The luxury condominium compounds lining the highway that links Damascus to Syria’s border with Lebanon are frozen mid-development, their landscaped grounds well tended, but their interiors dark and unfurnished. Shopping malls and brightly colored children’s amusement parks are empty, awaiting tenants and visitors that never arrive. Billboards that might normally advertise consumer goods show images of Syrian President Bashar Assad instead. His image appears every 50 m or so, flashing past my car window in a bewildering array of costumes and facial expressions: Stern Assad in camouflage, smiling Assad in a suit, saluting Assad in formal military dress, waving Assad in a blazer with a grin and a twinkle in his eyes. But the Assad in these photos is different from the one who shows up in television appearances in Syria these days. While the Assad of the posters is beaming with strength and health, television Assad is pale. He has lost weight. Three and a half years of war have taken a toll, and it is reflected in Assad’s campaign for the upcoming presidential election.
“Together!” reads the slogan scrawled across billboards dotting the city. “Together we will make Syria safe.” “Together we will make Syria stronger.” “Together we will live.” Each is tagged with Assad’s signature. No one doubts that Assad will win the election, which the opposition is not taking part in, by a huge margin.
If Assad — and the road that links his capital to his most important trading partner — is showing the stresses of war, downtown Damascus is another story altogether. Graceful pedestrian arcades heave with shoppers trying out the latest smartphones and sampling the nut-filled pastries and chocolates for which Damascus is famous. Bareheaded women come out of private gyms toting yoga bags, while others, tightly swathed in colorful headscarves, wait for taxis on street corners. Bands of young men discreetly check out both groups. Yellow signs along the wide boulevards warn that speeding is monitored by radar, and traffic cops, clad in blinding white, guide motorists through rush-hour gridlock, caused, in part, by the ubiquitous military checkpoints. Those sandbagged bunkers are rare acknowledgements that war is not far away. But in quieter parts of the city, the attendant soldiers look more bored than alert to impending danger as they tap away on their mobile phones.
Assad lives with his family in one of those bougainvillea-bedecked neighborhoods, a wealthy and closely packed district of three-story townhouses. His decision to live in the house of his father, former President Hafez Assad, seems intended to promote a sense that he is a man of the people. According to official accounts, he commutes every day to the presidential palace, an imposing edifice on a hill on the edge of the capital. But few believe the script. Why should Assad take that risk, traveling an exposed highway to a lonely fort, distant from the people he claims to love? Many Syrians whisper that he actually works from home. Few know the truth.
The war may be psychologically distant to those in central Damascus, but it is being waged only a few miles away from Assad’s front door, along the edges of the city and in the suburbs. Fighter jets scream overhead, and the deep rumble of shelling in restive areas can be felt as well as heard. So regular are the blasts that no one even bothers to look up.
Just after sunset, patrons of the Abu Abdu juice shop in the downtown area line up eight deep for a glass of icy strawberry nectar in a spring tradition dating back to well before the war. Families perch on narrow benches to share plates of cream-covered fresh fruit, and couples lean against parked cars to sip the shop’s latest fruit-blend inventions. A group of English-language students on an excursion pounce on the opportunity to practice their English with two TIME journalists. Damascus used to be a major tourist destination, and chances to speak English were many. These days native English speakers are hard to find. “What is your name, please?” they ask. “What do you think of Syria?” “The Western TV makes Syria look like it is war all the time, are you worried about safety?” No, I answer, waving my strawberry juice around to indicate the crowd. Yes, they affirm, “life is normal here.” Just then the thunder of a not-so-distant bomb blast interrupts the conversation. No one in the crowd looks up, and the students, noting the alarm on my face, laugh and assure me that it is far away, “at least a few kilometers.”
By car, the brutal legacy of the war is just minutes away. Our driver makes his way through empty highways to Barze, once one of the bloodiest neighborhoods in Syria, and since February the site of an experimental cease-fire that many are hoping could be a model for the rest of the country. The radio blasts a fusion of rap, reggae and Arab rock praising Assad. Our driver knows every word. As we enter Barze the signs of war are, at first, barely noticeable: a few bullet-pocked concrete barriers and broken windows. Here the buildings are aging, the population notably poorer. But suddenly the horizon unreels in a scene of total devastation. Blasted-out high-rises loom over the remains of barricaded bunkers. Anti-Assad graffiti has been scrubbed off the walls. Pro-regime slogans have yet to be painted in their place. Twisted rebar and electrical wires snake out of the skeletal remains of eight-story apartment buildings. Some life has returned to the less damaged buildings in the form of drying laundry, but the pancaked residential buildings will never again host their former residents. Barze is peaceful now — but it is ruined.
We cross back into the parts of the city that Assad has always held and that have seen almost no violence during the war. The President appears in another poster. In this one, smiling Assad declares, “With you, we will rebuild it, and take care of it.”