A Journey Through Assad’s Syria
On an icy January evening in eastern Aleppo, a grotesque scene of destruction, five men are standing around a fire in a battered oil drum in a butcher’s shop.
Their trousers are dirty and their faces are covered with soot. There has been no running water for a long time. Every evening, the men come here to warm up, burning table legs and chairs from the ruins. In what is left of their apartments, there are no heating stoves.
The fear, though, is finally gone, says shop owner Ahmed Tubal. For over four years, various rebel groups had controlled their neighborhood of al-Shaar, but Syrian and Russian jets recently transformed half of the city into rubble to wipe them out.
The rebels and their supporters have left the city and following the regime’s victory, only those who support Syrian President Bashar Assad have remained. “The bombing was necessary to drive out the Islamists,” says Tubal, a short man with tired eyes. “Otherwise they would never have left.” The other men voice their approval. “We were so exhausted. We just wanted it to stop. And if that meant that everything had to be destroyed even further, then that was just the price we had to pay.”
A visit to Assad’s Syria, a rump state around the large cities in the west, over which the dictator has regained control thanks to Russian and Iranian support, is like entering an apocalyptic world. Large Mercedes tractor-trailers drive water tanks through Aleppo’s ruins while the streets are patrolled by armored vehicles manned by Russian soldiers. Assad can frequently be seen on television while fear can be seen in the eyes of many residents.
Our journey leads us to the three largest cities in northern and western Syria: Aleppo, Latakia and Homs. Aleppo has become symbolic of the brutal bombing campaign. Latakia, the regime stronghold on the Mediterranean, was largely untouched by the war and is still a popular vacation spot in the summer. And Homs, once the center of the uprising, was destroyed and is now slated to become a model of reconstruction.
When journalists travel through Syria, they are unable to move about freely. Officially, we are only allowed to visit places for which we have obtained written permits from Damascus. Furthermore, only people who are acceptable to the regime can be interviewed and any other meetings must take place in secret. Usually, journalists are accompanied by government minders.
There is only one minder for international journalists in Aleppo, meaning that it is usually possible to speak to people without supervision. In Latakia, on the other hand, journalists have a military escort, while there are two minders in Homs. But even when minders aren’t present, it isn’t always easy to know if people are saying what they really think or if their words are guided by fear.
It is clear what conclusion the regime would like visitors to reach: that Bashar Assad is the only one who can bring the country back together again. But what do people really think? What are the obstacles to reconciliation and reconstruction? And isn’t Assad himself the greatest obstacle?
“This used to be a safe neighborhood,” says Ahmed Tubal, the butcher. “Until they came.” He breaks off a piece of particleboard with his foot before adding it to the fire in the oil drum. It was at the beginning of Ramadan in 2012 when the war came to his neighborhood. In front of his house, a masked fighter fired an anti-tank weapon at a passing car and the four passengers burned to death. Their faces were still recognizable and they haunt Tubal to this day.
He ran into the next store to buy bread, eggs, oil and rice for himself, his wife and their two children and the family didn’t leave their apartment for the next 20 days. Ultimately, though, once they had used up all their provisions, they had to learn to live with the war.
Most of the rebels who captured parts of Aleppo were from the surrounding areas, and they belonged to various groups, some moderate and others extremist. Many groups become more religious as the years passed.
The fighters in his district soon banned alcohol and later cigarettes, says Tubal, adding that the bans didn’t bother him because he is a religious man. But when the local rebel leader turned up to Friday prayers with a Kalashnikov a few weeks later, it became too much for Tubal. He stopped going to the mosque and took his children out of the school to prevent them from being brainwashed by the Islamists.
As Tubal and four other men are warming themselves by the fire, the rumbling of air strikes can be heard in the distance. A short man with leathery skin walks up to the group, smiling at first before beginning to cry. He stammers a few incomprehensible words and stares into the flames. “This is Mohammed,” says one of the men. “He lost his mind as a result of the bombing raids.” The man weeps, laughs and weeps again, and then he walks away and disappears into the dark ruins.
Western Aleppo, which was under regime control the entire time, is relatively undamaged. But the eastern half of the city, along with its historic center, was controlled by the rebels and is now little more than a memorial to the destruction of the war. Still, people are returning to destroyed neighborhoods, opening shops and carrying mattresses into cold, bombed-out apartments.
Playing Next to Shells
Russian soldiers are clearing mines out of the buildings and dismantling huge barricades made of stacked buses. Homemade booby traps left behind by the rebels when they withdrew lie along the sides of smaller streets while children play next to gas canisters that were converted into shells.
The only electricity in the city comes from generators. The streets slice through the rubble, and everything is coated with a layer of ash and dust. Sometimes, people can be seen standing in the streets, lost, silent and sad. Aimless survivors.
Until December, Tubal’s neighborhood was controlled by Jabat Fatah al-Sham, an extremist rebel militia which, according to the United Nations, made up about 10 percent of the fighters in Aleppo. The words “Join the Fatah Army” are written in large letters on the floor of an apartment, which now hangs down from the building as though a lunatic god had whacked the top floor with an axe. The façade has disappeared entirely.
“They shouted Allahu akbar” God is great “about everything,” says Tubal. “They went into shops, shouted Allahu akbar, called the owners infidels and confiscated everything. They said: You are the wife of a police officer, shouted Allahu akbar and took the woman. And then more and more foreigners arrived, so that fewer and fewer of the fighters were Syrians.” Those who did not go to the mosque regularly were sent to prison for 15 days. “Allahu akbar here, Allahu akbar there,” he says scornfully.
They shot and killed one of his acquaintances in a dispute over buying cigarettes, he says. They executed a young man selling coffee for saying that not even the Prophet Mohammed could buy on credit in his shop. The charge: blasphemy.
History is written by winners and now, everyone in the neighborhood claims to have been opposed to the rebels. Those who harbor a different viewpoint are either silent or no longer here to tell their stories. But Assad always had many supporters in Aleppo, which helps to explain the sense of relief many now exhibit. In their view, the war was brought into their city from the outside. “They stole our neighborhood from us,” says Tubal.
In the Syrian civil war, the primarily Sunni opposition is fighting a mostly Alawite regime. From the very beginning, the regime decided that it could only win by going to the extremes. The results can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties of the regime’s air strikes and in a report published recently by Amnesty International. According to the report, up to 13,000 people have been killed in mass executions in the Saydnaya military prison near Damascus, a place where torture and rape are committed systematically.
The regime has decided that destruction, not reconciliation, is the path to victory and Assad is achieving military dominance with the help of his powerful allies. But does he have a future?
The remains of a chandelier jingle in the wind on a balcony across the street from Tubal’s butcher’s. Hamzi, a little boy from the neighborhood, wanders into the shop, as he does every day, looking for someone to help remove the shell that has been lying in his room for weeks. He is afraid to go into the house, he says. He doesn’t know where his parents are.
The light from Tubal’s shop softly illuminates the dark street. Boys play catch, not with a ball but with a large-caliber bullet casing. “An entire generation has been lost,” says Tubal.
The trip to Latakia takes five hours, though it is only 144 kilometers (89 miles) away – but it’s a journey into another world.
Buses, cars and armored vehicles crowd onto the only street that connects Aleppo with the rest of Assad’s Syria. Islamic State fighters lurk not far to the east, while rebels control territory to the west.
The road passes through empty, destroyed villages before skirting Jabbul Lake as it heads south. Burned out military vehicles and buses line the route while unexploded missiles jut from the brown, barren soil like cactuses. The army has built fortifications out of boulders and scrap metal on hilltops near the road.
Latakia lies just beyond the coastal mountains and things here are essentially the same as they have always been. Along the corniche, men are casting their fishing lines into the sea as they do every morning, even when the winter surf pounds against the beach. Many vacation homes are freshly painted, the shops are busy, and city officials have extended store hours, allegedly to accommodate the visitors from Aleppo, who like to shop late.
Syria’s most important port city is known for its beaches and luxury hotels and it is protected by the Russians, who have maintained an air base here since 2015. The war only reached Latakia early on and only for a short time. The city is part of the Alawite heartland, belonging to the religious minority of which President Bashar Assad is a member. His family controls the economy and smuggling routes. There is deep poverty in Latakia, as well as immense wealth, with new restaurants being built, cafes opening up and parties being held.
Ghaith Salman is sitting in a lounge chair in a five-star hotel. He has short hair, is wearing a light-blue Adidas track suit and he is angry. “Why is the whole world upset with us?” he asks. “Shouldn’t we be allowed to live, just because people in Aleppo are dying?” While bombs were falling on Aleppo last November, and while thousands were losing their homes and their lives, Salman was hosting the second Syrian Fashion Week in Latakia. His staff had selected the local models themselves and young designers presented their collections, including hot pants, over-the-knee stockings and jackets with gold applications. The Arab media criticized the event as cynical, an accusation that still bothers him today.
“Why should I be interested in Aleppo,” he says, stretching. A men’s clutch bag is dangling from his wrist. Videos in the hotel lobby depict crowded beaches, children building sand castles and couples dancing in strobe lights. They were filmed last summer in Latakia.
Two local minders assigned by the regime are sitting at the table behind Salman. The minder from the Information Ministry in Damascus is studiously taking notes at the next table. But they don’t have to worry about Salman. “The press lies,” he says, about him, about Fashion Week and naturally about other things as well.
“Lies are being told to damage Assad!” he says. The stories about atrocities during the bombing of Aleppo are false, he says, rumors spread by enemies of the regime. The minders nod in approval. “Soldiers die so that we can live,” says Salman. “If we owe them anything, then it is to live our lives.”
As darkness falls and the wind begins blowing out to sea, Salman moves on to Café Moscow. Russian patrons don’t have to pay in the café because the owner is so grateful to them for the “peace” they have brought. He came up with the name of the café after the Russians’ first veto of UN sanctions against Syria in 2011. The Russian military officers gave him a uniform in return, which he keeps in the small room where he sleeps and where he studies for his law exams, which he hopes will take him to Russia one day.
One man’s war criminal is another man’s hero in Syria. Salman also loves the Russians. It is thanks to them that his models will once again be able to walk the runway this year. When everything is finally over, he says, the Syrians will patch things up again. But he doesn’t know how.
The government’s vision for the future can be seen in Homs. The highway continues south along the densely populated coast, past undamaged villages, orange groves and greenhouses. On rooftops, laundry is hung out to dry in the Mediterranean wind. The road passes Tartus, where the Russian fleet is located and where a new luxury resort has allegedly just opened. The Alawites who live here have lost many sons in the army. But there are no visible traces of the war.
The road then turns to the east, toward snow-capped peaks glistening in the distance. The closer we get to Homs, the deeper we descend into the abyss of the war.
Homs was once the center of the Syrian revolt and about two-thirds of the city is a wasteland today. A few weeks after peaceful protests began in Daraa in March 2011, people flooded into the streets in Homs, where half the population is Sunni. The regime responded with brutality, bringing in tanks and shooting protesters. The city was hotly contested for three years, until the majority of the rebels were allowed to leave in May 2014. Homs has been under Assad’s control since then, except for one district in which a handful of rebels are holed up, and with whom a ceasefire was agreed.
As was later the case in Aleppo, entire neighborhoods were so heavily bombed that they are now uninhabitable with the skeletons of buildings jutting into the air in districts that were under rebel control. Demolition is the only option in these areas, which remind one of Dresden or Stalingrad after they were destroyed in World War II.
The regime plans to rebuild the city with help from a United Nations program, the first of its kind in Syria. The program is headed by Ghassan Jansiz, and one of his advisers is his wife, 35-year-old architect Marwa Al-Sabouni. Wearing slim leather shoes, she walks through the historic center of a city once crowded with life. Today it is empty, as quiet as a cemetery.
Ashes of the Dead
The massive domes of the Roman Bath survived the bombardment and Sabouni enters cautiously before stopping in a small room. The floor is covered in 30 centimeters of ash, all that’s left of the wooden benches, tables and dozens of bodies that had been found here. Sabouni leaves that part unmentioned, pointing instead to a charred panel. “I think we will be able to save this mosaic,” she says.
The government wants Homs to become a symbol of a new beginning for Syria, with new life blossoming in the ashes of the dead.
But can those plans succeed? Even Sabouni is skeptical. “The city has enormous financial problems. Many families have been gone too long and have built new lives elsewhere.” People are afraid to start something new here, she says. Everything is under surveillance, she explains, and everyone is suspicious about the motives of others. Homs is a symbol, but not quite what the regime has in mind.
The architect leaves the old city and walks over to Khalidiya, a district that government troops recaptured in July 2013, after heavy fighting. As she walks, Sabouni talks about the past.
When the war reached her neighborhood almost five years ago, she says, she was playing with her children in the living room. She was living, as she does today, in a small side street off Midan Street, in one of the few neighborhoods that is relatively intact. There is a small pastry shop across the street and an old man sells plastic plates and cups in the shop two houses down. A mortar shell suddenly exploded in front of her house on that day four years ago and after the noise had died down, she looked out the window. In the spot where her daughter’s school friends had been throwing a ball against a wall 10 minutes earlier, the children’s bodies were now lying on the pavement.
She will never forget that day, she says. People began fleeing from her neighborhood, but Sabouni didn’t want to leave. For two-and-a-half years, the front was only a few blocks away from her apartment and the family almost never left the building. To help dispel their fears, she told the children where the bombers’ routes were and who was shooting, and from where to where. They read in candlelight as the nearby explosions became increasingly common. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the stereotyping of Islamic architecture, studying the architecture that was being bombed to pieces outside her window. “Of course, it wasn’t as bad as it was here,” she says, looking in disbelief at the old square of Khalidiya.
Bushes are growing from cracks in the asphalt. There are piles of rubble where buildings once stood. And there is almost complete silence.
A few blocks away, Hissam Jabour has moved back into his old house, where he has managed to make two small rooms on the ground floor, a total of about 12 square meters (130 square feet), habitable again. There are sofas, four narrow mattresses and a gas stove. His children are feeding a white rabbit in the ruins of the second floor. The minder from the Information Ministry knows him and his wife and she likes to bring journalists to the building.
Jabour and his wife dutifully say that they are pleased about the so-called reconciliation deal, which resulted in the rebels leaving the city in May 2014. But Jabour also says: “They destroyed our country. That is unforgiveable.”
Everyone was happy before the war, says Jabour, adding that there was no reason to fight.
“People believe what they want to believe,” says architect Sabouni a few blocks away. Her own experiences from the past have become blurred, she says. “It’s as if a fog has covered everything that existed before the war.” Of course, she adds, not everyone was good before the war, and she doesn’t want to romanticize those years, as many Syrians do.
There is a faction in the city government that favors leaving the old city untouched – the stones, the ash, the bullet casings, the bone fragments and the rubble. They want it to serve as a grim reminder, as if to say: You gave your city to the rebels, now live with the consequences. But Sabouni is convinced that reconstruction is an important step toward reconciliation. The wounds that the war created in the city need to be closed so that other wounds can also heal, she says. Architecture, she explains, must contribute to patching up the fault lines between religions and classes.
But can architecture bring reconciliation to a society that has been violently broken apart? Sabouni hesitates for a moment. “There was a shared spirit in Germany after World War II,” she says, “a collective will to rebuild the country.” This sense of community is missing in Syria, she explains. “Even before the war, there was no common Syrian identity. There was always division between sects.” Although the tensions were less than in many surrounding countries.
Homs was always more conservative than Damascus. Members of the various religions were often at odds. But there is one thing they did achieve, something the people of Homs and all of Syria were always proud of: People were able to live side-by-side in peace.
Religious tensions are stronger than ever today. Not everyone is allowed to return to the destroyed city, with the government making it difficult for Sunnis, most of whom supported the uprising against Assad, to return to their own homes. The regime officials, as well as the pro-government militias that control individual neighborhoods, want to keep them out.
Those who wish to return are subject to vetting. The fact that a relative sympathized with the rebels is often enough to bar someone from returning. “Many are afraid to file the application in the first place, fearing persecution,” says a man who wished to remain anonymous, hinting at the possibility of religious purges and resettlement.
In the plans to rebuild Homs, there is no room for those who once took to the streets to demand their rights. Sunnis see this as yet another form of punishment by the Assad regime.
For Talal al-Barazi, the governor of Homs, none of this is a problem. A man with a soft smile, he is a staunch supporter of Assad and he meets with us in his wood-paneled office. “People turn in their weapons and are vetted, and those who have not committed punishable offenses are allowed to return,” he says.
But what exactly does “not committed punishable offenses” mean? The fighters and supporters of the opposition fear prison, torture and death. In the best case, they can expect to be drafted into Assad’s army against their will.
Yearning for Coexistence
As the governor talks about how cleverly he arranged the “reconciliation deal” – the unobstructed departure of the rebels – in Homs, he reveals the military logic behind it. “It is better to concentrate your enemy in one place so that you can then fight them effectively.” This is now the case in northwestern Syria, around the city of Idlib, where most of the rebels are now gathered and where the Russian air strikes are concentrated.
According to the Syrian regime’s logic, reconciliation and extermination are closely tied together. Only when the enemies have been killed can peace be restored to the country, the regime argues. According to this notion, the uprising against Assad did not emerge from the middle of society; instead, it was the doing of “terrorists.”
There is a Syrian saying: If you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth. A trip through Syria, accompanied by Bashar Assad’s minders, shows that the true opinions of many Syrians are hidden behind fear, and that the suffering of the other side is being ignored. It shows that the Assad regime may be able to win the war, but that it is creating little room for reconciliation. It has provided no room for those citizens who took to the streets almost six years ago and rebelled against a ruler who systematically tortures his opponents and refuses to give his citizens a voice.
Many regime supporters nostalgically mourn a form of coexistence that they believe worked. But the government is offering the rebels little more than subjugation.
Ten years of war, says Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi, cannot divide a nation that existed peacefully for thousands of years, together with all of its religious groups. Soon everything will be as wonderful as it was before the war, he says: A peaceful coexistence where everyone is happy.
By Fritz Schaap (Text) and Christian Werner (Photos)
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan