Eye of the Storm Life Goes on in Damascus Despite Civil War

As the civil war rages around them, Syrians in the capital of Damascus continue to support President Bashar Assad despite their fears. They simply want to maintain their way of life.

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The streets of Damascus are full of people who are smoking water pipes, going about their business and smiling.
Jeroen Kramer/ DER SPIEGEL

The streets of Damascus are full of people who are smoking water pipes, going about their business and smiling.

When the door opened as we arrived to interview Syrian President Bashar Assad last Wednesday, he was standing there with his arms outstretched and a smile on his face. He greeted us the way former US President Bill Clinton often greets his guests, extending his right hand and touching our shoulders or forearms with his left hand -- a cordial gesture of power.

"What a pleasure," he said. Blue-eyed, gaunt and about 1.90 meters (6'3") tall, the 48-year-old wore a dark blue suit, light-colored shirt, blue tie and comfortable black loafers.

We met at his guesthouse in Damascus, a building with marble floors, tasteful sculptures and paintings that he uses as his office. There was an Apple computer on his desk, books on the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and "Palaces of Lebanon" on the bookshelf, and paintings by his children on the wall, depicting cows in pastures, chickens and chicks, and the sun rising over a green landscape.

"Shall we begin?" he asked.

Assad, a doctor, completed postgraduate training in ophthalmology in London, and speaks perfect English. He joined the army after returning to Syria, where many underestimated him because he was so mild-mannered. A member of the Alawite minority, he succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, and has now been in office for 13 years. According to a United States embassy cables leaked to WikiLeaks, the Americans felt that the Assads run Syria like a family business.

Now that all Western airlines have cancelled service to the Syrian capital, for the last several months most people visiting Damascus have had to take the land route from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon. Though it's only 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Beirut, it's a lengthy journey because the Syrian military has set up roadblocks every five kilometers, where travelers are asked to get out of their cars, open trunks and present their papers. With cigarettes dangling from their mouths, these Kalashnikov-wielding men have absolute power over those entering Syria and, above all, those trying to get out.

After we finally reached Damascus, spending a few days there are enough to alter our image of the country's civil war, because people there see it differently than we do in the West. They want to preserve what they have.

Trying to Preserve Their Way of Life

During dinners with politicians and professors, or in conversations in the narrow streets of the old city, everyone, without exception, expressed fear of the rebels. They worry that the rebels will be accompanied by fundamentalists, who will bring with them Sharia law. All the people we spoke with said that they distrust the West because the reasoning there is too simplistic and countries there set moral standards they fail to live up to themselves. And most said that while they don't support Assad, they want to preserve their way of life. "Just look at what's happening in Egypt and Libya," said one man.

These discussions help to explain why Assad has managed to remain in control for so long. The Syrian civil war feels different to those living at its center, different from the way it feels for the people of Aleppo, or for the politicians making decisions at the United Nations.

The streets of Damascus are full of people who are smoking water pipes, going about their business and smiling. There are some Damascus residents who have withdrawn into their homes, and there are also refugees who live under tarps on the outskirts and come into the city during the day. Still, Damascus has remained a defiant, voracious city that is secular and has a youthful atmosphere like Beirut. Girls wear sleeveless blouses, the Umayyad Mosque shimmers in the morning light and lingerie and ice cream are sold in the bazaar.

Yet the rumbling of artillery fire can be heard from the suburbs of Daraya and Jobar. In the first, columns of black smoke can be seen rising into the air. In the second, insurgent fighters are reportedly holed up, surrounded by government troops.

Then there are people like Rami, 23, who was celebrating having passed his exam in business management at the Roma Café in the old city, along with 50 friends. The DJ played both Western pop and Middle Eastern music. When everyone was asked to pose for a group photo, Ali, an actor, grabbed the DJ's microphone and shouted: "We are with you with our blood and our souls, Bashar." And then he added: "What does Syria want?" And the crowd shouted back: "Bashar!"

No Sign of Tension

But fear is omnipresent. Perhaps people are becoming accustomed to the sound of explosions, and perhaps they are becoming detached, but the threat remains. The regime is reportedly bombing 60 to 200 locations a day. A day when fewer than 100 people are killed is considered a good day. Damascus residents know that the war is close, and say that they are afraid suicide bombers will soon be in the city. They also fear that their city will soon look more like Baghdad than Beirut.

The day before our interview with Assad, three members of his staff met with us in the Presidential Palace to discuss the ground rules. After the air had become thick with their cigarette smoke, they left the room, only to return and say they wanted to further discuss what had just been agreed upon. In the end, they agreed to a 90-minute interview with Assad. They stipulated that the photographer would have to submit his photos for review, and that the palace had the right to reject any photos it found objectionable. Is this ethical? The unacceptable alternative would be a regime photographer. Assad's staff also insisted that SPIEGEL not print any photos of chemical weapons victims with the interview. It was an unusual condition, but there would be no interview if we refused to comply. SPIEGEL has already published such photos and will continue to do so, but not with this interview.

The preliminary meeting lasted for three hours in the heat, but by the end of the conversation there were no further restrictions. As is standard practice with SPIEGEL interviews, both sides agreed to allow Assad's office to approve the contents of interview before publication. At first, the Syrians tentatively requested a list of questions, but then they abandoned this demand. Assad isn't worried about tough questions, they said. (The day after the conversation, the palace approved the interview without making any changes.)

Does Assad hear the shelling behind his thick glass windows and heavy blocks of marble? In early 2011, he said that Syria was "immune" to revolutionary insurgencies, and that he felt "very close" to his people. Now, he is likely much closer to the abyss, but in times of crisis, palace life is often far more removed from the outside world life than in times of peace.

During the interview, Assad spoke calmly and quietly, choosing his words carefully. He smiled almost incessantly, and there was nothing in his face or gestures to reveal signs of tension. His feet were turned inward and his knees were pressed together.

Read the SPIEGEL interview with Assad here.

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