The brutal Syrian civil war has produced a series of stark images that bombard the western world on a daily basis. Pictures of injured children haunt us and galvanize many to ask what can be done to stop the madness. Video emerges on social media of dirty urban combat amongst skeleton-like remains of destroyed buildings.
My own experiences in Syria two years ago haunted me in a different way. In the Kurdish held areas of northern Syria, I visited a hospital in Qamishli and saw injured YPG guerrilla fighters. I saw an out-patient facility filled with injured Kurds who were still in recovery. In Tal Hamis I sat with YPJ snipers who described killing ISIS terrorists on the front lines. But what struck me the most was something that is harder to describe, it was a sense of uneasiness. A quiet uncertainty hung in the air wherever I went, whether I was watching kids on their way to school, or looking at ISIS positions through a pair of binoculars on the front lines.
Damascus was different.
I stood out on the sidewalk holding a Lebanese beer and watched a gaggle of teenagers stroll down the street dressed as vampires complete with white face paint, plastic fangs, and black capes. It was Halloween in Syria’s capital. My friend Brad Hoff even saw a couple of kids dressed as Saudis for Halloween, mocking the Wahhabi ideology that had spread across Syria and Iraq like a cancer. At first I was a little shocked while walking the streets of Damascus and spotting men who sported what looked like long Jihadi beards.
Entering a nightclub in central Damascus the bouncer patted me down for weapons. He must have weighed three hundred pounds and had a long black beard that would have made Bin Laden weep with envy. On the way out he smiled and said that we were welcome back any time. A local later explained to me that the bearded men are normal folks. Apparently there is a Islamic tradition to grow a beard during times of mourning. In recent years, nearly everyone is Syria has lost friends and family members.
The main noticeable difference in Damascus, according to the old hands I spoke with, was that there were now military checkpoints all over the city. I found it humorous that most of the checkpoints would just wave us through with little fanfare. A couple gringos were not the Jihadists that the military was looking for.
The city had been under serious duress by various FSA and al-Nusra elements in the recent past, but due to the Syrian military fighting back the rebels and the reconciliation process, the locals no longer have to worry about mortar rounds landing in crowded markets. Life goes on, and why wouldn’t it? Young people are all over the city, just doing the normal things that kids do with one exception. I soon learned that most of them were not actually from Damascus. Any local people who were able to leave the city did so a long time ago. When asked, it turned out that the teenagers were internally displaced people from places like Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, and Qamishli.
The city itself has a charm to it that I am unaccustomed to in the Middle East. Damascus is a product of a rich history and cultural diversity, standing in contrast to the abject poverty I witnessed in Iraq or the manicured superficiality of Dubai. While war rages in Aleppo, Damascus is the kind of place you could call home.
Portraits of President Assad are everywhere in the streets, as well as in nearly every shop. While Assad insists that he is not synonymous with the state of Syria, his citizens appear to feel differently, or at least feel obligated to. Talking politics with random people on the streets is basically impossible. People won’t talk on that subject or give canned answers. It’s nothing personal, just a deeply ingrained cultural trait. You don’t talk politics in public, and certainly not with some strange American who asks too many questions.
Walking through the central market, seeing women wearing head coverings and others forgoing them, watching people line up to buy ice cream cones, or seeing families spending the day shopping; there is one simple question I have to ask myself. Would Syria be better off if the government was toppled and the likes of so-called moderate FSA rebels, or worse, al-Nusra were to seize power here? For me, the answer is a definite no.
With the Assad regime gaining confidence as well as battlefield victories, the governmental representatives I met talked about when rather than if re-construction would begin. However, for Syria this isn’t the end of the story but rather just the end of the first chapter. Whatever Syria was in 2011 is dead and gone, the fabric of society torn apart by war.
In the wake of so much violence and psychological trauma, stitching the state back together is going to be the most difficult task that Syrians have been faced with in generations.