Parallels
12:52 am
Tue May 28, 2013

In Damascus, A View Of Syria's War Turned Inside Out

Originally published on Tue May 28, 2013 9:41 am

Many years ago, the president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, approved the construction of a new presidential residence on a mountainside above Damascus.

Assad never occupied the building, saying his successor should take it. When his son Bashar Assad became that successor, he didn't move into the house, either. He preferred a residence down the slope.

But there is still a presidential complex at a crest of the mountain, with a balcony overlooking the city sprawling below. Should Syria's president choose to lounge on that balcony on any given afternoon this week, the younger Assad would see black smoke from artillery strikes as his army fights for control of the suburbs against the rebels who want to oust him.

Traveling to Damascus produces a view of Syria's war turned inside out. The international community may view Assad as a pariah, but in the capital he is still president, his face on billboards and posters. What some outsiders may see as bad news is received here as good news, while the good news is bad. Even people who acknowledge Assad's flaws often grimly hope for the rebels to go away: They believe the government's description of the rebels as terrorists and foreigners out to destroy the country.

We arrived in Syria during the same weekend that the government agreed "in principle" to peace talks with the rebels, but there is no sign of peace in the capital. The road to Damascus, lined with purple flowers, is also lined with soldiers: We stopped at one military checkpoint after another on the short drive in from Lebanon.

One of the guard booths featured a poster of Assad and a label describing him as the maker of surprises and overcomer of crises.

Right now the crisis is the survival of his regime. Thousands of armed men patrol a secure zone in the heart of the city. Some are regular army soldiers in uniform; others are neighborhood teenagers with T-shirts and Kalashnikovs. Assad's government has armed many military veterans and others, supplementing the manpower of armed forces he did not entirely trust.

Many of these recruits are drawn from religious minorities — Shia Muslims, Christians, Druze and especially Assad's own Alawite sect. Fighters from the Shia group Hezbollah have also come from Lebanon. They oppose a rebellion that includes many of the majority Sunni Muslims.

An uprising that began as a drive to remove Assad has led to fears of sectarian war.

Fear And Frustration

At the center of this ancient city is a centuries-old mosque; it is almost as old as Islam itself, and for centuries before that it was a Christian church and a Roman-era pagan temple. But Damascus is better known for trade than for religion. Around the mosque, we walked the stone-paved streets of the ancient bazaar.

Business is bad, as we learned in the shop of a fabric seller. Syria's currency has plunged in value. That drives up prices of the imported goods he sells. Almost every day, the price changes, he says.

A customer may order cloth at a certain price. "Half an hour later," the man says, "I call and find out [the] latest shift in the exchange rate," and he discovers it will cost him more to import the cloth than he would earn from the sale.

Like many people in Damascus, this man declined to give his name and said nothing against the government of Bashar Assad. Business groups of all sects have been among Assad's major supporters. Yet the fabric seller is clearly frustrated by the war.

"I would like to shout to everybody," he says, "don't go the way of sectarian divisions."

Fighting has already driven him out of his suburban home, in a no man's land between the army and rebels.

He's one of many people struggling to live normally in a city where life is not normal at all.

Suburban War Zone

Our first night in Damascus, we went out for dinner on a rooftop restaurant. It was in the old walled city. The waiters served a spectacular stream of dishes including kibbeh and kabob. Yet we were down the street from a Christian church whose bishops have been kidnapped. And the restaurant offered us an excellent view of what seemed to be tracer shells streaking across the sky.

Our dinner companions told us rebels have been fighting the army for months in the eastern suburbs. We could hear the explosions. Once daylight came, the shelling continued, so we drove toward the blasts.

We were soon driving through the area of fighting: mile after mile of rubble; buildings that had been half-destroyed, entirely destroyed; houses with holes punched into them.

We passed what used to be a giant strip of suburban auto dealerships, of the kind you might see in America. Now the cars are gone, except for the ones left burned out on the road.

I made some audio notes, talking into the tape recorder: "Tank treads left on the street ... piles of fruit left on the road as if a fruit truck spilled its load. The Volvo dealership is shut down ... "

Black smoke rose from the Honda dealership, apparently blasted just before we arrived.

Syria's government media say the army is clearing out foreign terrorists in this suburb called Douma.

Syrian rebels have been sending out videos of men, women and children they say are civilians killed by government shelling.

In another Damascus suburb this week, the rebels contend they were attacked with chemical weapons.

'It's Normal Here'

A little beyond the battle zone, we encountered a row of apartment buildings still occupied. Some of the buildings were only partially completed before the war, and their concrete shells have become shelters for refugees from the zone we just passed.

We walked up the rough steps of one building with a man we'll call Walid. He lives here now with his sister, her daughter and her 14-month-old grandson.

When they fled home in Douma, the family salvaged an ornate wooden wall clock but no furniture. We sat beneath that clock, talking while sitting on mats on the floor.

The family said they felt safe enough — stray artillery shells have landed in the field across the street, but not on this side.

Walid's sister said the family stayed in town through months of shelling but finally fled on a day when the explosions became "unbearable." They loaded the family into somebody else's car and drove until they found this empty building.

Many refugees live here with their families. We asked if the many children in the complex are accustomed to the gunfire. The sister answered: "I am old enough and I still get scared, so what do you think about the little ones?"

The family serves Turkish coffee in ornate china cups but has no glass in the windows. Walid, who used to work in construction, has helped to fix up the place a bit. Improvised electric wiring stretches from room to room.

"It's normal here," he said.

Maybe that's the strangest thing of all — that his life is normal for Damascus.

Other buildings near Walid's are filled with manufacturing employees, who see the smoke of burning buildings out their windows but still work their shifts at steel plants up the road.

Two of those plants melt down scrap metal, and we saw workers use a metal claw to sort through a mountain of scrap.

The claw was picking up the remnants of many past lives — car parts, strips of chrome, bits of buildings, rebar, sheet metal, giant steel wheels.

Here we can see the only thing that's certain about Syria's future: The war's destruction will in time create more wreckage for the pile.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Late yesterday, the European Union announced it was ending an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. That may clear the way for Europeans to send in weapons - though the U.S. remains reluctant to do so.

Also yesterday, Republican Senator John McCain slipped into Syria via Turkey. He visited leaders of some of the groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

As pressure mounts on Syria's regime, we'll get a glimpse this week of Syria's war as it looks from the government side of the battle lines. A few days ago, our own Steve Inskeep crossed the border on his way Syria's capital.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So we're on the road to Damascus, a highway lined with flowers, and also lined with soldiers. We were stopped at one military checkpoint after another as we drove into the city.

As we've driven into the center of Damascus, which is surrounded by high dry hills, the only thing that's more common than security checkpoints on the streets is pictures of this country's president, Bashar al-Assad. One of those pictures had a label describing him as the maker of surprises and overcomer of crises.

Right now the crisis is the survival of his regime. If he goes to his office, which overlooks the city from a hillside, Assad can see black smoke rising up from artillery strikes. Rebels hold some of the suburbs. The government controls the center city with the help of the troops at the checkpoints. They range from regular army soldiers in uniform to neighborhood teenagers with T-shirts and Kalashnikovs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) You have ID please?

INSKEEP: This soldier asking for ID is Christian, one of many drawn from religious minorities - Shia Muslims, Druze, and especially Assad's own Alawite sect. Fighters from the Shia group Hezbollah have also come from Lebanon. They oppose a rebellion that includes many of the majority Sunni Muslims here.

An uprising that began as a drive to remove Assad has led to fears of sectarian war.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

INSKEEP: At the center of this ancient city is a centuries-old mosque, with an unusual Muslim call to prayer - instead of a single voice, you hear several men sing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

INSKEEP: But Damascus is better known for trade than religion. Around the mosque we walked the stone-paved streets of the ancient bazaar. Business is bad, as we learned in the shop of a fabric seller. Syria's currency has plunged in value. That drives up prices of the imported goods he sells.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Almost every day the price changes, he says. A customer may order cloth at a certain price. Half an hour later, the merchant discovers the latest shift in the exchange rate, meaning it will cost him more to import the cloth than he would earn from the sale.

Your profit margin is less, and your cost of living is higher.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Like many people in Damascus, this man declined to give his name and said nothing against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Business groups of all sects have been among Assad's major supporters. Yet the fabric seller is clearly frustrated by the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Afwan, I am sorry. (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I would like to shout to everybody, he says - don't go the way of sectarian divisions. Fighting has already driven him out of his suburban home, in a no-man's-land between the army and rebels. He's one of many people struggling to live normally in a city where life is not normal at all.

Can I just mention, night has fallen, there's a full moon, we're on a rooftop restaurant and we're listening to the thump of artillery shells in the not too far distance, and we're even watching tracer shells, what appear to be red tracer shells - there go several - flying across the sky on the near horizon.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT EXPLOSION)

INSKEEP: Our dinner companions told us rebels have been fighting the army for months in the eastern suburbs.

Once daylight came, the shelling continued.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

INSKEEP: We drove toward the sound of the blasts.

So we're approaching an area of sporadic fighting in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. We are passing mile after mile of rubble, buildings that have been half destroyed, entirely destroyed, houses with holes punched into them.

This used to be a giant strip of suburban auto dealerships of the kind you might see in America. Now the cars are gone, except for the ones left burned out on the road. Tank treads left on the street. Piles of fruit left on the road as if a fruit truck spilled its load. The Volvo dealership is shut down. Black smoke rose from the Honda dealership, which apparently blasted just before we arrived. I keep thinking we must have passed the most heavily fought-over area, then we see more smashed-up buildings. Syria's government media say the army is clearing out foreign terrorists in this suburb called Douma. Syrian rebels have been sending out videos of men, women and children they say are civilians killed by the government shelling. In another Damascus suburb this week, the rebels contend they were attacked with chemical weapons. Our car continued a little beyond the battle zone. We encountered a row of apartment buildings that were still occupied. Some of the buildings were only partially completed before the war, and their concrete shells have now become shelters for refugees from the zone we just passed.

We walked up the rough steps of one building with a man we'll call Walid. He lives here now with his sister, her daughter, and her 14-month-old grandson.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

INSKEEP: When they fled home in Douma, the family salvaged an ornate wooden wall clock, but no furniture. We sat beneath that clock, talking while sitting on the floor. We are close enough that you can hear regular gunfire, but it's just far enough away that you feel just safe enough to stay here - is that right?

WALID: Yes.

INSKEEP: Stray artillery shells have landed in the field across the street, but not on this side. Do you remember the day that you left Douma for the last time?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Walid's sister says the family stayed in town through months of shelling but finally fled on a day when the explosions became unbearable. They loaded the family into somebody else's car and drove until they found this empty building. Many refugees live here with their families. Through an interpreter, we asked if the many children in the complex are accustomed to the gunfire.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) I am old enough and I didn't get used yet. I still get scared. So what do you think about the little ones?

INSKEEP: This family serves Turkish coffee in ornate china cups but has no glass in the windows. Walid, who used to work in construction - when there was work - has helped to fix up the place a bit. Improvised electric wiring stretches from room to room. This looks like a spider web over here, all these wires.

WALID: But normal here.

INSKEEP: It's normal here, he says, and maybe that's the strangest thing of all, that this life is normal for Damascus. Other buildings near Walid's are filled with manufacturing employees who see the smoke of burning buildings out their windows but still work their shifts at steel plants up the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING METAL)

INSKEEP: Two of those plants melt down scrap metal, and we saw workers use a metal claw to sort through a mountain of scrap. That claw was picking up the remnants of many past lives - car parts, strips of chrome, bits of buildings, rebar, sheet metal, giant steel wheels. Here we can see the only thing that is certain about Syria's future: the war's destruction will in time create more wreckage for the pile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We're reporting this week from Damascus, where President Bashar al-Assad still has many supporters. Tomorrow we'll visit a Damascus religious shrine where people say they back the government even if they do not love their president.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Twenty percent of the people of all Syria love the president too much. And 20 percent may hate the president too much. But the rest, which is 60, love their country. They do not want their country to be destroyed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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