As the U.S. Backs Away From Syria’s Civil War, War-Weary Residents of Damascus Struggle to Survive
DAMASCUS, SYRIA—I was sitting at a bar in the Old City with off-duty Syrian soldiers when I learned that Donald Trump was officially ending the CIA’s covert support for the anti-government insurgents the Syrian army has spent the last six years fighting. I immediately told a group of patrons the news, but they didn’t believe it. “Trump is a liar,” they said.
After six years of war against an Islamist insurgency that came to be dominated by Al Qaeda, the population of the Syrian capital city of Damascus is exhausted, losing its livelihood under the weight of Western sanctions and cynical about the future, even in the face of what should be good news for them.
They prefer not to even talk about the war. It already rules their lives, so they won’t let it dominate their fun. One soldier, whose father, a Syrian general, was killed two years ago in Hama, quickly changed the topic. “I’ve lost 10 kilos thanks to this beautiful woman,” he said, pointing to his Zumba instructor-turned-girlfriend. Seated next to him, she responded with a flirtatious giggle.
The war has affected more than just the soldiers. Damascus is a city of nearly four million people, including a massive number of internally displaced people (IDP’s) who fled insurgent-held areas and whose entire lives have been shattered by the conflict. Almost everyone you meet in Damascus has been touched by the war in some way, especially the IDPs.
In the West, especially among those who advocate more war in Syria, there is such an obsessive focus on the dead that they don’t see or care what the war does to the people still living. They have to reorient their entire lives and put their dreams on hold just to survive, to keep their family together and safe and fed.
The taxi drivers Thomas Friedman won’t meet
The celebrity pundit Thomas Friedman is well known and widely ridiculed for his interviews with taxi drivers around the world. Wherever Friedman goes, there often seems to be a cab driver ready to provide him with on-the-ground insight. He then takes the quotes gathered from the backseat of imported cars to sell corporate globalization and Western intervention as a panacea for the problems of the global South. Pundits like him who have spent the past six years pushing regime change in Syria could learn a lot from the drivers of Damascus, but for some reason, they have never attempted to visit.
It is surprisingly common for taxi drivers in Damascus to have fled from insurgent-held areas outside the city and to have had their houses seized, robbed or destroyed by armed groups. Syrians typically own their homes, so losing them means everything they invested has been destroyed. Now they have to pay rent, but they’ve likely lost their factory job or business. This is why the internally displaced are so often forced to make up for lost income by working as taxi drivers.
Take Mohammad, who drove me from Beirut to Syria. He used to work the road from Lebanon to Jordan to Saudi Arabia, but the war has shortened his route, and consequently, his salary. Now he only drives from Lebanon to Syria. Mohammad is from Qabun, a town in the suburbs of Damascus that was overrun by armed groups at the beginning of the conflict. He fled the area with his wife and kids, but his three brothers remained trapped inside with the armed groups for the duration of the war.
Mohammad’s house, which he owned, was looted, and he and his wife Bashara lost everything they spent their lives building. Now they live in the city in a safe government-held area called Masaken Barzeh. They went from being homeowners in Qabun to renters in Barzeh. Qabun was recently taken back by the Syrian government, but Mohammad and Bashara are unable to return. Government forces are not yet allowing residents back in, although some manage to pass through with bribes. In the meantime, their lives are on hold. Bashara got to see her home once since the government took back the area: Every appliance, every piece of furniture, even the shelving is gone.
Before he was driving a taxi in Damascus, Ahmad owned a successful restaurant in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. He built a house for his family with the money he earned, which is clearly a deep source of pride for him. Two years ago, Ahmad fled the government-held side of Deir Ezzor with his wife and four children. This area of the desert city was, and still is, surrounded by ISIS. The siege is so severe that food and medicine have to be airdropped into the city. Ahmad’s sister, however, stayed behind. Her only son, 20, was kidnapped by ISIS three years ago. No one has heard anything about his fate and the family is frightened to ask, fearing that if he is still alive and ISIS learns he is from a pro-government family, they will kill him.
Today Ahmad and his family live in Damascus in a cramped apartment they rent with the money Ahmad earns from driving a taxi. He joked about how his wife used to complain that their house wasn’t big enough.
“Now my wife says, I miss our house, it was so big,” he laughed, emphasizing the irony that it took war and displacement for her to appreciate the home he built. Thanks to his family who stayed behind, Ahmad’s home is still standing. But like most of the homes in Deir Ezzor that belong to families who fled, it was stripped of all its belongings. People desperate to make a buck along with criminals trying to make profit robbed the homes of those who fled and sold everything. Anything made of wood was especially profitable, because people burn it to keep warm at night.
In Syrian culture you can't get married without buying a house. And for many, homes are passed down to the sons. Men in their late 20s and early 30s often tell me they’ve delayed getting married because their family home was destroyed and they don’t have money to buy or build a new one.
One evening while discussing the issue with a group of young Syrians, the young men began exchanging photos of their destroyed family homes in Hama and Homs. Only one had a house that was still standing. When I asked why, he responded, half-jokingly, “because they’re Sunni their neighborhoods were taken over by Islamists. Mine wasn’t.”
The season of fear is coming
Despite the tragedies and horrors Syrians have endured, they do their best to enjoy life. There is a vibrant nightlife in Damascus, especially in the old city, which is full of pubs and restaurants and bars that are always packed. It’s easy to forget that al Qaeda-held Jobar is just a few kilometers away, though airstrikes and shelling can be heard in the distance.
My visit to Syria happened to coincide with the season 7 premiere of "Game of Thrones," which is wildly popular here. I watched the first episode with a group of friends at a trendy bar called Azal. Syrians love the show, but they relate to it in a unique way. My friends compared the white walkers, the zombie-like creatures who threaten to destroy society south of the wall, to ISIS. While winter is the season the white walkers emerge, in Syria, it is summer that brings the most dire threat from ISIS forces in the desert and the Al Qaeda-allied armed groups still nested in areas around the country.
When I shared this analogy on Twitter, I was met with a deluge of outraged tweets from Westerners conditioned to view the regime as a greater evil than ISIS. I showed these responses to the group of women sitting beside me at the bar. Comparing Damascus to the de facto capital of ISIS, which was seized from the Syrian government in 2013 with the help of U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army forces, one woman laughed and remarked, “We don’t think the regime is great either, but it’s better here than in Raqqa.”
Naji, a Syrian-American businessman, used to own a pharmaceutical factory south of Damascus in an area called Khan Eshih. In 2013, his factory was seized by fighters from the Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Anti-government armed groups kidnapped his workers and threatened to kill the Alawites among them. One of the workers managed to convince the fighters that she was a Lebanese Christian. The ruse succeeded, so they let her go, Naji told me over dinner. “They stopped a bus and kicked out the passengers and ordered the driver to take her home. They also gave her about $80 as compensation for having scared her,” he recalled.
Naji’s factory is no longer operational. Like most factories seized by insurgents across Syria, the machinery was looted and sold off. Naji assured me that with other sources of income, he will make do. But those who worked for him no longer have their jobs. I wondered if I might meet some of them soon, perhaps behind the wheel of a local taxi.