Rubble and Delusion A Journey Through Assad's Syria
With the fall of Aleppo, the regime of Bashar Assad once again controls the country's second-largest city. But is reconciliation possible in the country? A journey through the dictator's rump state.
On an icy January evening in eastern Aleppo, a grotesque scene of destruction, five men are standing around a fire in a battered oil drum in a butcher's shop.
Their trousers are dirty and their faces are covered with soot. There has been no running water for a long time. Every evening, the men come here to warm up, burning table legs and chairs from the ruins. In what is left of their apartments, there are no heating stoves.
The fear, though, is finally gone, says shop owner Ahmed Tubal. For over four years, various rebel groups had controlled their neighborhood of al-Shaar, but Syrian and Russian jets recently transformed half of the city into rubble to wipe them out.
The rebels and their supporters have left the city and following the regime's victory, only those who support Syrian President Bashar Assad have remained. "The bombing was necessary to drive out the Islamists," says Tubal, a short man with tired eyes. "Otherwise they would never have left." The other men voice their approval. "We were so exhausted. We just wanted it to stop. And if that meant that everything had to be destroyed even further, then that was just the price we had to pay."
A visit to Assad's Syria, a rump state around the large cities in the west, over which the dictator has regained control thanks to Russian and Iranian support, is like entering an apocalyptic world. Large Mercedes tractor-trailers drive water tanks through Aleppo's ruins while the streets are patrolled by armored vehicles manned by Russian soldiers. Assad can frequently be seen on television while fear can be seen in the eyes of many residents.
Our journey leads us to the three largest cities in northern and western Syria: Aleppo, Latakia and Homs. Aleppo has become symbolic of the brutal bombing campaign. Latakia, the regime stronghold on the Mediterranean, was largely untouched by the war and is still a popular vacation spot in the summer. And Homs, once the center of the uprising, was destroyed and is now slated to become a model of reconstruction.
When journalists travel through Syria, they are unable to move about freely. Officially, we are only allowed to visit places for which we have obtained written permits from Damascus. Furthermore, only people who are acceptable to the regime can be interviewed and any other meetings must take place in secret. Usually, journalists are accompanied by government minders.
There is only one minder for international journalists in Aleppo, meaning that it is usually possible to speak to people without supervision. In Latakia, on the other hand, journalists have a military escort, while there are two minders in Homs. But even when minders aren't present, it isn't always easy to know if people are saying what they really think or if their words are guided by fear.
It is clear what conclusion the regime would like visitors to reach: that Bashar Assad is the only one who can bring the country back together again. But what do people really think? What are the obstacles to reconciliation and reconstruction? And isn't Assad himself the greatest obstacle?
"This used to be a safe neighborhood," says Ahmed Tubal, the butcher. "Until they came." He breaks off a piece of particleboard with his foot before adding it to the fire in the oil drum. It was at the beginning of Ramadan in 2012 when the war came to his neighborhood. In front of his house, a masked fighter fired an anti-tank weapon at a passing car and the four passengers burned to death. Their faces were still recognizable and they haunt Tubal to this day.
He ran into the next store to buy bread, eggs, oil and rice for himself, his wife and their two children and the family didn't leave their apartment for the next 20 days. Ultimately, though, once they had used up all their provisions, they had to learn to live with the war.
Most of the rebels who captured parts of Aleppo were from the surrounding areas, and they belonged to various groups, some moderate and others extremist. Many groups become more religious as the years passed.
The fighters in his district soon banned alcohol and later cigarettes, says Tubal, adding that the bans didn't bother him because he is a religious man. But when the local rebel leader turned up to Friday prayers with a Kalashnikov a few weeks later, it became too much for Tubal. He stopped going to the mosque and took his children out of the school to prevent them from being brainwashed by the Islamists.
As Tubal and four other men are warming themselves by the fire, the rumbling of air strikes can be heard in the distance. A short man with leathery skin walks up to the group, smiling at first before beginning to cry. He stammers a few incomprehensible words and stares into the flames. "This is Mohammed," says one of the men. "He lost his mind as a result of the bombing raids." The man weeps, laughs and weeps again, and then he walks away and disappears into the dark ruins.
Western Aleppo, which was under regime control the entire time, is relatively undamaged. But the eastern half of the city, along with its historic center, was controlled by the rebels and is now little more than a memorial to the destruction of the war. Still, people are returning to destroyed neighborhoods, opening shops and carrying mattresses into cold, bombed-out apartments.
Playing Next to Shells
Russian soldiers are clearing mines out of the buildings and dismantling huge barricades made of stacked buses. Homemade booby traps left behind by the rebels when they withdrew lie along the sides of smaller streets while children play next to gas canisters that were converted into shells.
The only electricity in the city comes from generators. The streets slice through the rubble, and everything is coated with a layer of ash and dust. Sometimes, people can be seen standing in the streets, lost, silent and sad. Aimless survivors.
Until December, Tubal's neighborhood was controlled by Jabat Fatah al-Sham, an extremist rebel militia which, according to the United Nations, made up about 10 percent of the fighters in Aleppo. The words "Join the Fatah Army" are written in large letters on the floor of an apartment, which now hangs down from the building as though a lunatic god had whacked the top floor with an axe. The façade has disappeared entirely.
"They shouted Allahu akbar" God is great "about everything," says Tubal. "They went into shops, shouted Allahu akbar, called the owners infidels and confiscated everything. They said: You are the wife of a police officer, shouted Allahu akbar and took the woman. And then more and more foreigners arrived, so that fewer and fewer of the fighters were Syrians." Those who did not go to the mosque regularly were sent to prison for 15 days. "Allahu akbar here, Allahu akbar there," he says scornfully.
They shot and killed one of his acquaintances in a dispute over buying cigarettes, he says. They executed a young man selling coffee for saying that not even the Prophet Mohammed could buy on credit in his shop. The charge: blasphemy.
History is written by winners and now, everyone in the neighborhood claims to have been opposed to the rebels. Those who harbor a different viewpoint are either silent or no longer here to tell their stories. But Assad always had many supporters in Aleppo, which helps to explain the sense of relief many now exhibit. In their view, the war was brought into their city from the outside. "They stole our neighborhood from us," says Tubal.
In the Syrian civil war, the primarily Sunni opposition is fighting a mostly Alawite regime. From the very beginning, the regime decided that it could only win by going to the extremes. The results can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties of the regime's air strikes and in a report published recently by Amnesty International. According to the report, up to 13,000 people have been killed in mass executions in the Saydnaya military prison near Damascus, a place where torture and rape are committed systematically.
The regime has decided that destruction, not reconciliation, is the path to victory and Assad is achieving military dominance with the help of his powerful allies. But does he have a future?
The remains of a chandelier jingle in the wind on a balcony across the street from Tubal's butcher's. Hamzi, a little boy from the neighborhood, wanders into the shop, as he does every day, looking for someone to help remove the shell that has been lying in his room for weeks. He is afraid to go into the house, he says. He doesn't know where his parents are.
The light from Tubal's shop softly illuminates the dark street. Boys play catch, not with a ball but with a large-caliber bullet casing. "An entire generation has been lost," says Tubal.
The trip to Latakia takes five hours, though it is only 144 kilometers (89 miles) away - but it's a journey into another world.
Buses, cars and armored vehicles crowd onto the only street that connects Aleppo with the rest of Assad's Syria. Islamic State fighters lurk not far to the east, while rebels control territory to the west.
The road passes through empty, destroyed villages before skirting Jabbul Lake as it heads south. Burned out military vehicles and buses line the route while unexploded missiles jut from the brown, barren soil like cactuses. The army has built fortifications out of boulders and scrap metal on hilltops near the road.
Latakia lies just beyond the coastal mountains and things here are essentially the same as they have always been. Along the corniche, men are casting their fishing lines into the sea as they do every morning, even when the winter surf pounds against the beach. Many vacation homes are freshly painted, the shops are busy, and city officials have extended store hours, allegedly to accommodate the visitors from Aleppo, who like to shop late.
Syria's most important port city is known for its beaches and luxury hotels and it is protected by the Russians, who have maintained an air base here since 2015. The war only reached Latakia early on and only for a short time. The city is part of the Alawite heartland, belonging to the religious minority of which President Bashar Assad is a member. His family controls the economy and smuggling routes. There is deep poverty in Latakia, as well as immense wealth, with new restaurants being built, cafes opening up and parties being held.
- Part 1: A Journey Through Assad's Syria
- Part 2: Mourning for an Idealized Past