Across Syria towns and districts are under siege. In the north, the Syrian army and its Shia allies from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, assisted by Russian air power, have surrounded the opposition enclave of East Aleppo, where a quarter of a million civilians are under attack. If East Aleppo falls, one of the last big urban centres held by the opposition will have been eliminated. In Damascus, government forces are bringing to an end a series of long sieges, most of which began in 2012, and look close to taking full control of the capital. The administrative heart of the state, home to one third of the population, Damascus is the key to political power in Syria, and once Assad holds all of it, he will have little reason to step down or share power with his enemies.
According to the UN there are 17 separate sieges underway in Syria, with nearly 600,000 people surrounded in towns or cities and often cut off from basic supplies. The degree of deprivation differs markedly from siege to siege and may change from week to week. A woman from the town of Madaya, thirty miles west of Damascus, where 43,000 people are under siege from Hezbollah, told me she had been reduced to boiling up thistle-like plants she had picked by the roadside in order to feed her family. There were no vegetables, fruit or biscuits available in the town, but there was some meat: sheep had been slaughtered because they could no longer be fed, though most people couldn’t afford the mutton. The woman, who like many others I spoke to didn’t want her name published, had been lucky enough to get out of Madaya under the terms of an international agreement: one of her daughters had had her leg shattered by a bullet when she went to fetch water and needed emergency surgery in Damascus to save it from amputation.
On the outskirts of Damascus is the biggest besieged rebel enclave in Syria, Eastern Ghouta, with a population of 270,000. Here, people are managing to survive without malnutrition. It is a substantial urban and agricultural area and the land is fertile; people grow their own food. Goods are smuggled in, sometimes by issuing bribes at government checkpoints, though the Syrian army is gradually advancing into the area and has reduced the extent of rebel-held territory by a third over the last year. A recent visitor described ‘booths selling vegetables including potatoes, cucumbers, cauliflowers and lettuce as well as peaches and Syrian cherries, though these are expensive’. The worst shortages are of seeds, spare parts for agricultural machinery, surgical kits, medicines and educational materials for the schools. So the exact circumstances of each of these sieges differ, but the actions of government and armed opposition forces are in most cases similar. Government units carry out the cruel but traditional counterinsurgency strategy of separating fighters from their civilian supporters by bombing and shelling indiscriminately until the civilians flee. Those who remain are treated as committed rebels. This was the approach of the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria and Americans in Vietnam. (In the Middle East, it’s a strategy that has been employed by the Turkish army in its fight against Kurdish guerrillas: an estimated 3000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed since 1984 and two million people have been driven into shantytowns or forced to migrate to other parts of Turkey. Over the last 18 months large parts of the Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir and Cizre have been turned into ruins and flattened by the Turkish armed forces, in a series of actions that have failed to provoke an international outcry or even attract the attention of a Western media that expresses outrage when similar methods are used by the Syrian army.)
Damascus is calmer than it was two years ago: you hear the sound of mortars and artillery only occasionally. The violence feels further away than it used to. People have become accustomed to living in a permanent state of war and are coming to believe they can survive it. The mood is like that of Beirut in the 1980s, halfway through the 15-year civil war. Restaurants and cafés are open late into the night. Maher Jalhoun, an architecture student, told me that in one part of the Old City ‘twenty new bars and eating places have opened in the last few months alone. I don’t know where people get the money from.’ He himself was about to set off with a group of 150 people on a camping holiday in the mountains above Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. There had been fighting in the general area, but he said the place they were going to was safe.
It’s clear where some people get their money from: there’s the black market, and then there are remittances from family members who have found jobs in other countries – there are now up to six million Syrian refugees abroad. But overall Syrians are poorer than they were. War makes everything more costly and official salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation as the Syrian pound has collapsed. Most families used to have a single wage-earner: nowadays every member tries to get a job. They aren’t easy to find: the unemployment rate is at least 40 per cent (some have put it as high as 65 per cent). Mass impoverishment isn’t obvious at first, or not in the streets – but then you notice the number of booths selling second-hand clothes and shoes, a common sight in Kabul but not until now in Damascus. The influx of people from more dangerous parts of the country means that many houses and flats once occupied by a single family now have a family in every room. Ancient public baths or hammams, whose customers used to be mostly foreign tourists, are now full of Syrians who are living in a house with dozens of people and only one bathroom.
People are talking less about the progress of the war than they used to, but they complain endlessly about prices and corruption. One relatively well-off friend said he had just paid $300 to replace a broken car mirror that would have cost $70 five years ago. War itself has had an impact but much of the damage is done by Western economic sanctions, which have disrupted trade links with foreign suppliers. Banks in Lebanon now avoid transactions with Syrians for fear that action will be taken against them by the US authorities. The situation reminds me of Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s, when UN sanctions did so much to destroy the economy but failed to weaken Saddam Hussein. Shadi Ahmed, an economic and political analyst in Damascus, says that per capita income is down by almost two thirds; 2.5 million homes have been destroyed by war. But things aren’t as bad as they could be in every respect. Syria isn’t isolated: Iran and Iraq have given extensive financial aid, enabling the government to maintain subsidies: petrol is still cheaper than in Lebanon, however long the queues at the pumps. There are opportunities for some Syrians too: the souqs are doing well because they can keep prices lower than regular shops thanks to lower costs; they give employment to people whose jobs have disappeared. In a small shop in the Buzurieyah souq by the Umayyad Mosque, Abed Bitar explained that he is by profession a geologist: he had ‘worked for 27 years in the oil and gas fields of Syria as well as in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa’. Now that the Syrian oil and gas fields are largely under the control of Islamic State or Kurdish forces, he has turned to selling herbal medicines instead. He said there was increased demand for traditional remedies because of a widespread belief among Syrians that the only doctors who haven’t left the country for better-paid employment elsewhere ‘have no experience or are second-rate’.
I visited the 200-bed al-Mouwasat University Hospital in Damascus to see if what the geologist said was true. The hospital’s director, Hashem Saker, said that ‘about 30 per cent’ of his most highly qualified staff had gone abroad, mostly to the Gulf, and pressure on the remaining staff was intense. But younger doctors were gaining experience and not everyone wanted to stay in the Gulf for ever. At the Mouwasat in Damascus at least, there is no evidence of a collapse in medical services as there was in Iraq in the 1990s, when a foreign medical delegation once witnessed doctors trying to operate on a patient with scissors too blunt to cut through his skin. And plenty of young Syrians still want to train to be doctors; there are apparently 21 schools of dentistry in the country too. Syrian parents have traditionally favoured medicine as a profession for their children: it means financial security. But in wartime, enthusiasm for higher education has another, more immediate benefit: university students can postpone their military service.
Fear of their sons being forced to join the army is one of the main reasons Syrians become refugees – with good reason. Once in the army, it is difficult to get out and the chances of being killed or injured are high (since 2011 some 55,000 soldiers have died). Standard army pay is just $50 a month, which leads to pervasive petty corruption among soldiers who try to earn enough illicitly to live on: every army checkpoint acts as a sort of privatised customs barrier with the officers in charge setting their own fees. This may be small change for a taxi driver, but it will be much higher for a vehicle carrying goods. One checkpoint in central Damascus is known to local drivers as ‘the million pound checkpoint’ because those manning it expect their earnings to exceed a million Syrian pounds ($4700) a day. Another local industry flourishing thanks to the war is the manufacture of fake antiquities for sale abroad. Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of Antiquities and Museums, says that about 80 per cent of the ‘antiquities’ leaving Syria today have been made in workshops in Damascus or Aleppo. All the really valuable treasures in provincial museums were removed before they were overrun by IS or other armed groups, though in Palmyra the trucks ‘carrying the antiquities got out only three hours before IS captured it’. The business is flourishing on both sides of the frontline: in rebel-held Idlib, craftsmen specialise in making Roman and Greek mosaics, which then go through an ageing process. Sometimes, Abdulkarim said, their makers bury them and film themselves excavating them in order to convince prospective buyers of their authenticity.
Two years ago, when I last stayed in the Bab Touma neighbourhood of the Old City of Damascus, mortar bombs were landing most days. They made a sharp cracking sound as they exploded, different from the booming of government artillery targeting rebel areas from the top of Mount Qasioun, which overlooks the capital. One day a friend, also living in the Old City, phoned to say that a suicide bomber had just blown himself up a few hundred yards from my hotel, killing four people in the street between the Naranj restaurant and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary. Pro-rebel media were soon mentioning the fact that Assad used to eat at the Naranj, implying that this made it a legitimate target, though he certainly hadn’t been there since the war began five years ago. Pro-government television, always keen to underline the anti-Christian leanings of the opposition, emphasised how close the explosion had been to the church. I walked over to where the suicide bomber had supposedly blown himself up, which turned out not really to be near either the restaurant or the church. It had happened on the pavement outside a curio shop. Across the street there was a body on the pavement under a white sheet: people kept flicking it back to see if the dead man was a friend or relative. Just past the shop, whose owner had been wounded in the leg, there was an area covered in drying blood, though the body had been removed. I saw a dent in the pavement about three inches deep: it looked as if the explosion had been caused by a mortar round – not a suicide bomber at all. Eventually footage from a CCTV camera nearby showed that, indeed, there had been mortar fire: the camera had caught the exact moment when the dark shape of the descending shell was outlined against the white shirt of a passer-by. He had been killed and his remains mistakenly identified as those of a suicide bomber. The men firing the mortar from the nearby rebel enclave of Jobar were probably just firing in the general direction of the Christian parts of the Old City, which they knew was either pro-Assad or at least overwhelmingly against Islamist rebels. Just as I was leaving, another mortar round hit a balcony and killed a woman standing on it.
Such incidents still happen – eight people died in a restaurant in Bab Touma when a mortar shell hit it in July – but they are rarer than they were. Many of the rebel-held districts have agreed to ceasefires or ‘reconciliation agreements’ that amount to something close to surrender. At one point the rebels had held much of the outskirts of the city, but they were never able to link up their enclaves or control the roads to the international airport, Beirut or Homs. I saw one of the first of these ceasefires in Barzeh in north-east Damascus in early 2014: some local opposition fighters, who had kept their weapons, showed me around. It had once been inhabited by 50,000 people, but had been largely depopulated by bombing; many buildings were a jumble of smashed concrete floors piled on top of one another. A local commander, who called himself al-Kal, told me the government had promised to release 350 rebel prisoners following the ceasefire. ‘But all I have got,’ he said, ‘is three dead bodies.’ The shaky truce in Barzeh still holds but I was warned that it was now too dangerous to visit.
In the last few weeks several rebel strongholds in Damascus have surrendered on terms. The most significant is Daraya, which had a population of 80,000 before the war and was a symbol of the anti-government resistance. Only five miles from the centre of Damascus, it’s now an empty shell: the remaining fighters and civilians, by now numbering only 1826, were either reconciled with the government or bused north with their weapons to rebel territory in Idlib in August. At the entrance to the district anything that was more than a few feet off the ground had been blown up. Further in, most buildings were intact – but they had been gutted and looked uninhabitable. Once, Daraya had been known for making furniture and in a few places broken wood-cutting machines were lying amid the debris. In every street what had been small ornamental bushes at the start of the four-year siege were now fifteen feet high. The Syrian general who had commanded the operation said his brigade had lost 286 dead. Nobody knew how many civilians had been killed. Pointing up at the wrecked buildings, their windows now empty of glass, the general said: ‘They make good positions for snipers.’ We drove down dark streets with heaps of rubble on either side, mostly shaded by the tall apartment blocks with an occasional strong shaft of light where a building had been demolished by a shell or bomb. One can usually tell that someone has recently been living in a neighbourhood like this by the smell or sight of rotting garbage, but here there was none. One building contained the entrance to a tunnel and nearby there was a faded message on the wall: ‘The martyrs of Syria are so many that they will have to build a new Syria in heaven.’ A few days after our visit, on the feast of Eid al-Adha, President Assad underlined the significance for him of Daraya’s capture by praying at the main mosque. The military balance in Syria could turn against him again if one or more of the outside powers opposing him steps up their support for his enemies. But so long as this doesn’t happen, Assad has every reason to believe that he is winning the war.