In the Lion's Den The Fight for Survival in Damascus



Part 2: Who Are the Rebels?

"At first we carried flowers and demonstrated for reforms," one of the women says in response. "The government invited us to round-table talks. After that they knew who our leaders were and arrested them. We are conservative, but we don't want a caliphate. We yearn for democracy and humanity."

Do your allies abduct people? "Yes. We have to exchange them for our relatives and friends who are still in prison."

Do extremists fight on your side? "How can we be choosy here? We are victims and we are dying. We are grasping at every straw."

What should a free Syria look like if it is achieved with the help of Islamists like the Al-Nusra group? "If the regime falls, we will fight against Al-Nusra. This here is only the beginning of a long process."

The articles on Enab Baladi are surprisingly levelheaded, even when, as happened on this day, one of the newspaper's co-founders was killed in his car when he was hit by shrapnel. But 23 months of war have also poisoned members of the opposition. The struggle against an army that is destroying its own country, and the bitterness over the fact that the Western world has not come to their aid, has shifted internal boundaries, even among the best. "Yes, that's what has become of us," one of the two men, a computer science student, says with shame in his voice.

At first, the brutality largely originated with the army and Assad's thugs, especially the Shabiha ("ghosts"). The Shabiha militias consist of criminals and radicals, incited and paid by the security apparatus. They are originally from the Alawite hinterland along the coast between Latakia and Tartus, the home of the Assads. The Shabiha do the dirty work in Assad's security apparatus.

The group of killers got its name since the 1970s, when criminal members of the Assad clan would steal Mercedes Benz 600s, a popular vehicle at the time, the minute the cars' owners dared to enter their territory. Because of its opulent headlights, the thugs called the model the "ghost," or Shabah. The "ghosts" of the current conflict move through opposition villages, sometimes together with the army, murdering and looting as they go.

'Paid For from the Outside'

Both sides, the rebels and the regime, have been instruments of a larger showdown, with Russia, China and Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States and Europe on the other.

The Saudi Arabians and their allies would like to pull Syria out of the Shiite axis, which also includes Iran and Hezbollah. Although most Syrians are Sunnis, they have long been ruled by the Alawite Assad clan. Saudi Arabians and Turks want to expand Sunni influence in the region, the US wants to protect Israel.

The other side, especially the Russians, want to curb the West's dominance in the Middle East and secure their old advantages in the region, such as Tartus, the Russians' only naval base in the Mediterranean.

"This uprising is organized and paid for from the outside, for the most part," claims Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad. He has traveled a lot in recent weeks, making visits to Russia, Iran and China. He is an inconspicuous man wearing a blue suit and plain tie, but he is in charge of the regime's foreign policy, and he is thankful that Syria's few remaining friends still back the regime.

The rebels are receiving "billions of US dollars from the Gulf countries," Mikdad claims, sitting in his enormous office at the Foreign Ministry in Damascus. "It's a worldwide mercenary business." According to Mikdad, the Saudi Arabians and Syria's Turkish neighbors are especially involved. With the help of religious groups, he says, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to "establish a new Ottoman Empire." The Assad regime is getting in Erdogan's way, says Mikdad, which is why Turkey supports the rebels.

Although so-called local coordination committees in Idlib, Aleppo, Homs and Hama collect information about the rebels' struggle, not all revolutionaries are under joint command. There are various splinter groups seemingly fighting for their own causes in various places. The rebel groups include dilettantes alongside professionals, deserted soldiers, jihadists from Libya, Tunisia and even Australia, and the Al-Nusra extremists. At the moment, they all have the same goal: to topple the regime. But when Assad does fall, their commonalities will likely disappear quickly.

Unable to Bake Bread

The ones suffering are the civilians, even in Damascus, where survival has become more difficult as everyday life has become harsher. The electricity is only on for a few hours at a time. Gasoline and diesel are being rationed and heating fuel on the black market costs five times as much as it did before the crisis. The situation is such that bakeries are sometimes unable to bake bread. An employee at the Talisman, the luxury hotel where Angelina Jolie once stayed, is now sitting in front of a wood stove with a coworker in the only warm room in the building. There is no electricity and, of course, there are no guests.

A little later, a young woman is hurrying through the narrow streets of the Christian neighborhood, not far from the hotel. She has dyed her hair light blonde to avoid being recognized, and the hood of her coat is pulled down over her face. She is looking for a place where the walls don't have ears. Speaking in a whisper, she describes what her life has become in this war: "I lie in bed, the house is cold and dark, the telephone is dead, and I weep."

She belongs to a small group of opposition members who are trying to track down those who have disappeared, or at least to count them. Even though the government has been undermined, it still has the capacity to intercept and torture people like her, using the usual approach: windowless group cells, hanging up prisoners by their hands, beating their calves until they turn dark blue and beating them on the back until their skin bursts open.

Not true, say government officials in Damascus. The speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Jihad al-Laham, is an unhappy looking man dressed in a black suit with a black tie. He has a narrow mouth and a blonde moustache. In November, a rebel detachment shot and killed his brother on his way to work.

Laham is sitting in the heavily guarded parliament building, on a chair adorned with mother-of-pearl inlays. Behind him are a lavish, decorative gold-colored wall and a portrait of President Assad.

'We Don't Use It in Court'

"What exactly does this opposition want?" Laham asks, raising his hands theatrically: "To destroy!"

He insists that President Assad heard the demands of the demonstrators. He concedes that some were legitimate and that Assad made all the changes they had demanded. The emergency laws were lifted, there is no longer only one political party, parliamentary elections were held and establishing parties is now allowed. "What else?" Laham says, raising his voice. "We want negotiations with all sides. We don't exclude anyone, and we give security guarantees."

What about the accounts of torture?

Laham, a lawyer, doesn't deny anything. He is also the president of the Syrian lawyers' union, and he is familiar with abuse. Torture, he says, is what was done here in the past, but now a prisoner awaiting trial can only be held in prison for 60 days. And if a prisoner is tortured, he adds, he now has the right to see a doctor. "And if a confession was obtained through torture, we don't use it in court."

Outside, the human rights activist has found a quiet café. She says that she can sense the unfortunate people being held in the intelligence agencies' cells, such as in the notorious Khatib Prison. Sometimes she gets help from personal contacts, and sometimes men within the security apparatus secretly given her information. She says that at least 60,000 people have been arrested nationwide. A fellow activist, an attorney, had just been taken into custody. The activist is afraid, but she is determined to persevere in Damascus. "Not everyone can leave," she says.

But Damascus, the biblical city with its magnificent gardens, a city where different religions coexisted peacefully, hasn't existed for a long time. No one sits in the bars and restaurants in the old city at night anymore. Now Damascus is filled with refugees from Aleppo, Idlib, Duma and Daraya, and the poor are begging in the streets, sleeping at relatives' houses.

Delicious Chocolate

The ropes hang down loosely from the flagpole in front of the abandoned German Embassy in the Malki district. The shutters are locked at the Dutch Embassy, and the US Embassy, surrounded with barbed wire, is also closed. The Saudi Arabians have left their lights on.

Wealthy Syrians have gone to the United States or Paris, where many have houses. Those who are able make their way to Lebanon or Jordan, while the Alawites go to Tartuz or Latakia. But for anyone who hasn't left the embattled Damascus suburb Daraya yet, it is likely because they can't.

The army claims that it has surrounded Daraya, and that the tunnels that connected the suburb to the outside world were discovered and sealed up. "We have destroyed 90 percent of the terrorists," an army spokesman said on television last week.

Marjam, 26, is one of the Enab Baladi authors from Daraya. She opens her laptop in the café to show yet another video. It depicts a bomb striking the house of a fellow activist at the newspaper, followed by the recovery of 15 bodies from the rubble, the activist's family. "What do we have left?" the young woman asks, with a bitter laugh.

How much longer can this continue? Some in Damascus say that Assad could persevere until 2014, and that he wants to legitimize his position through an election to the presidency. A Saudi Arabia intelligence agent is certain that Assad will be gone in no more than six months. Perhaps someone from his own ranks will murder him, the agent says, pointing out that many in his inner circle are corruptible, and that it's only a question of price. If that happens, the parties could soon negotiate peace.

"Chocolates?" the general asks from behind his large wooden desk. He attempts a smile. "How could we make such delicious chocolate if we were in fact finished?"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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