Ensconced in a corner of Damascus, Bashar Assad is growing stronger, while Homs, the capital of the Syrian revolution, lies in ruins
In Syria, victory is written in ruin.
An antigovernment uprising, followed by three years of war and the threat of U.S. air strikes, nearly destroyed this Middle Eastern nation. But President Bashar Assad’s government has fought its way back with a relentless military campaign of air strikes, shelling and the strategic use of siege warfare on insurgent-held areas.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the former rebel stronghold of Homs, once dubbed the capital of the revolution. For two years, rebel groups in a few key districts collectively known as the Old City held out against a debilitating air and artillery barrage that turned a once thriving middle-class neighborhood full of dress shops and ice cream parlors into a rubble-strewn wasteland of bombed-out hospitals and commercial centers. Thousands died here.
On May 7, the rebels, exhausted by the fighting and cowed by a siege, agreed to a cease-fire in exchange for safe passage out. Three days later, the area’s former inhabitants were allowed back in to salvage what was left of the homes they fled when the fighting started. It was a wonder that anything was left. Dazed residents picked their way through an apocalyptic landscape. Mosques were reduced to craters. Apartment buildings had pancaked under the barrage of bombs, spewing their contents into the streets with the force of their fall. Shattered teacups and cut-glass chandelier shards crunched underfoot. “Is this our street?” disoriented neighbors asked one another as they scrambled over what used to be the roof of a six-story apartment building.
Two middle-aged women, walking arm in arm as much for comfort as for stability down a debris-strewn boulevard, had trouble holding back tears. Government employees, they gave only their ages, 40 and 50, for fear of a backlash should they speak their minds. The government has hailed the Homs agreement as a turning point–a template for pacifying other restive areas. While many Syrians welcome what they see as the first steps toward the end of a war that has claimed more than 160,000 lives, others see it as surrender to the overwhelming force of the Syrian government. “This is not a peace,” the 40-year-old said. “It is not even the beginning of peace, only the beginning of more destruction.”
As she spoke, the distant boom of artillery fire could be heard from a nearby rebel-held district. Fighters there had, at that point, rejected the cease-fire. The 50-year-old took in the devastation of her former neighborhood in despair: “It’s sad to say that this is what Assad calls a victory, when the bombings were against his own people.”
A Resurgent Dictator
Defying expectations that he would be the next domino to fall in the Arab Spring’s chute of regional dictators, Assad stands stronger than ever. His military, augmented by fighters from the Lebanon-based Shi’ite militia Hizballah, funded in part by Iran and armed with Russian weapons and ammunition, has consolidated control over a strategic corridor connecting the capital, Damascus, to the coast.
With Homs, Syria’s third largest city, all but contained, he is now focused on the commercial and industrial capital, Aleppo, which remains split between rebel and pro-government forces. Already, as he prepares for the presidential election slated for June 3, he has declared that all military operations will conclude by the end of the year.
The West has dismissed the election as a farce, pointing out that with nearly 3 million refugees, 6.5 million people internally displaced and large parts of the country beyond government control, the result will be illegitimate. Moreover, with no viable opponents–the two other candidates, vetted under stringent conditions set by a pro-Assad parliament, are virtual unknowns–“Assad will win even in a completely transparent election,” says Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor in chief of the nominally independent but pro-government al-Watan newspaper. The Istanbul-based National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an opposition umbrella organization in exile that commands some fighting groups in the country, is excluded from the contest, but even if it were to field a candidate, it has limited support among Syrians. Against this backdrop, Assad’s election slogans take victory as a fait accompli. Across Damascus and along the highway to Homs, billboards in support of his candidacy declare, together we will rebuild. They are endorsed with his signature, a signed contract between the President and his people.
Meanwhile, the armed rebel groups fighting Assad are weary, underfunded and divided. National Coalition leaders have repeatedly requested sophisticated weapons systems, including anti-aircraft missiles, from allies in the West and in the Gulf, but so far support has been limited. In Washington, opinion is divided on whether the rebels can be trusted with the missiles.
Eastern Syria has become a haven for extremist groups and foreign fighters aligned with al-Qaeda, whose principal goal is the establishment of an Islamic state–and, Western intelligence agencies fear, a new base for transnational jihad. Fighting between the two wings of the armed opposition has resulted in thousands of deaths. It is a significant distraction from the battle to oust Assad, who stands accused of egregious crimes against humanity.
Assad’s army has dropped shrapnel-packed barrel bombs onto civilian targets from helicopters and has used starvation as a weapon of war. (The government maintains that it is not targeting civilians but battling “terrorists,” its term for anyone who opposes Assad.) But short of a major military campaign, a significant increase in arms to the rebels or a radical shift by Russia–Moscow’s U.N. Security Council veto has blocked four resolutions pertaining to the Syrian crisis–the Assad regime is likely to stay in power for the foreseeable future, even if the current military stalemate is maintained.
Nearly 10 months after a sarin nerve-gas attack in the Damascus suburbs killed as many as 1,400 people, the government has shipped out or destroyed all but 7% of its chemical-weapons arsenal and production facilities, under an international agreement brokered under the threat of U.S. air strikes. The remaining precursor chemicals are packed into containers ready to be trucked to the coast. Assad’s foes suspect that he is deliberately delaying the process, and they accuse his army of using less lethal but equally illegal chlorine bombs against military and civilian targets. The government denies the claims and blames all the attacks on rebel forces.
For Western powers that have invested in Assad’s downfall and are concerned about regional instability, Assad’s resurgence requires a difficult adjustment. “We might have to eat some hard crow,” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Iraq, told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on May 1. “As bad as the regime is, there is something worse–which are the elements of the opposition that oppose them.”
For all its efforts to present itself as a legitimate alternative to Assad, the exiled opposition has failed to convince Syria’s minorities or its secular-leaning, educated elite that it will not usher in some kind of Islamist government. The National Coalition’s forces on the ground claim to be moderate, but in many cases they fight alongside more-radical groups that want to see a Syrian state ruled by the laws of Islam.
The Syrian government has done an effective job of playing to these fears to rally support. The regime has used state media to highlight the abuses of the most extremist groups, from accounts of beheadings to detailed exposés on how the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria–an offshoot of al-Qaeda so extreme that even the terrorist group’s leaders in Pakistan have denounced it–is forcing Christians in the areas it controls to pay a protection tax.
Assad and many others in positions of power belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. While he supports all of Syria’s religions, religious law rarely enters into government policy.
A Revolution Derailed
And religion wasn’t a major factor at the start of the uprising against Assad. When Syrian protesters took to the streets in March 2011, emboldened by the success of revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, they were seeking the implementation of democratic ideals and an end to pervasive corruption. Few called for the downfall of the President. But when the protesters were met with a series of vicious crackdowns, they responded by picking up arms. Discontented elements of the army peeled away with their weapons to form rebel brigades. Foreign extremists from countries like Iraq, Pakistan and Chechnya joined in.
For the rebel brigades and exiled opposition leaders, the involvement of extremist groups was an unfortunate stain on an otherwise pure uprising against tyranny. To the regime, it was proof of a foreign-funded scheme to destabilize Syria.
Now the war’s toll has more and more Syrians turning, reluctantly, toward the regime. Not because they support Assad but because they are desperate to return to some semblance of normal life. Swathed in the black headscarf and loose cloak of the conservative Sunni Muslims who tend to support the opposition, 65-year-old Umm Hamed, a widow from Homs’ Old City, blames both the rebels and the government for the destruction of her town. She clutches a tattered shopping bag stuffed with a red velvet cushion and brightly patterned curtains she ripped from the windows of her kitchen–all that was left of a house that had been in her husband’s family for generations. Giving only her honorific name, meaning “mother of Hamed,” she says she feels betrayed by the revolutionaries who launched the uprising: “They were asking for freedom, and now we are asking for food.”
Mustafa Ali, one of Syria’s best-known sculptors, says his country was a uniquely free place to work as an artist in a region that is largely governed by religious rulings that limit artistic freedom. Several months ago, Ali’s studio in the rebel-controlled suburbs east of Damascus was looted. Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of raw materials and equipment disappeared within a few days. Ali is concerned about the fate of his sculptures, totem-like heads carved from massive chunks of wood. He is not sure if they were used for firewood or were destroyed because they contravened conservative Islamic prohibitions against potentially idolatrous figures. “In the beginning, we all believed in the revolution,” he says. “We wanted a better future. We wanted change. But I can’t believe in a revolution that comes from the mosque.”
A Nation Divided
For all his swaggering claims of victory, Assad presides over a country in a profound state of destruction and distress. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency estimates that even if the war were to end immediately, it would take 30 years for the economy to recover to pre-2010 levels–and then only if GDP grew at a steady 5% a year. According to government statistics, prices of basic consumer goods like food and fuel have tripled. Half the workforce is jobless, and more than half the population is living in poverty.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi recently estimated the cost of damage at over $31 billion. Private businessmen say the true figure is greater still. “Winning is a nice word that some people would love to use, but you cannot consider you won a battle when 60% of industry is destroyed, 40% of houses, and when 9 million Syrians are displaced. The crisis is not over,” says Feras Shehabi, chairman of the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Industry.
There is, however, little immediate sign of the destruction in the bougainvillea-laced, upper-class Damascus enclave of Malki, a two-hour drive from Homs. Although the neighborhood is no stranger to rocket fire–at least twice a week rebels manage to lob a mortar into the area, most likely in an attempt to target the President’s home–residents have learned to shrug off the threat. Assad’s decision to live modestly in a tightly packed residential neighborhood plumps his image as a man of the people. It is also a canny form of protection: down among the civilians, he is a more difficult target.
Every night sidewalks heave with shoppers. Bareheaded women come out of private gyms toting yoga bags, while others in colorful headscarves wait for taxis on street corners. The war may be psychologically distant, but it is being waged only a few miles away, along the edges of the city and in the suburbs. Fighter jets scream overhead, and the rumble of shelling can be felt as well as heard. So regular are the blasts that no one bothers to look up.
“Maybe the first few days we stayed home,” says Mohammad, an English-literature student at Damascus University. “But you have to live. We can’t hide all the time.” Mohammad, 23, and four of his friends had gathered at Café Lafayette one recent Saturday night to smoke shisha pipes and watch FC Barcelona play Atlético Madrid on the café’s giant outdoor screens. After the game, the conversation moved to the upcoming election. Of the five, four said they would vote for Assad. Alma, an accounting student, said she owed at least that much to a man who had made Syria so much better over the previous decade.
It seems a long time ago now, but when Assad assumed the presidency after the death of his father Hafez Assad in 2000, he introduced a rash of reforms that radically transformed the lives of many urban Syrians. He brought in the Internet and mobile phones. He opened the way for private banks and universities, and privately owned media outlets competed with state-run institutions. Young Syrians like Alma believed that things would only get better. “Before the ‘revolution,'” she says, using air quotes, “Syria was the best place to be in the Arab world.”
But those reforms did little for Syria’s rural population. By opening Syria’s economy, Assad forced local farmers to compete with foreign imports. Resentment grew with increasing poverty, and demonstrations of dissent were quickly quashed by a ruthless security apparatus left over from Hafez Assad’s days in power. When urban protesters like Mohammad, who asked to go by only his first name, joined the uprising, they sought civil rights, democracy and an end to corruption. Rural and poor protesters sought justice, jobs and an end to tyranny.
Mohammad now says he was too impatient for change: “We thought it would work, that it would be quick, like Tunisia and Egypt. But our revolution was stolen. They turned it from a fight for freedom into an Islamic revolution.” That doesn’t mean he has abandoned the cause. When it comes time to vote, he will leave his ballot blank as a form of protest. “I don’t want to have to choose between the extremists and the government. They are both killers.”
His words underscore the feeling of many Syrians today. Caught between a revolution gone bad and a regime gone mad, they are desperate for it all to end, as quickly as possible.
This appears in the June 09, 2014 issue of TIME.