Century Foundation fellow Sam Heller returned to Beirut from Syria over the weekend, where he attended a government-backed conference—the first of its kind in years, with Western journalists, analysts and political researchers invited to hear the government’s point of view. He spent a week in Damascus. Century Foundation fellow Thanassis Cambanis talks with Sam about his first impressions.
Thanassis: Welcome back from Syria, Sam. We’re glad to have you back in Beirut. When was the last time you were in Syria prior to this trip?
Sam: I lived in Syria between 2009 and 2010, but I haven’t been back since. I actually left Syria to do a two-year master’s degree in Arabic that would have taken me back to Damascus for its second year—but that was 2011, so that obviously didn’t happen.
Since I turned back full-time to researching Syria in 2013, I’ve devoted most of my time and energy to looking at the Syrian opposition and Syria’s opposition-held areas. What I’ve understood about conditions inside regime-held western Syria, including Damascus, has been filtered through the media or second-hand fragments, from people who travel in and out.
But for all I’ve written about Idlib, I’ve never actually been there. It’s Damascus—and, to a lesser extent, al-Hasakeh in Syria’s east—that reflects my actual, lived experience in Syria. And so it’s good to be back and see the situation in the part of the country I knew best, if only to further ground myself in something real.
Thanassis: What was your first impression on this trip?
Sam: I don’t think this trip necessarily upturned my understanding of conditions inside. But it was useful to see things firsthand and to be able to put some meat on my existing impressions of the functioning of the regime and life in government-held areas.
And this might be shallow, but for me—as an outsider, and as someone who missed the worst years of the war in Damascus in 2013 and 2014—I was struck by how much was the same. The city and the society have obviously been militarized; Damascus is filled with checkpoints and uniformed men. And it seems like everyone, if you ask, has a story of economic hardship, displacement, or the death of friends and family. And yet, even while everything is sort of worse, much of what I knew about Damascus is still there.
Ahmed al-Alaby comforts a neighbor who has lost a close relative in the conflict, outside the family home at a security checkpoint in Damascus’s Old City. Photo: Thanassis Cambanis.
DAMASCUS — The assassins struck the one place they knew Mohammed Ghassan al-Alaby would brave the death threats to visit: his beloved cousin’s grave.
Mohammed and his brothers rarely left the alleys of Damascus’s Old City after al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the murder of their cousin Ihab in the summer of 2012 and swore to kill them, too. The men of the Alaby family stood accused of betraying their sect: They are Sunni Muslims who had refused to join the anti-government uprising and instead were serving as guardsmen in a pro-government neighborhood watch group.
Ever since Ihab had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting, the Alaby brothers had kept a low profile — except for weekly visits to his grave in Bab al-Saghir cemetery, just south of the Old City’s walls.
On the day of the attack, March 8, 2013, Mohammed and his two brothers had just bowed their heads and recited the opening verse of the Quran, when an explosion blasted from the head of the grave. Mohammed fell forward onto the grave just as another bomb went off. His brothers believe he died instantly, his body absorbing the force of the second blast and sparing them.
The Alaby family hails from the Syrian civil war’s least understood demographic: fence-sitting Sunnis who eschewed the uprising but aren’t entirely trusted by the government. They’re trapped between religious extremists and a government that often treats them as second-class citizens. The Alaby brothers consider themselves defenders not of Bashar al-Assad’s government but rather of a neighborhood and a Damascene way of life, a society that welcomes anyone — secular, atheist, or a member of any faith. But for members of the predominantly Sunni armed opposition, they are traitors — co-religionists who have taken up arms to defend the Alawite-dominated government.
“We’ve never disturbed anybody,” said Mohammed’s brother Assad, 40, who is now guardian of his brother’s children and chief of the guard unit that operates out of his home. “We are only protecting our area.”
But despite their dire straits, Sunnis like the Alaby family might hold the key to Syria’s future. Sunnis made up about three-quarters of the pre-war population, and the country’s economy still revolves around a wealthy Sunni merchant class. Sunni industrialists in Aleppo, the country’s manufacturing base, have kept factories operating despite a degrading battle over the divided city, while displaced Sunni entrepreneurs on the coast have opened new business, often creating jobs for other displaced Syrians. Some Sunni business owners have fled or thrown their support behind the rebellion, but many rich Sunni industrialists serve as pillars of the regime. If they mobilize en masse, they could tilt the outcome of the war, and in its aftermath their buy-in will be a necessary building block of any sustainable new government.
In Syria’s conscript military, Sunnis traditionally made up a large number of lower-ranking soldiers, in proportion to their share of the general population, according to analysts who study the Syrian armed forces. Even today, rebel videos showing captured government soldiers reciting their names and hometowns almost always include Sunni conscripts, for example. Aron Lund, editor of the Syria in Crisis blog at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the government still relies on Sunnis to fill its fighting ranks.
“There are Sunni Muslim Syrians fighting on the front line for Assad even today, even though many may be conscripts or fight simply for a living wage,” Lund said. “The regime was really bleeding Sunni support in 2011 to 2013, but then it seemed to stabilize to some degree.”
The regime has always carefully cultivated support across sects, Lund said, filling the security services with loyalists of every religion and from major tribes. After a wave of defections in the early stages of the civil war, many Sunnis stayed on to play prominent roles, including the defense minister. However, the continued presence of high-ranking Sunnis in the military could be little more than window dressing. Historically, Lund said, “the over-representation of Alawites was tangible, and there was a tendency to favor Sunnis for publicly visible posts, like minister of defense or minister of interior, while the unseen deep security state remained mostly Alawite-run.”
Perhaps motivated by fear or simply for lack of a better alternative, many Sunnis remain on the government’s side. But for now, they’re often a hunted class of citizens. Many Sunnis like the Alaby brothers living in government-controlled Damascus describe living in a Catch-22: They risk their lives fighting to keep the extremists from al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, out of their neighborhoods — but the government they’re defending considers them potential fifth columnists, their loyalty always subject to question.
“Here in the Old City, everybody knows me, and I’d say they trust me 70 percent. Outside, I’m just another Sunni,” said one secular Sunni, whose entire family refuses to leave the Old City for fear of arbitrary detention at a checkpoint. “We have no future under this regime, but if ISIS comes, it will be worse.”
The Alaby family went a step further than other Sunnis in their neighborhood, many of whom sat out the rebellion. When Damascus came under sustained assault in 2012 and anti-government militants infiltrated even the heart of the capital, the brothers purchased guns and organized a watch group.
Soon men began calling the family’s home with death threats. They called the Alaby brothers shabiha, a derogatory nickname for pro-regime militiamen. In June 2012, they killed Ihab. The following spring, nearly a year later, Mohammed’s mother received a call. “We have prepared a special Mother’s Day present for you,” a voice said. On March 8, 2013, just a week after the call, her son was killed.
In the two-and-a-half years since, Mohammed’s surviving family members have continued to patrol their neighborhood. Their neighborhood watch is now part of the National Defense Forces, a network of local militias that operate in the areas where they’re from and are in part trained and fundedby Iran. The Alaby family members don’t leave the Old City: They are committed to protecting their neighborhood, not to fighting the government’s war on other fronts. And they’re convinced that al-Nusra Front spies track their movements; that’s how they were tracked to the cemetery for the attack, they said, and that’s why they continue to receive threats.
“These people, you can’t discuss with them,” Ahmed al-Alaby said of his enemies. “They will kill us directly. Our names are everywhere. We don’t fear for our own lives, but we are afraid for our children.”
They’re careful to refer to the current president of Syria as “sweet,” but say they are motivated by parochial neighborhood interests rather than a presidential agenda. They work at their business all day and with the National Defense Forces at night. The family metalworking factory in the suburb of Mleha produced pots, pans, and other metal housewares; since fighting broke out around the capital, the brothers say it has been too dangerous to reach. Now the three surviving brothers work on a much smaller scale out of their home in the Old City, producing a line of kettles and pots.
On a typical weekend afternoon, Assad, the eldest surviving brother, played a video game on his phone and smoked in the dark in his home office while waiting for one of the daily electricity cuts to end. The entire extended family, 23 members strong, has crammed into a tiny apartment — unable since 2011, the first year of the war, to return to their homes in the contested suburbs of Damascus. One day, they hope they’ll move back to their spacious homes outside the city.
The main room holds a kitchen with floor space for the family to sleep. On the right is the local militia office: clipped high on the wall — and safely out of reach of the children — are seven AK-47s. There are also portraits of Ihab and Mohammed, as well as former President Hafez al-Assad, though not of his son. A sophisticated radio system sits on Assad’s desk. Tucked beside it are four water pipes to smoke the long night-watch hours away.
“Many have been wounded by this war, one way or another,” Ahmed said, tugging at his undershirt to show the shrapnel scars on his chest from the graveside attack. Comfort, he believes, will come only from God.
One of their sisters immigrated to France before the war. The brothers have debated about whether to join her, but they hate the idea of abandoning their home and becoming refugees in a distant land. “There is no future for our kids here,” Ahmed, 29, said gloomily. “The only reason we think of leaving is for them. Life is hard. We are so many. It’s very expensive.”
Mohammed’s 5-year-old son wandered into the office and climbed into his uncle’s lap. Assad pulled a comb from beside his walkie-talkie and rifle, and straightened the boy’s hair.
“Where’s your father?” he asked.
“He was killed,” his nephew answered softly, smiling.
“Who killed him?”
“The free army,” said the boy, conflating the nationalist rebel group called the Free Syrian Army with the Islamist jihadis in al-Nusra Front who claimed responsibility for killing his father.
“Where is he now?”
“Now go play,” said his uncle, letting the boy slide off his lap.
Mohammed is now buried with his cousin in the plot where he was killed at Bab al-Saghir cemetery. Within the sometimes claustrophobic confines of the Old City, coexistence continues, but the war has deepened sectarian identities. The Alaby brothers have to sneak into the cemetery for their occasional visits, telling no one where they’re going.
Their world grows narrower every day, with fear and uncertainty the only constants of their lives, said Assad, the weary paterfamilias.
“Every day we leave our homes,” Assad said, “we don’t know if we will die on the way or never come back.”
Syria’s president paid a visit to Moscow this week, maybe to say thank you, maybe to pay fealty to a sponsor, maybe to hear some requests. Some compared the visit to the obligatory calls Lebanese presidents used to have to pay the Assads in Damascus. PRI’s The World talked to Neil McFarquhar about the visit, and then asked me about the lives of everyday Syrians I met on my visit to Syria earlier this month. You can listen here.
“There’s a sense of relief that the cavalry coming from Moscow is going to be much closer to the Syrian elite’s way of life than the Iranians who had been rescuing them until now,” Cambanis says.
For evidence of the comradery, consider the affectionate nickname Assad supporters have given Putin — “Abu Ali.”
“It’s a way of saying this guy is one of us, he’s going to be the godfather of our victory, and he’s a little bit of an old-fashioned strongman.” Cambanis says. “It’s sort of silly, propagandistic sycophancy. On the other hand, it reflects this thirst for an outside savior.”
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
QARDAHA, Syria — The sonic boom of a fighter jet momentarily cut short the conversations at the hilltop mausoleum of former President Hafez al-Assad. The engineer in charge of enhancements to the manicured park and shiny marble shrine to the founder of Syria’s ruling dynasty broke out into a wide grin.
“The Russians!” said one visitor.
“The plane is Russian, but I bet the pilot is Syrian!” he said with a laugh.
Syria’s coastal cities were buzzing this week with anticipation that a muscular Russian contingent would alter the momentum of a war stretching into its fifth year, giving backers of the regime a catalytic push to victory.
Qardaha is the former president’s birthplace as well as his final resting place, and it symbolizes a Syrian regime whose Baathist and Arab nationalist ideology is inextricably intertwined with the ruling Assad family.
Syria’s leadership has staked its future on preserving its prewar ruling constituency. In almost every conversation here, fighters opposed to the government were called “terrorists” rather than rebels, and the civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and has displaced 12 million others is still called “the crisis.”
The war’s grinding toll hasn’t dampened the optimistic rhetoric of government officials and supporters, like the shrine supervisor Maan Ibrahim.
With the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other allies, he promised, Syria would prevail against its enemies. “War has been raging for five years,” Ibrahim said. “All these terrorists will meet their end here and now.”
Analysts have been trying all week to untangle the thicket of overlapping interests driving the Kremlin’s escalation in Syria. On the ground in the part of Syria still tightly under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, however, the strategy was far clearer than would appear from the speeches and statements emanating from world capitals. Scores of interviews with regime supporters and local officials in the Alawite heartland could be summed up in a simple plan: no quarter, no compromise.
Whether it’s likely to succeed or not, the regime has persuaded its own constituents to support Assad’s blueprint, regardless of any ambivalence they might express in private.
The plain is straightforward: consolidate Damascus’s control over the axis that runs from the capital through the contested cities of Homs and Hama and to the coastal strongholds of Tartus and Latakia — an area that represents the bulk of Syria’s prewar population. Eliminate all armed rebels from that heartland, and then reconquer the economically critical city of Aleppo along with farther-flung districts that have fallen out of the government’s control.
Westerners have parsed the distinctions among the Islamic State, jihadis like the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and the U.S. backed Free Syrian Army. Supporters of the regime, on the other hand, view all armed rebels as sectarian terrorists determined to wipe out or marginalize Syria’s religious minorities and therefore as equally deserving of whatever firepower Assad or his foreign allies are able to muster against them.
“The ones who accept President Assad’s amnesty can come back and be part of Syria,” said a pro-regime fighter relaxing at a cafe in the port city of Tartus. “The other traitors will stay abroad or fight until we kill them. They cannot return.”
The fighter, like many other government supporters, expressed a hope that with the new Russian engagement, the long conflict would come to an end quickly. “We’ll take back all the land in a year,” the fighter said. “After that we’ll only have to worry about sleeper cells.”
Syrian officials believe that the international tide is turning in their favor and that the question is no longer in what condition the regime will survive — but rather how long will it take for the regime to win outright.
That new confidence was on display as the governor of Tartus province received visitors in his ornately re-created Ottoman-style office, while smoking cigarettes and sipping an orange-flavored soft drink. An aide in the waiting room coyly avoided direct praise for the Russian involvement until he found an updated story on his smartphone from the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
“It’s confirmed on SANA!” he said with excitement, and read aloud a long account of Russia’s first airstrikes.
The governor, Safwan Abu Saada, said it was only natural to feel optimistic. He had been in charge of the northern province of Idlib until a year ago, when the government’s losses forced him to move.
“Syria is like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” he said.“We welcome the help of friendly countries, working with our invitation and under international law. I’m sure I will be visiting Idlib again soon.”
Answers to the many questions about how such a major shift would come about, however, still remain unclear. Assad’s regime already has been throwing all its resources into the conflict, with generous military and financial support from Iran and Russia. The new Russian intervention — fighter planes, anti-aircraft systems, and advisors — comes after a six-month period in which the regime lost ground in Idlib province, dangerously close to towns such as Qardaha and the strategic heart of the regime, where public support runs strongest.
Latakia, the largest of the coastal cities, embodies many of the challenges to the government’s strategy. The population of the city and its suburbs has nearly doubled over the course of the conflict to around 3 million people, according to Syrian officials. Displaced people from Aleppo and other provinces have flooded into the city, straining its infrastructure but also spurring an economic boom.
Almost every block is festooned with photographs of martyrs from the military or paramilitary units. Anxiety in Latakia spiked this spring when neighboring Idlib province fell to a rebel advance of a new coalition called the Army of Conquest, spearheaded by a coalition of jihadis including al-Nusra Front, fighting alongside Free Syrian Army units.
Pushing the rebels farther away from the coast is a much higher priority for regime supporters here in the Alawite heartland than the eradication of Islamic State strongholds in places like the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, which lies hundreds of miles inland.
An off-duty army officer, recovering from an end-of-week lunch, said that Syria’s fundamentalist enemies “would pay for every drop of blood they had spilled, and every drop of whiskey.”
But he was less sanguine than some of his peers in his assessment of the Russians. “The Russians are part of the process, with their airstrikes, but it’s a little part,” said the officer. “In the end it is Syrians who are on the ground fighting.”