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

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Photo Gallery: The Destruction of Damascus Photos
REUTERS

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?

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