A Bread Shortage Is the First Big Test of a Transitional Council in Aleppo

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GAZIANTEP, Turkey -- Jalal al-Khanji, the closest thing the Syrian city of Aleppo has to a mayor, hopes to organize elections there within two weeks, but he fears that residents with empty stomachs are in no mood for an experiment in democracy.

Since late November, bread has been scarce, with a lack of fuel and flour shutting most bakeries in Aleppo.

"We cannot hold elections while people are hungry; we have to solve that problem first," he said in an interview in this southern Turkish city, where many leaders of Aleppo's civil society have sought refuge. "People are angry, frustrated and depressed. They can understand how countries like France and Britain and the United States might hold back on the issue of weapons, but not on the issue of bread and diesel."

The revolution that erupted across Syria in March 2011 only slowly engulfed Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital. Long after major cities were convulsed by demonstrations, Aleppo's residents still showed up in Gaziantep by the busload every weekend to scour the malls.

The armed struggle for the city began in earnest last July.

In August, the prominent doctors, engineers, pharmacists and businessmen sheltering here established the Aleppo Transitional Revolutionary Council, a kind of city government in exile for the liberated portions of the city. Mr. Khanji, 67, a civil engineer with a long history of opposing the Syrian government, serves as its president.

Dividing their time between Gaziantep and Aleppo, council members found the chaos convulsing their city worrisome. What if all the competing militias on the ground, even if nominally part of the loosely allied Free Syrian Army, continued to fight for the spoils even after the government's forces were driven from the city?

They decided the remedy was an elected council of about 250 members who would run both the city and the province of Aleppo, roughly one representative for every 20,000 people in the liberated areas. The council would choose a smaller group to actually govern the city.

The idea is for the council to serve as a liaison between the military and the civilian populations. "If civilian life is not organized, if we cannot do anything, then the chaos will continue," said a 29-year-old businessman who is also on the transitional council. Several members of the council declined to give their names because they still travel to government-controlled areas.

About 65 percent of the villages have already chosen their representatives, he said, but the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo forced a postponement of the choice of about 150 representatives from the city itself.

The transitional council is in the process of establishing a 500-member police force and runs a few courts, but members view the bread crisis as their first big test. "We represent a civil government to some extent, so if we cannot solve this problem there will be a lack of trust in such rule in the future," said the businessman.

There is also competition. While about 70 percent to 80 percent of the Free Syrian Army commanders in the province have agreed to support the elected council, election organizers said, opponents include jihadi groups hostile to the very idea of democratic elections.

One such prominent group, Jibhat al-Nusra, which the United States sought to ostracize last week by labeling it a terrorist organization, has been distributing bread in and around Aleppo.

"The so-called terrorists are the ones who have been giving us bread and distributing it fairly," said Tamam Hazem, a spokesman in Aleppo's news media center, reached via Skype. "Free Syrian Army battalions have been trying to help, but they just don't have the same kind of experience."

Council members pleaded for outside help to counter the jihadists' efforts. "They are offering bread to people to obtain their sympathy and respect," said Mr. Khanji, the council's president. "Prolonging the Syrian crisis will allow the extremist cells in Syria to grow and become more difficult to remove in the future."

Before the revolution, the Syrian government scattered vast silo complexes around the country, enough to store a five-year strategic wheat supply. But the wheat in the silos that have not been destroyed has disappeared. Transitional council members said they suspected that it was seized by militant Islamist groups or government loyalists, particularly Alawites, the same sect as President Bashar al-Assad, who either sold it abroad or shipped it to the Alawite coastal hinterland in case the final battle for Syria became a siege against that powerful minority.

About one-quarter of Syria's 23 million people live in Aleppo Province, with nearly 3 million in the city of Aleppo itself. The war has made exact statistics on the need for bread hard to assess, but the hundreds of people lining up for five hours and more for bread are testament to the shortage. The few bakeries still running produce enough to satisfy maybe one-quarter of the need, Mr. Khanji said.

The price has shot up from 15 Syrian pounds, about 35 cents, for a bag of about eight flat, pitalike loaves to more than 200 pounds, nearly $3, fluctuating unpredictably "like the stock market," as one resident put it.

Affluent Syrians in Gaziantep, even if they could afford the price, said it was one reason they had fled. A Syrian dentist with a clinic in west Aleppo, still controlled by the government, said people rang his bell at least 10 times a day begging for bread or money.

"Some middle-class people are begging on the streets because their houses are destroyed and they have no work, so they have no money to buy food," said the dentist, declining to use her name because she fears for her safety if she decides to return home.

It is not a problem only in Aleppo. Bread shortages have also been reported across Syria in Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, Idlib, Homs and even the suburbs of Damascus, with YouTube videos showing long lines in various towns.

Razan S. Alsham, an organizer working in Antakya, Turkey, for the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, is trying to raise $10,000 to repair shelling damage to a 12-silo complex in Masakan, a city east of Aleppo, which she said still held enough wheat to feed 500,000 people for 200 days.

A cartoon posted online shows Santa Claus reading a Christmas wish list from Syria that scrolls off into the distance. Every single request is "bread."

While governments and private organizations have donated tens of millions of dollars for food aid, officials said delivering it to northern Syria was enormously difficult, given both the danger and the scale involved. By United Nations estimates, some two and a half million Syrians inside the country need aid and that number could grow to four million next year.

Members of the Aleppo transitional council said the scale required foreign governments to help because the task was too big for nongovernmental organizations.

They are focused on two solutions for the bread crisis. Either ship the fuel and flour needed to run the bakeries (not to mention the hospitals and other institutions) to Aleppo or produce the bread in safer areas near Turkey and transport it south. Both solutions are cumbersome and expensive.

Qatar gave $8 million to help create local councils, and Aleppo's share of that is $1 million. Much of it will be spent on finding a solution to the bread crisis, transitional council members said, as will half of a $5 million donation from private Syrian businessmen in the United Arab Emirates.

Council members said the lack of tangible aid from the West, particularly after a string of visitors had promised to help, was fueling suspicions that Syrians were being deliberately starved. Maybe, they said, Western governments think that Syrians will be more amenable to some sort of compromise that would keep Mr. Assad in place, at least through a transitional period.

"The regime is killing us with shelling," said a top aide to the council's president, declining to use his name because he still returns to government-controlled areas. "While the rest of the world is killing us with hunger, disease and cold. The result is the same."

Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Sebnem Arsu from Kilis, Turkey.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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