For the first time in almost six years, I am able to visit the city again and nothing seems to have changed. Light still spills out of El-Masri’s little restaurant, the click-and-rattle of Backgammon boards fills the café near Revolution Bridge, and the locals jostle over cheese-filled bread at the bakery in Qaimariyeh.
Hunger and desperation reigns only some kilometers away, in the rubble of the rebel-controlled suburbs. But in central Damascus, pre-conflict Syria still lives behind a maze of checkpoints and army outposts, just a little poorer and more run-down than it used to be.
Here, only the barricades tell of war: rows of concrete Jersey barriers painted in the colors of the Syrian flag and covered in fading posters of fallen soldiers and President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad, too, looks the same, a soft voice and a slight lisp in his icily blue suit and tie. The president of Syria receives us in an elegant French-Ottoman villa, rather than in the enormous modernist palace that sits perched on a mountain top overlooking the city. This is cozier, he tells the small group of journalists and Syria specialists invited to meet him.
For slightly more than an hour, the president expounds his view of the war, and gives a plain answer to the question always asked: no, he’s not going to resign.
“If you are in the middle of a war and you are the chief of staff of the government and the army, you don’t flee. If you are the captain of the ship and you have a storm, you don’t jump in the water.”
Assad points to the fact that his presidential mandate runs until 2021 and says he’s bound by the election results and by the constitution. This is a polite way of saying that he’s planning to stay as long as he likes. Everyone knows, himself included, that a Syrian election can only have one result and that the Syrian constitution means only what he wants it to mean. When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in the summer of 2000, the constitution was amended in the space of a few hours to pave the way for his accession to the presidency. But sixteen years later, Syria’s head of state pretends that inviolable laws and independent courts prevent him from taking responsibility for the actions of his subordinates or from releasing prisoners.
No one is fooled, but that doesn’t matter. Bashar al-Assad isn’t just Syria’s all-powerful president; he is also the premier spokesperson of his own government. Like any spokesperson, he will politely but firmly insist that no errors have been committed, even long after it becomes obvious that no one believes him. It’s his job and he performs it skillfully.
We run into the same polite denials when we ask about the Syrian air force’s attacks on civilian targets in the rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo. Human rights groups speak of thousands of dead and wounded, the United Nations warns of a humanitarian disaster. Unconfirmed allegations and propaganda, says Assad. In response, he brings up the fact that rebels lob grenades into the government half of Aleppo and kill civilians, but “no one is talking about war crimes.”
Assad is of course correct that his opponents commit atrocities, too. And it is a convenient way of changing the subject.
Eastern Aleppo fell under siege this summer. The Syrian army is now preventing food and medicine from entering, while offering amnesties for carrot and bombs for stick, in order to get the rebels to lay down their arms and exit.
Thus far, that strategy has only resulted in enormous suffering for the civilian population, but sooner or later the eastern half of the city will fall. To Assad, it will be a great victory. From that day on, the opposition will no longer control any areas of real significance. Though the war is likely to continue, many will see it as a confirmation of what the pro-government side has said from the very beginning, namely that there is no alternative to Bashar al-Assad. Perhaps the United States and Europe, where many now seem to regret the strong pro-opposition stance they took in 2011, will then start to dial back their support for the rebels. That, at any rate, seems to be what the government is hoping for, though it isn’t how Assad likes to put things.
“We don’t expect anything from the West,” he says drily. “The West and the United States do not care about the people in Aleppo. For them, Aleppo is the last important card left. They lost in Homs. They lost in the areas surrounding Damascus. They couldn’t do it, their terrorist proxies couldn’t do it.”
That the government has no great interest in compromise is further illustrated by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem at a press conference that evening.
The white-haired veteran diplomat slumps into a chair at the pointy end of an oblong, black-marble table, peering at the journalists gathered to meet him. He is well aware that he will soon be subjected to a barrage of questions about the suffering of civilians in eastern Aleppo. In a situation like that, most politicians would endeavor to display some empathy, lamenting the tragic fact of unavoidable collateral damage, and so on and so forth, in order to preempt any incoming criticism. Walid al-Moallem spends a moment sizing up the crowd. He then breaks into a little smirk and asks, slowly:
“Why this hysteria over Aleppo?”
You can hear a pin drop in the ensuing silence, as the foreign minister’s smile turns into a grin. He uses the rest of his hour to fire off point-blank, obstinate denials of civilian deaths in Aleppo, insisting that the government has made no mistake worth mentioning and has never hit a hospital, contrary to reports from human rights groups and UN officials.
There are certainly many things of which the Syrian government would like to convince the West. It wants us to know that it is winning, that it is secular, that its opponents are extremists, and so on. But the government’s most important message is the one delivered by Walid al-Moallem at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Damascus: Nothing you say matters. We have not changed, nor will we ever change. There will be no transitional governing bodies and no compromises, and sooner or later you in the West will simply have to swallow the bitter pill of Assad staying in power.
This has been the government’s line from day one. As the sixth year of the war draws to a close, it remains the same.
This intransigence, verging on disdain, seems to be a built-in feature of the Syrian regime. It acted this way in negotiations long before Bashar al-Assad took power. But it is also a tactic, and one that has served the president well. Assad knows that neither the United States nor the nations of the European Union are interested in shouldering the burden of a military intervention to depose him, and that the arms deliveries to his opponents are at this point motivated solely by the idea that he can be forced to the negotiating table.
But if there’s not going to be a negotiated solution, things start to look very different. In such a scenario, he can safely assume that the West will eventually pick his side over that of his opponents, because they are no pretty sight, either: a mess of armed militias, most of them Islamists of some stripe and some of them linked to internationally sanctioned terrorist groups. Most importantly, they are too internally divided to establish a joint government. In every area where the rebels have seized power, the state has crumbled. It’s now either us or jihadis and chaos, says Assad, simply.
Many Syrians face the same choice, and many have already voted with their feet. Assad’s opponents tend to leave Syria. Five million people have crossed the border so far. But of the more than six million Syrians that are internally displaced inside their country, many have fled to cities under his control.
“Most of the displaced are coming to our region. In all of Syria it is the same situation,” Assad says. He makes a nod to the fact that this is not about the people’s love for their government, or for him personally, but about ordinary families seeking to escape the mercilessly bombed-out, impoverished, and lethally dangerous rebel-held territories in order to find stability, employment, and a functioning state.
“In the end, despite all the flaws of the government, like corruption or whatever you want to call it, you had certain criteria to deal with [before the war]. You had a reference, you had laws.”
In other words: before 2011, there existed a certain normality to which many people now again aspire. I see it all around me in Damascus. The traffic police are still there at Victoria Bridge, waving at the throngs of honking yellow cabs. Students still smoke and chat at the stairs of Damascus University. On Port Said Avenue, Café Havanna still serves its Turkish coffee in an air of sugary apple tobaccoes. You can still have a beer in the Christian neighborhoods around Bab Touma, or go to pray in the great Omayyad Mosque, whichever you prefer. Superficially, it all looks the same, and this is the bait that Assad dangles before his opponents.
And yet, below the city’s surface of unassuming normality there is a deep well of trauma. For many Syrians, there is no longer any way back into the “embrace of the nation,” to use a stock phrase of the official propaganda. For many, making any contact with the authorities is a gamble with death, in case they have a warrant out for their arrest or some relative of theirs has been snared by the secret police. According to Amnesty International, around 17,000 Syrians have been murdered in captivity since 2011. The figure may be much higher, with opposition groups claiming that 65,000 people have gone missing after being abducted by their government.
To many, making peace with a president with so much blood on his hands is unthinkable—they’ve already lost everything and now prepare to go down fighting. To others, such a peace may well seem possible, but they still cannot bring themselves to bet that Assad’s promises of free passage can be trusted. Lose a bet like that, and you run a large risk of never emerging from your jail cell alive.
Nevertheless, Syrians’ utter weariness of this war and their fear of chaos have strengthened Assad’s hand. This is the hand that he will now seek to play as the conflict moves to a tipping point, by offering his enemies an amnesty. He calculates that as Aleppo and the rebel suburbs of Damascus fall, many opposition fighters will lose any lingering hope of final victory, and many civilians will conclude that their options have been whittled down to two: life in an authoritarian state under Assad’s rule, or life in stateless chaos under Assad’s bombs. Already, since 2013, more than 84,000 former fugitives have accepted to return to government-held areas, renounce politics, and accept Assad’s offer of a return to normal life, claims a colonel in the Syrian intelligence services.
To Assad, that slow in-gathering of former dissidents under his rule is in fact the best evidence that he is winning.
“Maybe they are against the Baath Party,” he says, “and maybe they are against the president and the officials and this whole structure. But they now value the state.”
And in Syria, “the state” can only mean one thing. The militia fighters write it on the walls near their checkpoints in Old Town: they’re Junoud al-Assad, Assad’s soldiers. Such is the reality of all this quaint talk of constitutions and electoral terms. On public buildings and propaganda posters, the words Souriya al-Assad tell the truth: Assad’s Syria, that’s exactly what this country is.
It now looks increasingly likely that that is also what it will remain.