It has been ongoing since March 13: Wednesday marked one month of the blockade imposed by the Syrian government on the Kurdish-majority districts of Aleppo, Sheikh Maqsoud and al-Ashrafiyyah.
The intent is to subdue them by hunger: for over 30 days, the fourth division of the Syrian army has been preventing the population, 200,000 people, from receiving food supplies.
“Residents are searched at checkpoints and those caught bringing food into the neighborhood are arrested,” says Tiziano, an Italian volunteer in northeastern Syria. “Several trucks and cars with food supplies owned by shopkeepers have already been seized, and because of the scarcity of flour, bakeries are unable to work, causing bread shortages.”
In the middle of Ramadan, the sacred month of Islam, in the second largest city of the country and among the oldest in the world, the “capital of the North,” the ghosts of the recent past are returning. Not in the form of bombings, like those that disfigured its ancient beauty and starved its population during the brutal years of the Syrian civil war, the years of the extremely destructive battle between the Syrian government on one side and the Islamist and Al-Qaedist militias on the other. But hunger is just around the corner, and it’s already arriving.
“There are three gates to enter Sheikh Maqsoud: Ashrafiyeh, Awared and Maghsalat al-Jazira,” continues Tiziano. “For two months now, the Syrian government has been opening and closing them intermittently to trade and residents. As a result, the prices of food in the markets have skyrocketed: one liter of oil costs 15,000 liras.”
All in a country where the average monthly salary – in the public sector – does not exceed 100,000 liras; where, according to UN data, 80% of the population lives in poverty; and where inflation in recent months has reached peaks of 300%, due to a mix of currency devaluation, international sanctions and failure to rebuild the country’s economic networks.
While in Sheikh Maqsoud and al-Ashrafiyyah the intermittent closures have been a part of life for three years, this time tensions began to mount at the beginning of March, with increased controls at government checkpoints: after Damascus arbitrarily imposed a limit of 150,000 liras for those entering and leaving the two districts, a student was sentenced to three months in prison when he was found with 300,000 liras on him.
On March 13 came the embargo: “On the next day, the 14th, the regime’s soldiers tried to confiscate a sugar truck entering the city,” Tiziano recounts. “The owner refused and forced the blockade. The soldiers opened fire, the self-defense forces of the neighborhood fired back: one Syrian soldier died, two were wounded.”
A month later, with the prices of basic necessities having tripled, people are trying to fight back. On April 9, in Aleppo, thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the blockade: they marched up to the borders of the two districts, chanting slogans including “No to the siege,” and “No to the politics of hunger.”
At the Jizre checkpoint, the microphone went to one of the members of the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood committee, Ali al-Hasan, who made a fiery speech pointing out the role that Kurds and Arabs have played against jihadist militias during the years of war: “These two neighborhoods protected Aleppo and its palace, it was thanks to the resistance of our people that Aleppo didn’t fall.”
“Just like the people of the district resisted against the invasion of the mercenaries of the Turkish state in 2016,” says Yasmin Idlibi, a young Arab woman, “we are resisting against the embargo today. We are all Syrians, we have the right to ask the government to answer for its faults.”
At the opposite end of the northern territory, the Asaysh, the internal self-defense forces of the northeastern Syrian Autonomous Administration, also took action in support of the protests: in a measure to apply pressure against the government, they blocked the road leading to Qamishlo airport, under Russian control, and took over the al-Ba’ath bakery in the “capital” city of Rojava, the one that supplies the Syrian military forces and merchants working in the government-controlled area.
“In Aleppo, the main problem is that the regime has seized all the transports of flour that go to the popular bakeries for the distribution of bread,” Tiziano explains. “Five days ago, the seven bakeries in the neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud ran out of supplies and closed. The Autonomous Administration is putting pressure on the regime by blocking the al-Ba’ath bakery in Qamishlo and the one in the Mahatta district in Hasakah, which supply the bases of the militias, the army and the districts controlled by Damascus.”
This is a repeat of the strategy used in 2021: against a similar blockade of Sheikh Maqsoud, the Asaysh responded by surrounding Syrian government positions in Qamishlo and Hasakah. Damascus eventually lifted the blockade.
The background of the conflict is the reality that arose during the years of civil war in Sheikh Maqsoud and al-Ashrafiyyah: with the collapse of the state and the realization in Rojava of the project of democratic confederalism theorized by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, an autonomous administration shared by different ethnic groups and confessions was born.
And it has not remained confined to the cantons with a Kurdish majority: in Aleppo, the two districts are managed on the same model, led by popular councils, and defended by the Kurdish Ypg and Asaysh units.
As the march reaches Anha, Ibrahim Etalah, an Arab, stresses this fact as he takes up the microphone: “Arabs, Kurds and Christians are living in peace in these districts, as part of the project of the brotherhood of peoples. The decisive factor against the embargo is our common resistance.”
For Damascus, this self-management and internal self-defense represent an obstacle to their regaining total control over the second Syrian city, which hasn’t been under full government control since 2012. This is not unique to Aleppo: many cities are now “divided” between different forces and agendas.