "long hot summer" of repression there, travelers from the city say. They add that the inauguration of a friendship treaty with Moscow early in October by Syria's President Hafez Assad is not likely to help appease his many critics in Aleppo and elsewhere -- rather, it is likely to fuel more complaints.

These critics are spearheaded by a group of three or four banned parties working underground to return Syria to strict observance of Islamic rule.

Collectively known as the Ikhwan (Brotherhood), these groups are each firmly based in one of Syria's important northern cities. Residents of the cities, overwhelmingly Sunni (orthodox) Muslim in allegiance, support the Ikhwan's defense of their interests against the minority Alawites, who control the government in Damascus.

Many of the Ikhwan groups include well-trained urban commando units, armed with rockets and all sorts of light arms, which have assassinated scores of regime supporters over the past two years.

Early this summer, the government indicated that it was going to launch a crackdown to weed out the rebels. By then, the rebels were trying down a large proportion of the Army's elite paratroop units in security operations. This seriously damaged President Assad's prestige among his neighbors.

More restrictions were placed on foreigners visiting Syria, and deployment of the security forces in the recalcitrant cities was stepped up.

One informant from Aleppo reports that the number of security personnel in that city (population just under 1 million) rose to 100,000, and still remains at about that level.

Many of those units are auxiliary police or intelligence personnel. But the total also includes 15,000 members of Syria's elite special-unit commandos, whose original purpose was to confront the Israelis on the Golan Heights.

The security forces are firmly based in Aleppo's striking Roman citadel compound, and in tent camps, requisitioned schools, and public buildings surrounding the ancient trading city, the informant said.

But he reported that even now, the security units cannot freely enter most of the city, including its sprawling oriental markets and the majority of its residential districts. For those who do, the Ikhwan's guerrilla units lie in wait, ready to attack despite the consequences for their friends and protectors.

The security forces' retaliation to such killings over the summer has often been swift and harsh, travelers from Aleppo say.

On the first day of the Muslim Fitr feast in mid-August, the special-unit commandos cordoned off a whole road in the al-Mashara district after one of their patrols had been ambushed there. All male residents between the ages of 20 and 60, some 85 in all, were led into a side street and shot with machine guns, the travelers from Aleppo report.

This reported mass-killing followed another, on a slightly lesser scale, during July, near the Maisaloun School, they added.

Analysts familiar with developments inside Syria say that Aleppo, which is only 35 miles from the relative haven of the Turkish border, has continued to support the rebels, while the rebellion has been damped down in other Syrian cities.

But they say that Mr. Assad still has not found a political solution to his problem, which would involve finding Sunni Muslim leaders of some stature in their community willing to cooperate with his regime.

Nor could the Ikhwan, at the moment at least, provide an alternative to Mr. Assad's 10-year Baath Party rule. The Ikhwan has no program addressing the country's manifold social and economic problems, but concentrates solely on issues of religious observance.

Mr. Assad might be hoping, by means of his treaty with the Soviets, to enlist the political support of Syria's numerous but largely silent leftists. But many of these have long been disillusioned with Moscow and still prefer to cooperate with the right-wing Ikhwan to bring down the Assad regime.

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