ISTANBUL — In an unheated apartment in Istanbul, Mohammed Sahsoun, a businessman who fled the fighting in Syria, has set up a tiny garment factory. Here, on a chilly day, Mr. Sahsoun and the other proprietors of the shop welcomed a 32-year-old exiled trader from Aleppo with cigarettes and cups of sweet tea.
The guest is a former supplier. When Syria was at peace, his family sold Mr. Sahsoun and other garment makers denim fabric imported from China. At its peak, it was a $7.5 million-a-year business that now has been all but wiped out by the fighting.
“The war will go on for 10 years at least,” said Mr. Sahsoun. “We hate violence and we hate the two sides who are creating it in equal measure.”
Only a half-decade after Iraqi businessmen fled civil war in their country, a second exodus is depleting another stronghold of Mesopotamian enterprise. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a key hub on the old Silk Road, is the country’s industrial and commercial turbine. It is home to three million people and 30,000 industrial sites, from textile mills and pharmaceutical factories to small businesses, and it accounts for more than a third of Syria’s industrial output.
Those numbers were valid, of course, before the war to depose President Bashar al-Assad ensnared a city known — wrongly, many contend — as a pillar of the regime. Today, Aleppo’s factories are operating at a fraction of their peacetime capacity and their owners have gone along with their fortunes. They may return once the killing stops, as many Iraqis have done or, like previous generations of Levantine refugees, they may settle down with their riches far away.
“You cannot separate politics from economics,” said Mr. Sahsoun. “We were harassed by the regime. Policemen would extort us. Cronies of the government would crowd us out of the best deals. But we endured until the war reached our homes.”
Aleppo’s rich industrialists, at once respected and resented for their wealth, acumen and association with the ruling dynasty established four decades ago by Bashar’s father, Hafez, have long been regarded as a unique species of Syrian. The city’s centuries-old souk, much of which has become a casualty of the war, is in many ways the still-beating heart of commerce thanks to the resourcefulness of its merchant class.
Ancient Greeks developed Aleppo for its proximity to the Mediterranean to the west and the land bridge linking the Hellenic world to the spice markets and silk weavers of Asia. It served as the Ottoman Empire’s industrial belt just as Damascus, with its gold reserves that backed the imperial coin, was its financial center. Like so many other Arab city-states in the Ottoman era, Aleppo was a thriving complex of different religions, ethnicities and tribes. As late as the early 1980s, when Syria’s per-capita gross domestic product was higher than Turkey’s and on par with South Korea’s, Aleppan textiles were prized among the clothiers and fashion houses of Europe for their quality and affordability.
Back then, Aleppo’s industry was dominated by a handful of large families. Their patriarchs predated the Assad dynasty, which they quietly accommodated just as their forebears did the Ottomans, Mongols and Seleucids. Since the elevation of Bashar al-Assad as president after his father’s death in 2000, however, their authority has diminished. Over the last decade, a cabal of regime hangers-on have staked their claim to the city’s economy at the expense of established oligarchs as well as cottage industrialists.
Mr. Sahsoun knows well the intrusive reach of Aleppo’s nouveaux riches. A few years ago he wanted to expand his business portfolio by importing medical equipment. A well-connected colleague advised him against such a move as a friend of the Assad family wanted to monopolize the sector. Undaunted, he applied for an import license only to be denied it for lacking the proper paperwork that was never clearly defined.
“The regime created a whole class of super-rich businessmen,” said Waleed Fakhouri, an Aleppan who remains active in the Syrian resistance even as he lies low in Istanbul. “They include members of Parliament and the relatives of powerful clerics. And once the fighting reached Aleppo they all fled for Dubai and Cairo.”
Those who remained did so at their peril. Either the regime squeezed them to help cover the costs of war or the rebels, desperate for resources and angered at the income disparity that widened in tandem with economic liberalization, targeted them for ransom. At the current rate of exchange, a kidnapped Aleppo merchant can fetch the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars. A prominent businessman, Mohammed Maher al Malah, for example, was recently released only after his captors were paid 5 million Syrian pounds, or about $70,000. Factories have been burned and small-scale business owners have been murdered for not respecting rebel calls for a general strike. Reprisal killings are becoming routine.
“The situation in Syria is so confusing,” said Mazen Kelab, one of Mr. Sahsoun’s business partners. “There is regime terrorism on one side and extremist terrorism from the Islamists on the other. We can’t go back now. If we did we’d face death. Today it is your neighborhood that gets destroyed. Tomorrow it is mine.”
The trader visiting Mr. Sahsoun described his troubles in Aleppo with a group of guerrilla fighters. “They demanded a million Syrian pounds from me and I refused,” he said. “So they threatened to kill me and now I’m here. This is the way of Aleppo today. Rich businessmen are kidnapped and held for ransom. The rebels say it’s to raise money to buy weapons. Sometimes that’s true and sometimes it’s not.”
Prior to the rebels’ summer assault on loyalist-held Aleppo, Mr. Sahsoun, 52, employed nearly 200 workers in a garment factory he opened 26 years earlier with $12,000 in seed money. In a good year he had revenue of more than $1 million, with a profit margin of 20 percent. After a free-trade agreement with Turkey failed to give Syrian producers access to European markets, Mr. Sahsoun refocused on buyers in Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Between 2004 and 2008 he enjoyed record sales.
In July, when fighting broke out in his neighborhood in Aleppo’s old city, he and his family fled “with only some cash and the clothes on our backs.”
Within a few months, Mr. Sahsoun had raised about $100,000 in working capital from buyers, enough to rent an apartment in Istanbul’s Merkez Efendi district and buy nine second-hand sewing machines and an industrial fabric cutter. The factory employs eight workers, all exiles from Aleppo, and produces children’s garments. The factory has no name, but buyers know the address. Every few days they send trucks to pick up a shipment of clothes and deliver them to shops and bazaars in Amman, Baghdad and Riyadh.
“Ultimately, we want to recreate here what we built in Aleppo,” Mr. Sahsoun said. “If we fail we’ll move to Europe or the U.S. I’ve worked in a factory all my life. What else would I do?”