Order Amid Chaos Syrian City Embodies Absurdity of Civil War

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Part 2: Local Councils Become Syria's Third Power


Everywhere in Syria where the government has lost control, these kinds of councils have been emerging over the past year. Their strength of working locally is also their weakness, though. They are splitting the country up into hundreds of autonomous zones. But between the fighting rebels and the desolate opposition in exile, they're growing to be the third power in the equation. More than a hundred delegates from all over Syria came to a conference in Ankara last December, planning to organize themselves across the country. They receive support from the US State Department.

Yet theirs is a battle against time. There are four floors to Zabadani's underground hospital, located in a former furniture warehouse. The top two levels have already been reduced to rubble, and a few days ago a shell penetrated the next level down. Two floors are all that separate the doctors and patients in their sick bay from destruction. "We have to move again soon," says dentist Mohammed Chair Charita. "But where to? We've already moved three times."

In the operating room, a surgeon and a nurse attend to a man who can only whisper that he was lucky. Twenty-two days ago, he was pulled from his taxi at a military checkpoint near the neighboring city of Bludan and interrogated by security officers. Why did he work for the terrorists? Was he conspiring with Israel and al-Qaida? "Absurd," he murmurs. "If I was wanted by the regime, I'd never have come to their checkpoint."

Assad's henchmen tortured him for days with electrical shocks until they bound him up and threw him out on the street. Farmers took him in and brought him to Zabadani last night. The electrodes left pitch-black, dead tissue on his toes and the backs of his hands.

There are seven doctors, including a neurosurgeon. Anyone who is too gravely injured to be treated here has to be carried on foot across the border into Lebanon. "Many don't survive," says the surgeon as he takes his lunch break in a neighboring cellar.

Others join the conversation, talking about their urgent needs. The debate ends with the apathy of the West and the recent oath of allegiance the radical group al-Nusra swore to al-Qaida. "Crazy," a young anesthesiologist says. "We are completely against that kind of madness. But they fight against Assad -- and they die. The United States has declared them terrorists, but…." He walks to the next room and comes back with a first-aid backpack for combat missions. "This here is all of America's aid to Zabadani. A backpack. It arrived three days ago. What right does America have to judge?"

Ceasefire with State Security

They can't win the war against the tanks, confesses Abu Adnan, commander of the Hamsa battalion, Zabadani's largest rebel group. "We're down here. They are above." Nonetheless, they have won themselves a few life-saving seconds of time. At every position where army tanks are stationed, rebel scouts hide among the trees and bushes. At the most important positions, the rebels have installed cameras that transmit to an underground control room in Zabadani. All it takes is the sound of the tank's motor starting up for an alarm to sound: "Kassif! Kassif! Kassif!" Grenades! The shrill warning cry from the radio drives everyone to the nearest doorway within seconds.

A tank has blasted away half of the tower of the orthodox St. Mark's Church. The roof of a mosque more than a thousand years old collapsed after several shellings. The Catholic church, the convent, the train station and the cultural center have also been laid to waste. At the cemetery, men were up half the night collecting skulls and bones from the street to order to bury them back in a pit between the graves. Only one building in the middle of the city remains untouched by the shelling: the regime's General State Security center, where 20 men are holding out under the command of one Colonel Assam. State security is actually part of the system of government-sanctioned terror in Syria. But in Zabadani, Colonel Assam and his troops stay clear of battle. They didn't imprison or kill demonstrators, nor did they defect. They simply held their ground.

"They do nothing to us, we do nothing to them," as rebel commander Abu Adnan describes the arrangement. Officially, of course, he would rather see them defect to their side. But, he says, "as long as they're here, the regime doesn't shut off the power or shoot scud missiles or poison gas at us." The location of Zabadani's telecommunications office in a basement directly next to the state security center allows them, for the time being, to maintain its phone line.

The rebels have posted guards in front of the building so no one tries to get to Colonel Assam's men. In pairs and unarmed -- as per the deal they made with the city council -- they are permitted to shop in the morning for groceries at the remaining shops. And the colonel can relay to Damascus that he has everything under control as usual.

Neither Side Wants Complete War

This continuation of war by other means sounds more unusual than it really is. In some places there are even ceasefires. The army is so thinned out that it can send troops only if they're withdrawn from somewhere else. The city council in Zabadani has also been using intermediaries to negotiate a ceasefire with the commander of the 4th Division. The fruit trees are blossoming and the beekeepers have to bring their bee colonies outside without being shot at.

But something else is crucial -- both sides need the mountain passes. Near Zabadani in the village of Ain Hur run the paths and tunnels used by Hezbollah, which is allied with Assad's regime. Through these channels, they transport missiles and other weapons from their depots in Damascus to Lebanon and send convoys of fighters back to Syria. Further south runs the highway that connects Damascus and Beirut, the regime's last secure route out of the country. If the rebels were to attack here, the entire territory would become a war zone.

No one is interested in that. After all, the trapped residents of Zabadani need their paths to transport medicine, weapons and food through the snow-capped mountains to the beleaguered city. None of Zabadani's courier squads set off alone. Each is followed by at least one man on rearguard to make sure they are not being followed by soldiers.

On one of these nights, the departure of a rebel group is suddenly called off when they learn the army has planned an ambush. The rebel scouts saw the soldiers hiding. Both sides are simultaneously hunters and prey. Over the radio rebels warn incoming couriers to hide for a while between the rocks. They wait for hours until the soldiers retreat and the incoming group of rebels can continue. They arrive in the city just in time, before day breaks again in Zabadani.

With research by Abdulkader Adhoun. Translated from the German by Andrew Bowen and Charly Wilder

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