It was almost late evening when I reached Bab Touma, Damascus’ famed old city that is a seat of two of the oldest sects of Eastern Christianity. At the very entrance of the locality, two soldiers from the Syrian Arab Army check every car coming in. The checking process looks more a formality in comparison to the rigorous one that I had seen in all my previous visits to Syria during the crisis. There is a motley mix of tourists and pilgrims loitering around. Women laden with make-up giggle as men sit in the courtyards of the restaurant enjoying Sheesha. The bustle can make you think as if everything is hunky dory inside Syria. That unless you turn around and take a look at the wall that accompanies the gate that lent its name to the locality (Bab in Arabic means gate or gateway).
Years ago, when Syria was not going through the crisis, this wall was sort of a pin-board for announcements. A wedding here, a Baptism there. Occasionally posters from local polls also used to find their way, but more often than not, it was a window to the civic life inside the old city. Not anymore. The giant wall has now become a giant martyr wall. And in ways more than one, the wall signifies Syria as well.
There are martyrs from the Syrian Arab Army with distinct Sunni, Alawite and Christian surnames. There are men from the Party of God, the fearsome Hezbollah. There are Christian martyrs from National Defence Forces. Assyrian martyrs from the pro-government Sotorro militia, secular fighters from Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and several secular Arab Nationalists who came from all over the Arab world to fight under the banner of Arab Nationalist Forces. The wall tells the story of how Syria survived the years of onslaught that was supported and financed by the West, Israel, Sunni Gulf monarchies and the states supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Standing in Damascus these days, or Aleppo for that matter, it is easy to get misled. The worst appears to be over. The Syrian government of Bashar al Assad has survived. However, it was not always like this.
I still remember taking a flight from Tehran to Damascus sometime in the autumn of 2014, probably the worst year for the government. Every single square inch of land in the vicinity of Damascus Airport was under rebels’ control. Rebels that comprised of al Qaeda operatives and various other Islamists. Only the military garrison at the airport somehow held. Syrian Arab Army’s elite Republican Guards were barely managing to secure the lone road connecting the airport to downtown Damascus. The strain was unbearable. Flights used to land with lights switched off as the West’s peace-loving rebels used to fire on the inbound and outbound civilian aircraft with medium and small arms. Some of the biggest suburbs, Ghouda, Douma, Harasta and Jobar, were under rebel control as mortar rained on the areas under government control. In Bab Touma itself, several buildings were specifically targeted because of their Christian dwellers.
Compared to that, Syria of today is much stable. Help from Russia and Iran went a long way as the government changed tactic. While defences at population centres were strengthened, sparsely populated areas were withdrawn from. Army regrouped and started recovering one territory at a time.
While Kurds are being dealt with the carrot and stick policy, a different carrot and stick are being prepared for the opposition in Idlib, the majority of who come from al Qaeda’s Syrian avatars such as al Nusra. All along the M5, this correspondent could see heavy mobilisation as battalions after battalions, divisions after divisions freed up from battles in south and central Syria moving north towards Idlib
Says, Lena Mabradi, noted Syrian military expert, “What Russia brought to the table was a two-pronged approach. A real carrot and stick deal. In every locality under opposition’s control, towns and villages were given the opportunity to reconcile and accept the amnesty offer put forward by the Syrian government. Many, who initially favoured the opposition, but had got a taste of life under their occupation, readily agreed. Many realised the futility of their effort and surrendered and had their legal statuses settled. Those who resisted were ultimately either killed or were forced to evacuate in the by-now-famous green buses. It drastically cut the loss of life on the government side and also helped avoid destruction.”
While the population centres were important, equally important, if not more, was the M5 Motorway. M5 Motorway was once the lifeline of Syria as it connected Turkey in the north with Jordan in the South. Along the Motorway lies some of the biggest cities in Syria, namely Deraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo among others. The initial opposition goal was to seize this motorway, hence severing the economic lifeline. Insurrection—violent from the very beginning—started in cities along this Motorway, especially in Deraa and Hama. Homs soon followed.
The primary conspirators here were Turkey and Qatar. Saudis and the West were more into supplying weapons to the groups. Turkey’s plan was straightforward. Severing M5 means it could do anything it wanted with Aleppo and further north, an area that President Erdogan in his Ottoman-hangover considered being Turkish. It also served other purposes. Ankara had an eye on Sheikh Najjar Industrial District in Aleppo’s suburbs, which contributed around 20 per cent of Syria’s GDP. When the opposition captured this area, they, under the guidance of Turkish Intelligence, systematically dismantled over 1000 factories and shipped them across the border to Turkey. Almost simultaneously, Islamic State captured Syria’s gas and oil fields in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir az Zor and Homs.
Travelling along the same route today, things have changed dramatically. Just a year ago when I was last here, we could hardly travel on the famed M5. The journey used to be punctured at several places. Now, one can drive directly from Jordanian border near Daraa all the way to Hama without making a detour. Yes, one needs to make a detour towards Ithariya to reach Aleppo as northern Hama is the frontline for the upcoming Idlib offensive. Its implication is there for all to see. While tourism and economy of Syria is a shadow of its former self, it has no doubt started to pick up. There is a marked increase in a number of tourists coming to those areas that have been liberated, especially to the Christian pilgrimage centres of Saidnaya and Maaloula. These Aramaic-speaking villages boast of some of the oldest surviving monasteries in the world, and have started attracting pilgrims again.
The situation in Aleppo is better still. This writer stopped by several reconstruction projects in his tour in and around the city. In many places, apartments constructed by the State have either been handed over to poor people who had to run away from Aleppo during the battle or are in the process of being handed over. Many among the Internally Displaced People have started to return. Some have returned from Europe and Turkey as well. This is a trickle now but has the potential to become a deluge.
Says, Illios Murad, a senior functionary of the ruling Baath Party, “More people have returned in the towns in the south such as Deraa than in the north as towns in the south are in much better shape for refugees to return. However several hundreds of thousands have also returned to cities like Homs and Aleppo. This is not to say that reconstruction is easy. We will need an unprecedented amount of money to reconstruct, but we are a resolute nation, and we have started to rebuild.”
Inside the famed Sheikh Najjar Industrial District, some factories have started to come alive. This writer managed to visit a potato chips and a textile factory that have started functioning lately. All around there is the scene of dismantling and theft. Militias from National Defence Forces that are mainly deployed in the hold phase, man a few dismantled and derelict factories as workers make a beeline for those which have reopened. Before the crisis, this industrial district was known for its textile products. The region in and around Aleppo used to supply raw cotton for the factories. While driving from Ithariya towards Aleppo, this writer could see a few farmers once again growing the cotton plant. The wheel has turned once again. Syria is all set to start afresh.
In the east, along with the western and south of river Euphrates, the government has managed to flush out Islamic State terrorists and re-establish its writ. The road to Deir az Zor from Aleppo is puckered with several dozens of checkpoints manned by soldiers from Syrian Arab Army, NDF, Hezbollah and Afghan Hazara militia named Fatimayoun. The checks are stringent but its manner relaxed. There are few settlements in this Badia al-Sham desert, but it leads to the Kurdish SDF-controlled region where the US has made as many as eight bases. They control some of the biggest gas and oil fields in Syria.
Notwithstanding the posture, Kurds know that their game is up. None of the countries, whether it is Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Syria will like to see an independent Kurdish state in their midst doing its bidding for Washington and Tel Aviv, and Kurds have started to realise this. Although belatedly. Their hubris in Iraq was dealt with severely by Baghdad, and they have only as many cards to play in Syria.
In some of the meetings that have taken place lately between Damascus and Kurdish leadership, Kurds have agreed to several of the demands set by the Syrian government, a development that was unthinkable only a few months ago.
The Kurd-led SDF agreed to open several crossings along the Euphrates valley, against the wishes of the United States. After the deal, as many as nine crossings have been opened in Deir az Zor, and another seven are being planned in Raqqa. Most of the crossings are in and around the government-held town of al Mayadeen.
Also, two separate meetings took place between SDF and the Syrian government recently after which the army recruitment centre was allowed to open in the province of Hasakah. It opened last month and many Syrians, including Kurds, have started to enrol for the compulsory military service. Kurds put in a demand that those Kurdish fighters who have served in YPG/YPJ should be allowed to count their years as experience in their Army record, which was partially accepted by the government. Similarly, an agreement on a joint checkpoint has also been reached.
Other demands made by Damascus includes the complete merging of YPG with Syrian Arab Army, and joint control for the time being of Tal Kojar and Samalkha border-crossings into Iraq, which would later be completely taken over by the government. Same will happen with al Darbasiyeh and Ras al-Ayn border-crossing into Turkey. Sources close to this writer say that YPG is seriously mulling over these demands, and while it might not give away all its cards as of now, it appears that it shall have to eventually agree.
In exchange, Damascus has offered them one-third of all the oil revenue coming directly from their areas to them, and share in other revenues as well. Kurds are also demanding that the Oil Ministry shall have three director-level officials of which one should be a Kurd of their choice. This demand is under consideration and might be accepted by Damascus on a later date.
While Kurds are being dealt with the carrot and stick policy, a different carrot and stick are being prepared for the opposition in Idlib, the majority of who come from al Qaeda’s Syrian avatars such as al Nusra. All along the M5, this correspondent could see heavy mobilisation as battalions after battalions, divisions after divisions freed up from battles in south and central Syria moving north towards Idlib.
(The writer is Visiting Faculty at Institute of International Relations at University of Warsaw)
This is the first part of a two part series. This article first appeared on National Herald on Sunday