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02/04/2013 06:14 PM

In the Lion's Den

The Fight for Survival in Damascus

By

Damascus has become one of the most intense battlefields in the fight for Syria, even as those loyal to President Bashar Assad insist that much of the capital remains under their control. Those who haven't left care only about survival.

"We're almost finished with them," says the general. He has a broad jaw, and his gray hair encircles his head like a thick garland.

From the roof of a military building behind Umayyad Square in Damascus, the general would be able to see columns of smoke rising above the suburb of Daraya, where rebels are battling his soldiers. But he is sitting in his office on the third floor, behind a monstrous wooden desk, under portraits of the founder of the Assad dynasty, Hafez Assad, and his son Bashar.

The infantry general, in his early fifties, wears the Syrian army emblem, a hawk above crossed swords, on his shoulder. He is a member of the military elite and has spent his life serving the Assad regime.

There are hardly any "terrorists" left in Daraya, claims the general, although there are still a few "pockets" here and there. The "terrorists," he says, are hiding in basements "like rats," building tunnels or in the canals. "That's the pathetic condition they are in," he says.

The general's name is engraved in large letters on a shiny metal nameplate on the oak door, and yet he insists that his name not be printed. No one here -- members of the military, the intelligence services or the Syrian security apparatus -- says anything on the record.

The rebels have come dangerously close to the Damascus old town, and the general's days could possibly soon be numbered. The Syrian civil war has been raging for 23 months and has claimed more than 60,000 lives. The rebels are fighting their way forward, but at a torturously slow pace and with many setbacks, repeatedly engaging the Syrian army in grueling battles. Assad's military is holding its ground primarily in the cities, but the regime no longer controls vast rural areas in between, which are now often zones of lawlessness. The rebels have cut off many supply routes, and in some outposts the soldiers don't have enough to eat and are forced to use their bullets sparingly.

An Uncanny Feel

The name Assad means "lion," and the capital Damascus has become the lion's den. President Assad has become entrenched in Damascus, where the army has concentrated its forces, defending the city at all costs. But in suburbs like Duma and Daraya, the rebels have been hammering mercilessly away at regime forces for the last six months. Sometimes the battles take place at a linear distance of only 600 meters (about 2,000 feet) from the old city.

Indeed, some streets on the periphery of Damascus have an uncanny feel. Exterior walls of ruined buildings jut into the winter sky, and the air is periodically filled with the thunder of mortars and the rattling of machine guns. And yet, only a few hundred meters away, the shops are open and bazaar vendors are selling DVDs, jewelry, luggage and clothing. Government employees go about their business as if everything were completely normal. This part of Damascus almost seems the way it was in 2000, when Bashar Assad assumed power after the death of his father Hafez. It was a time when Damascus hoped for rapid modernization in the midst of the war-torn Middle East.

Assad seemed fresh at the time. He had lived in England, and he seemed likely to propel the corrupt police state his father left behind into a more promising future. Suddenly there were mobile phones, followed by Internet access and shopping malls, and there was investment in universities and luxury hotels. The president and his attractive, cosmopolitan wife Asma strolled through the old section of Damascus and had lunch with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie. The American political activist stayed in room No. 5 at the Talisman, a boutique hotel, and the New York Times travel magazine dubbed Damascus one of the world's most important destinations.

But the old machinery of his father's regime was still there, behind the young president. It included several million profiteers, many of them Alawites, the sect aligned with the Shiites to which the Assads belong. Why should they have been interested in reform?

Unlike his father Hafez, who ruled the security services with an iron fist, the much softer Bashar never became a true dictator. His father's men still wield considerable power today.

Ordinary Criminals?

Fear protected the Assad regime, but now fear seems to have switched sides, even in the capital. It now haunts army officers when they take the bus home from work, as it does ministerial employees, businesspeople, the rich and those suspected of being loyal to the regime. They are being kidnapped by armed men and locked into basements, sometimes for weeks. The kidnappers often claim that they are rebels with the Free Syrian Army. Some of the victims are burned with lit cigarettes or are left out in the snow, dressed only in their underwear, after ransom money has been paid. It isn't always clear whether the perpetrators are fighting for a free Syria or are just ordinary criminals.

There is a neighborhood in the western part of Damascus called Mezze 86, inhabited almost exclusively by Alawites. Mezze 86 is the home of modest regime profiteers, the home of hangers-on. Residents work for the economics ministry, the police or the army.

As civil servants, they earn between 10,000 and 30,000 Syrian pounds a month, or €100 to €300 ($135 to $400). Most built their small concrete houses 20 years ago, and posters of Bashar Assad hang on every corner. Assad, an ophthalmologist by profession who received only very superficial military training, apparently tried to look frightening when he was photographed for the posters, wearing dark sunglasses and a general's uniform, and with a grim expression on his face.

The first car bomb exploded in Mezze 86 in early October. On Nov. 5, a large explosion ripped away an entire row of shops, killing at least 11 people and wounding dozens more.

Hassan Khudir's little house isn't far from the site of the bombing. A civil servant in the transportation ministry, he is wearing a corduroy jacket and tie, even at home in his small living room. But as an Alawite, he senses that his orderly old life is over. Khudir, his wife and their four children must fear the revenge of the rebels. "We will all die if there is no reconciliation," he says.

But the rebels in Damascus are also in mortal danger, like the three young female students in the back room of a Damascus café. They are wearing white hijabs to cover their hair and neck, and they are unwilling to remove their long coats. They are traditional Muslim women, they say. They arrive with two young men.

'Grapes of My Country'

All five work for Enab Baladi, an underground newspaper and website from the rebel stronghold Daraya, only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Mezze 86. "Enab Baladi" means "grapes of my country," a name that is meant to invoke the sweet grapes that once grew in the gardens of Daraya.

The authors of Enab Baladi have documented the destruction that has been visited on Daraya since the army identified the suburb as a terrorist stronghold in the summer. They write, photograph and shoot videos, documenting fighter jets as their drop their deadly loads over Daraya, tanks rumbling through the district and shooting indiscriminately into buildings, and how the army went from house to house on Aug. 25, 2012, dragging supporters of the rebellion and lining them up against walls. Hundreds were shot to death on that day, say the founders of Enab Baladi.

The women have brought along a shaky video as an example. The footage shows the wreckage of a house, as a voice says anxiously, "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar." The cameraman pushes in the door of the bombed house and steps over upturned tables and cabinets. The body of a man in his mid-40s is lying on his back on the floor, his legs pulled up at an angle. "Allahu akbar," the cameraman says with a sob. He hurries into the bathroom, where there is another victim on the floor. The camera crew finds a total of three bodies in the house. "Allahu akbar," they all say, sobbing.

Almost 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed is said to have used the phrase "Allahu akbar" -- God is great" -- to boost the morale of his soldiers. Muslim fighters use it to this day, including groups affiliated with Al-Qaida, like the Al-Nusra Front.

Enab Baladi is the voice of the survivors of Daraya. The buildings that once housed their schools, post offices and hospitals are in ruins today. But are the rebels of Daraya in fact extremists, as the general claims?

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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