By Susanne Koelbl in Damascus, Syria
The regime has largely won the war against the insurgents and thoughts are slowly shifting to Syria’s future. But the country still has a long path ahead before it can find peace.
At 11:47 a.m. on a clear day in November, the air in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood doesn’t smell of victory but of dust and smoke, as a mortar shell strikes behind Jenney Loutfi’s office. “The terrorists are in Jobar,” says Loutfi, referring to a neighborhood only about a kilometer away from her desk in the welfare agency of the Syrian Catholic Church. “As the crow flies,” the 27-year-old says, stressing that this is what matters when it comes to mortar shells.
The shell slammed into the roof of the mosque behind the “Eastern Gate,” or Bab Sharqi, one of the seven entrances to the old city. “Why are they firing at us? There are only civilians left here,” asks Loutfi. What she doesn’t know is that the government is waging a campaign of heavy airstrikes on the rebels here in southeastern Syria, and that the attack on the old city represents the trapped rebels’ last gasp before their inevitable defeat.
In military terms, the war has already been decided — for Assad and the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, the country is still far from peace.
Jenney Loutfi is an Orthodox Christian, which makes her part of a minority in Syria most likely to find protection in areas controlled by the government. But that hasn’t stopped the bombing deaths in recent days in the narrow alleys of the Christian neighborhood.
Loutfi’s father was injured in the chest by shrapnel, and her mother was struck in the arm by a piece of it as she was walking to an ATM. In the previous five days alone, there had been 105 strikes.
The fighting in Damascus is worse than it has been in a long time. It’s as if the constant sound of the explosions were the drumfire for the newly announced peace negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition, negotiations that have failed repeatedly, as they did recently at a meeting in Geneva under the leadership of United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Syria’s dictator Bashar Assad in early December. The message he conveyed was that the military struggle will be over soon, and that some of the Russian troops will be withdrawn. Russia now wants to initiate its own peace process in the new year and persuade the West to provide reconstruction aid to help the country get back on its feet. Shortly after Putin’s visit, it was revealed that Russia wants to expand its air base in the country.
The Bombing Continues
Meanwhile, the bombs continue to fall on East Ghouta, the suburban belt in southeastern Damascus, one of the last rebel strongholds. There is also shooting in Jarmuk, a Palestinian enclave in the middle of the capital. In the northern city of Idlib, on the Turkish border, fighters with the extremist Al-Nusra front and other rebels are gathering for the final battle with pro-Assad forces.
The Americans, too, are now officially in the country with larger troop formations in the north and a confirmed presence of 2,000 soldiers. And the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah militia are also still in the country. The Israelis are bombing suspected Hezbollah positions in Damascus. So, what are we to make of the claim that Assad has won the war, militarily, and yet the fighting continues? What exactly is at stake here, who are the players and what are their interests and goals?
The people in Damascus are especially tired of the war, exhausted after more than six years of violence. And, like Jenney Loutfi, they wonder when the fighting will finally end and, most importantly, what peace could look like.
Residents still living in Damascus certainly don’t count among those who rebelled against President Assad at the time. Those people fled long ago, or they are in prison or dead. If elections were held tomorrow, most Damascus residents would probably vote for Assad. He’s omnipresent in the city, in the form of posters in every barbershop or at major intersections, as a grim officer in uniform and sunglasses or as a statesman in a suit in front of the supermarket.
In contrast to people in the city’s suburbs, in northern Syria and Aleppo, and in Daraa in the southwest, where they have always played by their own rules, most Damascus residents have always been loyal to the Assads.
Many say that while Assad may be a dictator, the alternative would be, literally, a regime of cutthroats. “I’d pack my bags if Assad left, if the rebels came to power, the Muslim Brotherhood,” says an architect. He’s 52, the same age as the president. His office, located in a well-protected street in central Damascus, is elegantly furnished with an oil painting of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra on the wall. The architect believes Assad is the lesser of all evils.
There is, of course, a longing for justice, he says, and for the end of the corruption and nepotism of the Assad family and its supporters. But he doesn’t believe that the armed opposition would offer Syrians a better life, more freedom or even a stable democracy.
Can There Be Peace with Assad?
Instead, the issue today is whether there can be peace with Assad, despite everything. Whether a negotiated solution exists that will ultimately lead to his resignation. Or whether the country remains a failed, pariah state, broken up into fragments controlled by different factions, destroyed and isolated.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad is one of Assad’s staunchest defenders. He has stayed the course over the years, even in the darkest hours in early 2013, when the West was convinced that Assad’s fall was certain.
Mekdad meets the reporter in the Foreign Ministry, wearing a white shirt, silver glasses and a gray suit. The senior diplomat himself has turned gray over time. Mekdad is satisfied that Syria has won the most important battles of this war. Assad, with the help of Iran and Russia, has recaptured the cities of Deir al-Zor and Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS), and Mekdad wants this fact to be duly acknowledged. He neglects to mention that it was the West as well that helped to bomb IS and drove it out of Raqqa with the support of the Kurds.
Mekdad asks whether the West and the Europeans are finally ready to “admit that they have failed” with their plan to overthrow the Syrian government and replace Assad with a “puppet of the West.” There is a wounded tone to his words. Here too, Mekdad says, people suffered, were displaced and killed.
The rebels had no air force, so they could not inflict the same damage as the regime, which is responsible for by far the largest number of civilian deaths. But the rebels also did harm to people in the Assad-held territories. For instance, they kidnapped Mekdad’s 12-year-old nephew and his elderly father. The kidnappers’ goal was to secure the release of prisoners. Mekdad’s father died shortly after he was exchanged for rebel prisoners. The deputy foreign minister alleges that the mastermind behind the kidnapping is now in Germany, where he has been granted asylum. Mekdad asserts that many of the Syrians who fled to Germany are military draft dodgers, traitors or criminals.
He speaks as if the war were already over, as if the fighting in East Ghouta were merely a final glimmer. “Reconstruction” has already begun, says Mekdad. But with what funds or means?
A Fractured Nation
The Syria that the deputy minister wants to rebuild is a completely different country today than it was before the war. Divided into Assad supporters and Assad haters, it is a nation comprised of only small functioning islands, in a sea of destruction and dissolution.
The universities, schools and hospitals may be open in Damascus. But surrounding these islands, public order was replaced in many places by militias forced to defend their villages, towns and districts against the rebels and IS themselves, for lack of regular security personnel.
Local militia leaders turned into warlords who eventually plundered the houses of their own countrymen after they had recaptured their neighborhoods. They sold the spoils at flea markets and regarded the proceeds as their salary. Now the new warlords are touting themselves as liberators of the country, and they are unlikely to yield their newfound power.
Rather than addressing such problems, however, diplomat Mekdad prefers to speak of “victory” over what he calls the “international conspiracy.” “The United States, Turkey, the Gulf countries and Europe are responsible for every drop of blood shed here,” he says. According to Mekdad, they used their money to bring the brood of terror into Syria, feed it, send an army of extremists to the country and incite the Syrians against Assad.
There is a different truth on the other side of the front line. In fact, part of the Syrian tragedy is that each side can only accept one truth: its own.
“Do you also take pity on the victims on the other side, the thousands of opposition members tortured and killed in government intelligence dungeons?”
“They only exist in the minds of those who have made up these lies.”
“Do you seriously believe that?”
“There is no systematic torture here. We take care of our citizens.”
Most Western governments believe that it was legitimate to arm the opposition. From their point of view, the uprising was a consequence of the bloody suppression of the peaceful demonstrations against Assad in early 2011. The government and the people of Damascus, on the other hand, say that the Gulf states, the United States, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a few Europeans have wanted to get rid of Assad from the outset.
Pain Visible Everywhere
In all these times, Damascus remained a secure fortress. Still, this ancient city, a jewel of widely different cultures, has been wounded and the pain is visible everywhere. The state of emergency imposed on what is perhaps the most beautiful metropolis in the Middle East can be seen on every street corner — even though the destruction bears no comparison with what happened to Aleppo or Homs. The people of Damascus live with countless checkpoints, sandbag walls blocking alleys and men in uniform wielding Kalashnikovs. And yet the heart of this capital continues to beat.
The supply line from Lebanon has remained open at all times, as have the Mediterranean ports of Tartus and Latakia. Vendors continue to sell their goods in the old market, the Al-Hamidiyah Souk, where everything from the new iPhone X to designer clothes can be found. The luxurious Four Seasons Hotel looks like any other international venue for the rich and beautiful. Fine restaurants and exclusive shops line the streets, even though hotel guests are now almost exclusively members of international aid organizations.
In the Christian neighborhood of Bab Tuma, residents still drink wine and eat well — at least those who can afford it. The Syrian pound is worth less than a tenth of its prewar value.
Many of those still residing in Damascus are there because they couldn’t leave or didn’t want to or because they are still clinging to the nostalgic notion that perhaps life could return to the way it was, despite everything. They appear to be suppressing the memory of how Assad’s notorious security apparatus has always scrutinized everyone’s life and made his opponents disappear into notorious torture prisons. But many here see this as a relatively small evil compared to the threat from the Islamists.
This security apparatus existed before the war. It consists of four powerful intelligence services that rival each other and yet still cooperate, and on which everyone depends in the end. President Assad inherited the security apparatus from his father. Today, he is both the perpetrator and prisoner of this opaque patronage system, which he preserves but is also unable to dissolve without losing power.
Damascus these days is a capital city with almost no male youth, a place where young women cannot find men to start a family. The army releases no figures on how many soldiers died in the war and the number of men wounded.
In poorer parts of the city like Al-Dwilaa and Al-Maliha, thousands of Damascenes have lost their homes, supporters and opponents of Assad alike. They’re now crowded into emergency shelters in the Jaramana district, which also house tens of thousands of refugees from other parts of the country, from Idlib, Aleppo, Deir al-Zor and Abu Kamal. But there is no work to be found. The factories are destroyed. Most of those who lost their homes in the bombing survive on donations from charities. There are many beggars.
‘We Don’t Want To Look Back’
When Damascus residents sit at the breakfast table in the morning and watch state-controlled television, most believe that what they see there is positive. They believe that the victorious Syrian army liberated Abu Kamal, a terrorist stronghold on the Euphrates River, together with the Iranian Quds Force. Refugees in the region are returning to their villages, the old bazaar in Aleppo is being hastily reconstructed and a school in the destroyed city of Homs is being rebuilt. When Assad met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of November in the Russian city of Sochi, he said: “We don’t want to look back anymore.”
Those who look back will see hundreds of thousands of dead, sacrificed in a struggle that each side claims was just and for the good of the Syrian people. Those who look back can also see over 10 million displaced persons, almost half of all Syrians, of whom over 5 million were forced to leave the country. And they also see serious war crimes.
State television is now showing carefully staged interviews with rebel commanders who are ruefully admitting in front of the camera: “I made a mistake, and I am grateful to the regime for taking me in again.”
The Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation, Ali Haidar, says it is now a matter of “saving Syria” and that this must be done “together.” Haidar is actually a doctor, a tall, lanky, broad-faced man who wears glasses and smiles a lot. He attaches great importance to the fact that he actually belongs to the “opposition,” which is of course a very relative term in Syria. He may have disagreed with the president at some point, but of course he was far from questioning the system or taking up arms against Assad.
When asked what he is prepared to offer to the rebels, the 55-year-old mentions a “magic formula.” “We have no money, but we can give the fighters their lives back, and their families.” For Haidar, it’s a matter of uplifting “souls” once again.
In Haidar’s office in Damascus, a typical Middle Eastern government office, with voluminous armchairs, small crystal bowls with sweets and a large wooden desk, negotiators are constantly coming and going. Their job is to negotiate the terms of the return of military commanders.
But what about political opponents who are now abroad? Minister Haidar avoids the question, saying he doesn’t want to talk about refugees in Europe, in Germany. He’d rather focus his attention on those in neighboring countries Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. He says that more than 530,000 Syrian children are on the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) list there and that millions of dollars are being paid for their education. This could, of course, be done much more inexpensively in Syria, he notes.
One of the West’s Few Bargaining Chips
So, when it comes to the return of refugees, it will always be a a question of how much money is needed for how many people. It will also be a question of who pays what for the possible reconstruction of Syria. It is already clear that this reconstruction will be extremely expensive and will take decades, if it takes place at all.
This could also be one of the West’s few bargaining chips. The West can set conditions for what Syria could look like in the future, and for how much international support is to be provided in return for what level of openness, and for Assad’s future role. It is clear that the regime does not expect its allies, Russia and Iran, to be its financial backers in the future.
But the fighting needs to stop before anyone can even think about a new Syria. One man who has decided to lay down his arms is Abdul Aziz Shodab from Al-Kuswa, two hours from Damascus. He’s 41 years old, almost 6 feet, five inches tall, has a bald head and a long beard, and wears jeans and a black T-shirt. He arrives at our meeting driving a Hummer with tinted windows. He seems to have money. He has been in the government’s reconciliation program for a year now.
The former militia leader says that he last commanded 7,000 men of the Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist combat group in the Al-Kuswa region. Now, Shodab is sitting in a hotel in downtown Damascus, drinking orange juice. It is not possible to verify all the details of Shodab’s story, and sometimes his portrayal seems too predictable, as if he had been briefed for the meeting. The fact is that the man needed approval from Military Security, a division of Syrian intelligence.
But it is also a fact that Shodab can be seen in Ahrar al-Sham propaganda films on the internet, raging against the regime and calling on supporters to fight Assad. They attacked checkpoints and army forces, he says. But the convert doesn’t want to go into the details of his time with Ahrar al-Sham. Today, Shodab works for the Syrian government, trying to persuade former fellow rebels to switch sides. According to a Syrian insider, the program is officially led by Reconciliation Minister Haidar, but it is actually managed by Ali Mamlouk, Syria’s intelligence chief.
There aren’t many opportunities left in the country for the insurgents. Numerous hardliners have gone to Idlib, where more than 100,000 fighters have already gathered, according to Shodab. Elsewhere, the rebels have surrendered, sometimes after months of siege. When that happens, they are driven to places agreed to by the negotiators on both sides, almost always in the green buses normally used for public transport. The remaining fighters, in turn, surrender their weapons, are registered by the regime and return to their towns or village, provided they still exist.
The Uncertain Road To Peace
“The war is gradually coming to an end. Assad has won, and he is going to stay,” Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador in Damascus says, summing up the situation. He now works at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Assad owes his political survival to the Iranians and the Russians. The Russian air force was responsible for turning things around. Both nations are likely to establish lasting military presences in Syria in the near future, and President Putin is probably the one who can exert the most influence in Damascus. However, Assad’s allies disagree on how to proceed. Putin wants a peace settlement supported by international institutions like the United Nations, which may also include the opposition’s participation in the government. Tehran, on the other hand, has no interest in a solution that would weaken Assad’s power. They also disagree on the future role of the Kurds in the country. Russia considers their right to self-administration justified, while Iran does not.
It will be a long time before this war is truly over. Until then, many more green buses filled with rebel fighters will emerge from battle zones, and possibly a few thousand more mortar shells will be launched into the old town of Bab Sharqi.
And, as always, when a projectile strikes and the impact echoes through the old city, Jenney Loutfi’s mother will call her daughter on her mobile phone and ask: “Jenney, are you all right?”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan