Several miles south of the glitzy downtown boutiques and upscale eateries that serve the Damascus elite, regime troops besieging rebel-held suburbs keep watch from sandbagged balconies and holes in walls over a rubble-choked no-man’s land of ruined streets and bombed-out buildings.
Whiffs of sewage and smoke tinge the wintry air. The ground is a carpet of shell casings, glass shards and concrete chunks. Water-filled trenches show where regime bulldozers have dug for rebel tunnels. In an abandoned apartment, four old television sets glow in the gloom. Rigged to cameras aimed at rebel lines, the crude surveillance system helps limit exposure to snipers.
“Yesterday, I saw three rebels running from the right side,” recounted Abu Ali, 47, who mans the post and used an alias, as did other regime militiamen who spoke to a reporter visiting the embattled suburb of Tadamon. “I saw a man carrying a board, and we sniped him. A guy ran to rescue him, and we sniped him. And then we sniped the guy who tried to rescue the rescuer with a rope.”
A 15-minute drive away, through a labyrinth of checkpoints, life in President Bashar Assad’s citadel offers a stunning contrast. Shops are stacked with goods, regular garbage collections and street sweepers keep the downtown free of refuse and traffic backs up at numerous checkpoints, suggesting that gasoline is now plentiful after several periods of intermittent supplies.
The security belt that separates Tadamon and other battle-weary areas from central Damascus contributes to a veneer of normalcy in the city. That relative calm reassures Assad’s loyalists, who point to a recent slackening in car bombings and shelling as evidence that government offensives have succeeded in pushing rebels back in some suburbs.
“As long as Bashar Assad is in power, we don’t mind” the war, declared Fahed Nizam, 42, whose family has hawked roasted nuts from a small shop in Damascus’ fabled old city for 40 years, the same period in which the Assad family has ruled Syria. “Bashar is our eyes. He keeps us safe.”
Many people, however, agree that beneath the veneer are serious problems that will worsen with no apparent progress in diplomatic efforts to mediate an end to the carnage. The relative calm of the capital’s center belies the savagery that’s laid waste to large parts of the suburbs, and huge swaths of cities and towns in other parts of Syria. Peace talks, brokered by the United States and Russia, next week in Switzerland are unlikely to resolve anything anytime soon.
“You know the novels of Franz Kafka?” asked Mokhtar Lamani, who heads the Damascus office of U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, referring to the German writer famed for his surreal, nightmarish stories. “It’s like living in one of his books.”
Armed soldiers and plainclothes security men are everywhere. While the daytime is mostly free of the sounds of war, the nights often resound with explosions and gunfire from the fighting on the capital’s periphery.
The checkpoint-spawned traffic jams, far-off nighttime explosions and sporadic power cuts are among the few outward signs in Damascus of the war that’s claimed tens of thousands of lives since Assad’s forces fired on peaceful protests in March 2011. Some 7 million others have been uprooted, thousands of foreign Islamists have poured into Syria and the sectarian strife has bled into Iraq and Lebanon.
Residents complain about the high costs of fuel and food – estimates put inflation at anywhere from 40 percent to nearly 200 percent – and serious crimes, especially kidnappings, are said to be soaring in a city where it was once safe to walk late into the night.
In many rebel-held neighborhoods on the capital’s outskirts, the regime has imposed blockades, preventing the transport of food and water and leaving thousands of women and children hungry. In some, the tactic has been successful, forcing insurgents to negotiate truces in return for aid and evacuations.
In others, civilians with little to eat or drink are still trapped – or prevented by rebels from leaving. They shelter in shell-pitted buildings from icy rains and duels between the rebels and locally recruited regime militias, whose formations have allowed Assad’s manpower-short army to shift troops to other battlefronts.
“Every day, the rebels try to push forward because they can enter Damascus from here. So we are trying to stop them,” explained Abu Aksam, 45, a veteran army officer who supervises the militia in Tadamon. On a recent day, he was accompanied by his 5-year-old son, who wore a child-size camouflage uniform.
Aksam is a Sunni Muslim, yet the morale-boosting posters hung on his command post wall include not only Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, but also Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia from Lebanon that’s provided the regime with crucial support against the rebellion, which is dominated by Sunnis like Aksam.
Aksam’s commander, Gen. Abu Salim, said that some 500 rebels from three Islamist groups held the southern half of Tadamon, a working class area of narrow streets, small shops and cramped homes whose prewar population of some 87,000 reflected Syria’s mix of religious and ethnic groups. Only a few civilians are left on the rebel side, he said, adding that they’re mostly the families of rebels or people who are too poor to rent homes elsewhere in Damascus.
The conflict in Tadamon – as in the rest of the country – is a stalemate punctuated by bursts of vicious fighting. The last major clash erupted in November, when rebels penetrated several blocks into the regime side. It took Salim’s men two days to drive them back, he said.
The rebels, he said, are led by foreign Sunni extremists backed by Saudi Arabia and the West. They’re committed to ousting the secular government dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot, and subjugating Syria’s Muslims and Christians to harsh, Taliban-style rule that the extremists, if victorious, will fight to extend across the region, he warned.
“The danger of the extremists will not remain inside Syria’s borders,” Salim, an Alawite, asserted, adding that the rebels in Tadamon are led by Islamists from Jordan and Iraq. “Extreme Islam is . . . a real cancer.”
Until last month, civilians were permitted in and out of the rebel-held side to purchase food through three checkpoints. Then the government closed the passages, cut the water supply and tightened the siege, Salim said.
“We asked the (rebels’) families to leave because it’s not safe. Nearly 80 to 90 percent left,” he said.
The rebels still have food from stocks they seized from warehouses two years ago, but they’re restricting the amounts they provide to the remaining civilians, he said.
The devastation of the front lines quickly recedes just a few blocks into the regime-held half of Tadamon. There, at what the locals call “the Line of Life,” the streets are shielded by high buildings and huge sheets of plastic that are hung overhead to obscure the views of rebel snipers.
Yelling children scurry after balls or ride bicycles in rutted lanes framed by modest apartment buildings. There’s running water, intermittent electricity and small stores stocked with food, clothing and consumer goods.
Banners eulogizing local soldiers killed by the rebels are strung from houses, and an effigy of an Islamist adorned with a head scarf and beard dangles from a noose on a light pole.
“It’s just normal life. It’s safe in here,” said Abdul Majid, 47, who sells cigarettes from a street stand.
But it’s downtown Damascus, nestled in the shadow of Assad’s massive palace atop Qasiyoun Mountain, that offers the greatest contrast to the death and devastation in the suburbs.
Everything appears to be for sale, from local foods and clothing to imported chocolates, jeans and luxury items that include Swiss watches, Italian designer shoes and Austrian crystal. The streets are clean, and schools and universities are open. In the afternoons and evenings, families and friends converse over succulent traditional dishes in packed restaurants, drink endless cups of Turkish coffee and pull at water pipes in smoke-filled cafes, while the well-heeled hold parties.
Just how Assad pays for the upkeep and keeps the city supplied with power and fuel are matters of quiet gossip, with many residents speculating that he depends on massive aid from Iran and Russia.
The story Iyad Ataya tells reflects the city’s feel. The grizzled 52-year-old businessman and his family fled their home in the embattled suburb of Jobbar, but he owns a small shoe store in the Kasaa neighborhood that provides them with income.
Still, it no longer brings in the $5,000 per month that Ataya says it costs to support his wife, their two sons and the families of four of their relatives who also left Jobbar.
“I feel wounded in my heart,” he said, sitting in front of shelves stacked with Chinese-produced shoes that he contends are far inferior to domestically made shoes, which are no longer available. “I would even live in a tent if I could go back to Jobbar.”