Photo: SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
DAMASCUS, Syria — Until civil war broke out in 2011, Iman enjoyed a comfortable life in Mezze, the center of middle-class Damascus and a popular neighborhood for Syrian government employees. The 39-year-old devoted herself to her two sons, never dreaming her family could ever slip out of the comfort that, after all, was an explicit promise of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist state.
Today, the endless grind of war has reduced Iman’s life to a constant state of anxiety. She keeps her sons in hiding, afraid they’ll be drafted by a government hungry for conscript soldiers or simply grabbed by militiamen, who have been known to arbitrarily arrest innocent civilians and hold them for ransom or even forget them in detention. Her psychologist husband quit his practice because he made better money driving a taxi — but then the war made the roads too deadly, and now he says he hasn’t left the house in months. Iman, meanwhile, cleans houses for $3 day — not enough to buy food — and begs her casual employers to pay her utility bills.
Sitting at a café popular with government supporters and members of the security service, she spoke openly about her fears and her desperation to find a path to Europe.
“I live in fear for my sons every day, that they will be drafted or disappeared. There is no solution for this crisis,” Iman said. She placed her tongue against her front teeth and made a long, low whistle. “It will be long, long, long.”
Iman’s plight is shared by thousands of Syrians living in today’s Damascus. Their stories all point to a central quandary facing Assad: How long can his beleaguered government keep its supporters engaged in the fight, as Syria struggles with colossal human losses and economic deprivation?
Few supporters of the government are switching sides to the opposition these days, but many are simply exhausted by the immense toll exacted by the war. Half the country’s people have been pushed from their original homes. The infrastructure is creaking. Even some supporters of Assad say they feel that government-held Syria is hollowing out, running on fumes.
In private, people discuss the point at which they’ll give up. One says they would flee if the road from Damascus to the coast were permanently cut. Another says the breaking point would come if the Islamic State entered central Damascus. For the Assad government, all this worry is driving the Russian- and Iranian-backed campaign initiated last month to save Syria’s urban heartland — a narrow belt of cities stretching from Damascus to the coast — even as the hinterland slips away from the government’s grasp.
The answer to whether Assad’s forces can keep that heartland lies with Syrians like Iman, who have chosen to remain in government-controlled areas and consider themselves neither rebel sympathizers nor government boosters. Iman is a Sunni who wears a headscarf, and some of her relatives are in prison — enough to make Iman herself suspect in these days of heightened sectarianism.
“My neighbors all work for the government, and as long as we walk straight, they leave us alone,” Iman said. “Unless someone writes a report about us.”
Her gripe, however, isn’t with the state or its leaders. She had no intention of leaving until the Syrian currency collapsed, along with her husband’s livelihood.
She dreams of Germany’s free medical care, which she hopes can treat her older son’s eye problems and younger son’s asthma. But she’s terrified that before she can amass the $6,000 she thinks it would cost to smuggle her family to Europe, her sons will be swallowed up by the Syrian military. With their health problems, she’s convinced they wouldn’t survive long in uniform.
Life during wartime
Over the course of a recent 10-day visit, Damascus residents said they feel less embattled than they did a year ago, but the war is still an inescapable reality of everyday life. Every night, dozens of mortars still land in the city center, sending wounded and sometimes dead civilians to Damascus General Hospital. From the city’s still-busy cafés, clients can hear the thuds of outgoing government guns and the rolling explosions of the barrel bombs dropped on the rebel-held suburb of Daraya.
Army and militia checkpoints litter the city. In some central areas, cars are stopped and searched every two blocks. Still, rebels manage to smuggle car bombs into the city center. According to residents, explosions occur every two or three weeks, but are rarely reported in the state media.
Workplaces across the country have emptied out over the summer, as Syrians with a few thousand dollars to spare risked the trip to Europe via Turkey and a boat ride to Greece, taking advantage of a newly permissive Syrian government policy to issue passports quickly and without question.
Employees in government offices, international aid organizations, and private Syrian corporations estimated that anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of their coworkers left the country this summer.
“The government doesn’t care if people leave. It can’t stop them,” one middle-class Syrian, who has chosen so far to remain in Damascus, said of the exodus. “The war seems like it will go on forever. People see no future for their children. The only people who are staying are the ones who have it really good here or the ones who aren’t able to leave.”
Over the last year, the Syrian military has suffered a major manpower shortage, which Assad acknowledged this summer in a rare, frank public assessment of his vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, Syria’s currency tumbled to one-sixth of its prewar value, causing an economic crisis for all but the wealthiest citizens. Rebels have made steady territorial gains throughout 2015, until the recent Russian military intervention threatened to turn momentum in the government’s favor.
Yet for all the danger signs, Assad’s government tries to project confidence. It has lost key territory in the north and east, but it still controls most of the important urban centers from Damascus to the coast, where anywhere from half to 80 percent of the population lives. Members of all of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian communities, including many from the Sunni Arab majority, continue to support the government.
The government showcases its readiness at Damascus General Hospital, whose emergency room treats the capital’s civilian casualties. Despite nationwide shortages and difficulties created by Western sanctions, hospital administrator Dr. Khaled Mansour said the hospital still strives to keep six months of supplies on hand.
“We are prepared to continue serving the population even in the case of a siege,” Mansour said. It has been tough to keep sophisticated machinery like scanners working, he said, and to maintain reserves of diesel and water. Imported medicines are more expensive after the currency collapse, and many pharmaceutical factories are located in areas now under rebel control.
It’s also hard to keep doctors from emigrating. According to Mansour, rebels have kidnapped some medical professionals and forced them into service, and Syria’s well-trained doctors find it relatively easy to emigrate. About 200 out of 650 doctors left the country over the summer, Mansour said, while adding that the hospital had more than enough “spare capacity.”
The brain drain, however, is evident in the examining rooms.
“We used to have the best doctors in Syria,” one patient said wistfully. Now, he said, quality was down; during a recent medical appointment, two young doctors had consulted Google on a smartphone to decide which medicine to prescribe.
Boomtown on the coast
If Damascus can feel like a city under siege, the Syrian coast resembles a booming war economy. Millions of Syrians fled the fighting early in the war and relocated to the safer coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The coastal cities are considered strongholds of the Alawite minority, of which the Assads are members. But they have sizable populations of Sunnis and other groups, and tensions have grown as displaced people, mainly Sunnis, have fled to the coast from war-torn parts of the country.
The displaced have driven up rents and strained the infrastructure, but they’ve also brought money, and many have reestablished their old businesses. The Ministry of Social Affairs has created dozens of new positions to employ displaced people. Down the street, Mohammed al-Heeb, a pastry shop owner originally from Aleppo, has created 30 extra jobs for displaced people, mostly make-work positions to help families in need. Despite the charity, he’s still turning a profit.
The fight has become an integral part of daily life, directly affecting almost every family from every type of background. Throughout the coast, photographs of the war’s casualties adorn every block. Each neighborhood has a wall of martyrs, some of them featuring hundreds of dead — part of an effort to build a martyrdom culture not unlike that which sustains loyalists of Iran’s ayatollahs and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both of which provide key support to the Syrian government.
The government avidly pursues draft dodgers and, at the same time, has made a special effort to burnish the cultural cachet of the families making sacrifices to defend Assad’s state.
The sanctification of martyrs
In the hills above Tartus, the provincial governor in early October unveiled an art fair entitled “Tartus: Mother of Martyrs.” For the exposition, the governor commissioned 30 sculptors to build marble tributes to Syria’s fallen. Most of them included literal representations of mothers, along with local motifs encouraged by the governor, like Phoenician boats and a phoenix rising from ashes.
Hundreds of war-wounded and relatives of soldiers who died in the conflict gathered in the hilltop village of Naqib for the unveiling of the statues. Parents wept as a local official read the names of the fallen — nearly 180 just from the village and its environs, an area with a population of about 80,000 people, according to the mayor.
“This is our destiny,” said Ahmed Bilal, an Alawite cleric who was circulating in a shiny white robe and chatting with the assembled families. A long line of fighters predating the establishment of modern Syria had resisted foreign invaders, he said, and gave inspiration to today’s soldiers.
“Even if we lose one-third of our young men, we will still have the rest to live,” Bilal said. “They died so that the others should have life.”
Saada Shakouf, one of the bereaved mothers, sharpened her sense of Syrian identity after her son died fighting rebel forces in March in the battle of the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. The opposition victory, which was accomplished by a coalition that included the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front as well as U.S.-backed, Free Syrian Army-linked groups, created a sense of panic in government circles. From Jisr al-Shughour, the rebels had a gateway to the coast, allowing them to directly threaten strongholds like Latakia.
Shakouf’s son, Nabil, was 23 years old when he died along with his entire unit. He had been “stop-lossed,” a procedure for extending a soldier’s service beyond his or her time of enlistment, and was in his fourth year of military service. According to his mother, Nabil and his companions were burned to death in barrels. She didn’t know if they had hidden there — or if the rebels placed them in the barrels and set them on fire as a grisly form of execution.
Government forces are fighting for a model of coexistence and tolerance that is vanishing from the Arab world, Shakouf said. She had lost her enthusiasm for the pan-Arab cause that had once been so central to Syria’s political identity.
“We used to say the Arab nation was one, and we supported the rest of the Arabs against Israel. Where are those Arabs now? They are attacking us; they are attacking other Arabs,” Shakouf said with bitterness. “We don’t believe in the Arab nation anymore.”
An official from the Ministry of Information who was monitoring the interview interjected: “You can’t say that!”
Shakouf, however, refused to back down.
“We are only Syrians,” she insisted. “Syria can protect itself alone. We don’t need anybody to help us.”
Times could get much leaner than they are now in Tartus, and families like Shakouf’s will be called upon to continue to support the fight. Strained by dwindling resources, she said, the resolve of Syrian government loyalists would only grow. She promised that her surviving daughters and 15-year-old son said they would join the military if called.
“We fought the Ottoman Turks for 400 years,” Shakouf said. “There is no way we will fall. We have been fighting five years for our existence, and we will not lose.”
Syrian citizens stood near a burning truck that was destroyed by two cars bombs in the Jaramana neighborhood, a suburb of Damascus, in 2012. Photo: SANA VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
DAMASCUS — THE GOVERNMENT militiaman named Noor leaned out from the narrow service balcony and pointed at the trees flanking the airport highway a hundred yards away.
“We are fighting in that area to keep them from entering our street,” he said. A few months earlier, Noor said, the situation “was critical. They were too close.” Now, he said, rebels have been pushed a few miles away.
The war in Syria is a war of neighborhoods. Foreign fighters and foreign intervention have fueled the conflict, but at its heart is an intimate civil war between neighbors and relatives. Noor, a retired soldier, was running a family store when Syria’s popular uprising rapidly transformed into a bitter nationwide battle four years ago. He quickly formed a neighborhood militia, which was eventually absorbed into the paramilitary National Defense Force, that fights for the Assad government and is funded and trained by Iran.
In recent years, his neighborhood, Jaramana, remained a leafy and sprawling suburb of Damascus crowded with schoolchildren and informal sidewalk cafes by day. At night, it was a battleground, as rebels in neighboring suburbs attacked the strategically critical airport highway and lobbed shells indiscriminately, mirroring the government’s own tactics.
Noor’s apartment building in Jaramana exudes middle-class respectability. Half its current residents have fled the fighting elsewhere in Syria, but they are well-heeled refugees, wealthier and more comfortable than many of the other 1.6 million newcomers to Jaramana. Those with money rent spacious apartments. Poorer displaced people rent basement rooms at inflated prices, and some squat in unfinished construction sites.
On the ground floor lives a judge who fled Raqqa when the Islamic State made the city into its Syrian capital. Upstairs from Noor lives a retired tax official and Baath Party member displaced in 2012 from Idlib province, who serves coffee and juice in an immaculate set of china and crystal.
The tax official’s son Ahmed al-Basha, 20, studies law, but in his free time he volunteers with Noor’s militia unit. At first, he would borrow his father’s pickup truck and deliver food to the fighters stationed on the edge of Jaramana, a harrowing but quick drive from his home.
“Now I know how to work a gun. I’ve experienced combat,” Ahmed said shyly, proud that despite his lack of military training he’s been able to help the government’s war effort.
His father, Mohamed Sharif al-Basha, 60, said that masked gunmen came to his home in northern Syria in 2012 and ordered him to quit his government job. When some of his colleagues were murdered, Mohamed filed a resignation letter and fled, eventually making his way to Jaramana. His sons work, and he collects a government pension.
He is well off and donates fuel and other supplies to the militiamen whose pro-government struggle, in his view, is an extension of his own personal desire to reclaim his house and job in Idlib province.
Syria’s war is often viewed through the prism of geopolitics, but from up close, the conflict appears intensely localized as well. Like dozens of other Syrians interviewed during a recent trip to the government-controlled portion of Syria, Noor and his neighbors were well-versed in the role of Russia and Iran and speeches of President Bashar Assad. Day to day, however, many government supporters aren’t off fighting ISIS, or to reclaim the half of the country’s territory that has slipped from Assad’s grasp. They are fighting for the blocks they live on or the roads that connect them to the city centers where they shop or work.
IN THE FIFTH YEAR of the war, the Syrian government has lost much of the country and is now primarily restricted to a corridor running from Damascus to the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The main highway leading north out of the city toward the coast is beset by rebels, and drivers have to bypass a stretch immediately north of the city that’s still being fought over. About one-third of the country’s population is displaced inside Syria, and 4 million have left the country altogether. Government-held Syria, encompassing what French colonial officials termed “useful Syria,” hugs the edge of the vast deserts in the interior, spanning approximately a third of the country’s territory and by some estimates only half its remaining population.
A spring rebel offensive in Idlib threatened the government’s safe zones along the coast, while the Russian intervention that began in September appears to have shifted the momentum in the government’s favor. At least that’s how supporters view it. “God willing, it’s just a matter of a year now, and we can go back to normal,” said one government fighter interviewed on the coast.
But parts of government-held Syria are encircled and besieged. Rebels regularly smuggle car bombs into Damascus, despite ubiquitous checkpoints. The overwhelming majority of men on the streets are uniformed fighters, and many in civilian clothes turn out to be off-duty soldiers making extra money with part-time work driving taxis or helping at shops.
The war punctuates daily life and divides families. In private, many Syrians talk about relatives fighting on several sides of the conflict — some with the government, some with the nationalist rebels in the Free Syrian Army, and some with the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group the Nusra Front.
One night over dinner in Damascus, a pro-rebel wife tangled with her pro-government husband over the conduct of the war.
“It’s inhumane,” the wife said of the vast number of civilians killed by the government.
“The terrorists are much worse,” her husband retorted.
An exploding barrel bomb in the nearby suburb of Deraya interrupted their argument. The sound is unmistakable — the steady beat of a helicopter’s blades and then for several seconds a low swelling boom.
“People are dying!” the wife exclaimed in tears.
“Not people,” her husband said. “Just fighters. All the people left Deraya long ago.”
Fear and combat long ago became normalized throughout Syria, where front lines are rarely far away. Around the capital, rebels in areas like Jobar, Deraya, and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk can lob mortars into the city of Damascus whenever they choose. Daily civilian casualties arrive in the city’s emergency rooms, victims of rebel shelling, doctors said — at a time when rebel shelling has been significantly restrained compared to the levels a year ago.
One of those casualties is Ashtar al Ahmed, a 23-year-old who was preparing for her final graduation project at Damascus University, where she studies graphic design, when a shell crashed onto her veranda in the Old City on Sept. 11.
“I saw a flash of light. I didn’t hear the bomb because I was in the center of the explosion,” Ahmed said. Her legs were shattered and she lost blood, but she was lucky. After a series of operations, her doctors said she would walk again and be able to go home after two to three months in the hospital.
The Ahmed family embodies the Damascene tradition of cosmopolitan coexistence. Ashtar and her twin brother speak English, French, and Arabic. Their mother is an academic who works for an international agency that protects Syrian folklore, and the twins frequent the Old City’s lively bar scene with a mix of friends less interested in sectarian background than in their ambitions to travel and launch careers. Both had options to leave Syria during the war but chose to stay to finish their university courses in Damascus.
“It happens every day in our neighborhood,” Ahmed said of the bombing. “We stay up late, we go out and party.”
“It’s normal life,” said her brother.
“If I had gone to a bar, maybe I’d be fine today,” she said.
She sees herself as a defender not of the Syrian government but of the Damascus way of life, which she believes doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.
“War cannot stop me from doing what I love and living where I live,” she said.
INTENSE FEELINGS AND propaganda color all sides of the fight. Syrian rebels interviewed this summer at their rear bases in Turkey said many of the government’s front-line soldiers fight lackadaisically. They believe Assad keeps his most competent soldiers in reserve to defend Damascus and other parts of the government’s strategic heartland.
Government propaganda, meanwhile, portrays the rebels as mercenaries without a cause. In the days immediately following the beginning of the Russian bombing campaign, Syrian government outlets spread unsourced and never confirmed reports that thousand of rebels, terrified by Russia’s might, had dropped their weapons and fled into Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.
On the government side, information remains as tightly controlled as it was before the war. State outlets focus almost exclusively on the statements of the president and a few top officials. Government supporters who want a little more information or context along with the official line turn to Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese network that supports Assad but provides a more rounded news diet.
Secret police monitor cafes and hotel lobbies, despite the government’s manpower shortage, and in private some regime supporters say their greatest fear isn’t rebel shells but unscrupulous pro-government militiamen who might shake them down or arbitrarily detain them at checkpoints.
Many casual boosters of the government harbor hopes for a quick finish, fanned by a rush of breathless official reports of unparalleled battlefield victories since the Russian offensive began. But veterans involved in the fight, like Noor, the government militiaman on the edge of Damascus, expect the fight to drag on for another 10 years.
An entire generation of young men on all sides of the conflict has grown up under arms. Many have committed atrocities or resorted to extortion, even on the government’s side, Noor admitted: “We’ll have to deal with them after we resolve the political conflict.”
Forgiveness is not high on anybody’s agenda. President Assad has offered amnesty to fighters who surrender their weapons, but there is little evidence that any rebels have successfully been pardoned and reintegrated into government-controlled Syria.
And if amnesty ever became a government policy, Syrian officials might have trouble getting their foot soldiers to embrace it.
“We wouldn’t accept even the guys who give up their weapons,” Noor said. “We refuse anyone who even sympathized with the revolutionaries. They killed our friends, and we buried them. We will not forgive them. We won’t take them back. If the government wants to forgive them, that is their problem. We won’t.”