Damascus Nights Despair and Debauchery in Assad's Capital
Even as war rages around them, residents of Damascus, the capital of Bashar Assad's Syria, seek to tune out the violence. The city's nightlife has blossomed as the country's Russian-backed military has pushed back the front. Those dissidents that remain have been forced into hiding.
Just before sunrise on a clear autumn morning, a minibus leaves Damascus. It initially detours around the Northern Highway to avoid the snipers who could be waiting in ambush near the front. Later, it will return to the highway and speed northwards toward the coastal range. It is heading for Homs.
Inside the bus on this Thursday morning are six people, all of whom live in the part of Syria controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad. They are members of the Phoenix Adventure hiking group: a bartender, a university student, a designer, a sports enthusiast, a coach, a beautician and a German shepherd. They are planning on spending the day in the great outdoors.
The mood is cheerful. "Adventure awaits!" the barkeeper, Kinan Haddad, calls out, his voice still a bit groggy.
As the bus struggles up the side of Mt. Qasioun, Damascus, the capital of Assad's regime, is left behind -- an endless sea of gray-brown buildings with minarets and church steeples jutting into the early morning smog. The presidential palace, sturdy as a bunker, stands on a hill flanking the barren mountain -- while down below, the city cowers partly in fear and partly in spite.
Elida Sanjar, 21, a student of economics with pink fingernails, slumps on one of the narrow seats, exhausted from the previous night of partying. She says she supports Assad because she is happy that she can continue studying economics and going to parties. Particularly now that fewer shells are landing on the capital city.
The Only Thing He Cares About
Her boyfriend, the barkeeper Kinan, is sitting beside her. Small, sturdy and prematurely balding, he has a boyish laugh and dark rings around his eyes. "Yolo," he says: "You only live once." Almost all of his friends have fled to Europe, but he decided to open a bar instead and now parties as often as he can. The state, he says, only still exists in places where the regime has control. And the stability it provides is the only thing he cares about.
All of the people in the bus have different reasons for supporting the regime. But there is one thing they share: the fear of Islamic State (IS). It is a product of Assad's successful strategy of posing as the lesser of myriad evils: Even as millions have fled the country to escape the horrors of war, IS has also driven many people into Assad's arms.
As the minibus heads toward Homs, the bombardment of the rebel bastion in eastern Aleppo continues apace, with Russian and Syrian jets and helicopters dropping their bombs as Shiite militias conquer neighborhood after neighborhood. The regime, supported by both Iran and Russia, is working its way slowly toward a military victory in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, one that could mark a turning point for the country. The group of hikers offers only curt replies when asked about the bombs that are currently falling on the schools and hospitals of Aleppo.
Kinan says: That's how war is.
Elida: What else can the government do? They have to defend Damascus. We have to survive.
The group leader says: The civilians of Aleppo are to blame. They provide shelter to the terrorists.
'I Love Damascus'
At first glance, life looks as normal as ever in the hiking group's home of Damascus, 350 kilometers south of Aleppo. In the city center, the only indication that a war is going on is the myriad checkpoints and the posters of the martyrs that hang everywhere. The souk markets in the winding streets of the Old Town are full of people. Carpets and mobile phone cases are on display, there is gold and silver for sale along with stands selling lace underwear and bras whose clasps open when you clap your hands.
The cooks in the Old Town grill their famous kebabs, the marble floors of the boutique hotel courtyards are once again heated for winter and pilgrims continue to come from far away to visit the Umayyad Mosque. Visitors to the opulent opera house wear suits and evening gowns while the announcements are still made in English, French and Arabic, almost as though Damascus were still the cosmopolitan metropolis it once was.
On the square in front of the opera house, giant lettering has recently been mounted reading: "I Love Damascus." It was put there as part of an advertising campaign run by the city marketing department, which also used to hold a marathon. Professionally produced drone videos have been made to show off the city. The capital is Assad's fortress, his strongest front in the propaganda war. The message is clear: Damascus is normal and life goes on where the regime is in charge.
That's also why there is no visible destruction in the city center. When shells fall on the Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods, craftsmen move in on the heels of the ambulances to cover up the traces of war. Assad does all he can to present an image of a prosperous metropolis to the destroyed remnants of his country -- a country that was once Syria.
Two hours later, with the sun now high in the sky, the hiking group's minibus skirts the city of Homs, where the rebellion once flourished and which has been brutally punished by Assad in return. Today, large parts of Homs are little more than a ghost town and smoke rises from the ruins that pass by in the distance. No one from the Phoenix group takes notice, preferring instead to chat about beer -- specifically about the fact that, because all of the Syrian breweries have been destroyed, they are forced to drink beer from Lebanon, which, they complain, doesn't taste nearly as good as Syrian suds.
Nothing In Between
Come to Latakia, a hiker calls from the back of the bus. Latakia is Assad's stronghold, the Ibiza of Syria located on the Mediterranean coast. "There are great parties in Aleppo too. Still!" the group leader exclaims. The marketing clips of nights out in western Aleppo, released by the regime as part of its propaganda campaign, are accurate, he says. The bizarre tourism videos from September show an untouched western Aleppo with its immaculate green spaces, turquoise hotel swimming pools and packed nightclubs.
But the gaps in this narrative aren't difficult to find, even in Damascus. The economy is in a shambles, the salesmen complain of plunging revenues and the 1.8 million refugees who have found shelter in the city and its surroundings fear the winter. Very few of them can afford the oil for the small metal stoves the poor here use for heating. In some cases, up to 10 families live in a single house in the Old Town.
The roar of diesel generators reverberates through the streets, the result of electricity only being available for a few hours at a time. In the impoverished neighborhoods, residents save the little electricity they get in car batteries from Taiwan. Inflation eats up people's salaries and is destroying the middle class, with the Syrian pound only worth a 10th of its prewar value. In Damascus, people are either rich or poor. There is little in between.
Up on his hilltop, Assad continues to try to pose as a protective father. But the people below have lost their stability. A psychologist reports that the demand for psychotropic drugs has risen significantly and he deplores the sanctions that prevent the arrival of fresh supplies. In cafés, people say that many civilians have obtained gun licenses because the criminals have become increasingly brazen.
Hundreds of fighters from IS and the radical Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are still in the former Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, located in Damascus just four kilometers from the dance floors and the bars. The fighters have bored tunnels beneath the entire quarter, using them to crawl under their adversary's positions. Shots from snipers occasionally ring out among the destroyed buildings.
Those who aren't forced to look at the violence try to block it out. Many of the young people who have come to terms with the war no longer read the news; they don't want to know what exactly is taking place in Aleppo. "The less you know, the better your life," says the bartender Kinan. They flee into their fantasy worlds, go hiking, smoke marijuana, take sedatives, get drunk at parties or seal themselves off. Most of the others have already left the country.
But a lot of others in the city have lost the ability to smile. They are the ones who continue following the news. Life, they say, has become black and white, and no matter which side they are on, they are tired. And sad. Depressed. Because their country is dying.
- Part 1: Despair and Debauchery in Assad's Capital
- Part 2: Escape to Hedonism