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.”