Behind the lines in Damascus, a war of neighbors
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.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.