On route to Damascus
File image of a roadside mural of Bashar al Assad along the Damascus/Aleppo highway. © James Gordon
On route to Damascus
Billie Jeanne Brownlee
Last updated: December 23, 2012

Analysis: Damascus awaits the final battle

“Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked on the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies. Although another claims the name, old Damascus is by right, the Eternal City.”

With these words, Mark Twain described the enchanted city of Damascus after his visit in 1869. Although more than 140 years have gone by, no other words would sound more appropriate today, after an almost two years long war that has ripped Syria and its people's bonds with a death toll of some 40,000.

For those who have once visited Damascus, the terrific images of destruction and bloodshed, which are exposed by the media on a daily basis, remain an incomprehensible and tear-jerking reality. Damascus lingers in people's memory as a maze of alleys and coffee shops, of barrels of spices and dried fruit, of children running in the streets in their school uniform or pyjamas, of ice creams with pistachio flakes from Bakhdash's shop, of intriguing female under-garments hanging in the al-Hamidiyye market's stalls.

The charm of this city is also instilled indirectly through the beautiful pages of its poets and writers, like Nizar Qabbani, Muhammad al-Maghut, Monzer Masri, Rafiq Schami and many others. Damascus is not just their place of residence; it is their inspiration (ilham), it is the mother and the spring, the labyrinth of complicated love stories and friendships, the battle for one's own acceptance and for society's integration. Damascus is the Eternal City, the cradle of humanity and the gateway to history, where time started its turnover and men their generations.

Despite the course of history and the innumerable battles that took place in this part of the world, Damascus seems to be now fighting the hardest of all battles: a battle that is not as it was in the past a fight against the invader, this time is a battle between its own sons. The war in Syria is often portrayed as a battlefield between the Assad regime and opposition forces, but borders and definitions look more complicated, and the number of players involved seems to be higher.

The dynamics of this war have taken a bad and uncontrollable turn, as an effect of horrible massacres and a high sense of distrust and hate that animates Syrians, who don't know how to trust anyone anymore. Foreign powers have stretched their hands for help, but more than helping Syrians out of this situation, they seem to have moved them like puppets, everyone pulling a different string, as in a play of the Theatre of the Absurd. Russia, China and Iran are supporting the regime, while Western powers and Gulf states are buttressing the opposition forces, each one defending his interests, but with the effect of dragging on the fight and the bloodshed.

If in the beginning only the regime was the accused of committing inhuman crimes, in recent months we have witnessed cruel actions of revenge by the oppositions forces who conduct their personal justice on the spot. Syria is by now at the stage of no return, the fight is now spreading like wild fire in the country, leaving behind areas that have been liberated by revolutionaries and others which are still war battlefields.

Damascus was spared by the war until recently, but the fighting is now approaching the capital's outskirts, slowly making its way to the center. The city center has now become a hot spot, with check-points that cut apart the neighborhoods, blasts that increasingly shake its stability and a high tension palpable in the air. Life is no longer as before and people seem to be awaiting the final battle to be fought in the Eternal City, house of the Assad's and their power. The Old City – the final ring – is where a winner will finally emerge, hopefully for the better.

With this wish, the year 2012 is coming to an end, leaving behind tragic events and a series of failed diplomatic opportunities: the UN veto and the consequent stalemate that it created, the unsuccessful six-points plan established by the United Nations Security Council, which eventually ended with the resignation of Kofi Annan as UN special envoy to Syria and with it the end of the UN military observer mission, entitled to monitor the cessation of violence and hostility, which instead increased. Despite the dragging on of this war for 22 months and the not reassuring readings of some analysts who draw parallels between the Syrian crisis and extended civil wars of our history, such as the Balkans or Algeria, optimism is still alive.

The appointment of Lakhdar Brahimi as the new UN special envoy to Syria in August 2012, a 78-year-old man with high-profile diplomatic experiences such as Afghanistan (1996-8 and 2001-4), offered a deeper understanding of the region thanks to his background. More recently, the replacement of the Syrian National Council with the National Council of Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces in November 2012 also represented a new achievement that strengthened the anti-regime opposition and those pushing for the fall of the regime. The new Syrian coalition was in fact recognized by more than 100 countries at the “Friends of the Syrian people” meeting held in Morocco last week, bestowing international legitimacy.

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The new umbrella coalition concretely represents an improvement of the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC), with which it merges and which it replaces. Its president, Moaz al-Khatibi is a Damascene, moderate Muslim, who has worked and lived in Syria until recently, unlike many SNC members who lived in exile for decades. His two vice presidents, Riad Seif and Suhair Atassi are two longtime activists who established an important opposition during Bashar's decade in power. The coalition is therefore more representative of the various opposition factions, but still fails in representing Syria's many minorities, given the fact that no Kurdish group agreed to join, the Alawites are not part, and the Jihad groups fighting in Syria (some linked to al-Qaeda) don't feel represented by the opposition abroad.

Specifically, the fate of the new coalition seems to depend on some factors that cast a dark light on it. Moaz al-Khatib has probably been picked for his dual personality, that is to say being a moderate and religious figure, therefore accepted by the fighters on the one side and by the Westerners on the other. However his moderate stances are not that obvious. He was a former imam of the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus and has a background in Sufi Islam, but worked as a lobbyist for Shell Oil and is author of anti-revolution writings which don't sound that moderate and tolerant as he claims to be today, in particular with regards to Jewish and Shi’ite groups. Other than the President, the newly formed coalition appears to be the product of a Syrian opposition residing abroad and backed by Western allies, but not much the representative of the Syrian opposition inside Syria. Many regime's opponents, who are fighting the real war of flesh and bullets, feel betrayed and offended by these figures and do not want to be represented by them on the day of the regime's fall.

Another point to make, is the indirect involvement of foreign powers in the Syrian crisis, as previously mentioned. This involvement does not just refer to the regime's backing of Russia, Iran and China as is usually pointed out, but also of the impartial involvement of anti-regime foreign powers. France, for example, is hosting various members of the Syrian opposition, many of whom obtained residence and other privileges, getting in return a guiding role of the Syrian National Council through the DGSE, the French intelligence service. Other than France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Germany have spread their sphere of influence among various armed groups, gaining political influence in numerous parts of Syria through the financial support offered to the armed groups operating in each area.

The picture is more complicated than this and the interests of foreign powers more extensive and subtle. Meanwhile the war proceeds and with it the number of deaths and refugees. According to UNCHR: 465,000 Syrians have fled of which 123,000 are now camped in Turkey, 138,000 in Jordan, 133,000 in Lebanon, 60,000 in Iraq and 10,000 have registered with UNCHR in North Africa. These figures do not include the number of young Syrians who have fled Syria for good, obtaining a scholarship abroad or who have applied for political exile. Syrians have always been prevented from traveling and studying abroad, making their desire stronger. With the current situation, young Syrians are leaving behind a place of war but are also realizing what has always been an unattainable wish. It is expected that many of them will not be returning to Syria after the war. What this means is that Syria is losing a whole generation of young people, some who are fighting and dying in the country and others who are leaving for building a future which is not anymore possible in their homeland.

It is increasingly difficult to predict what Syria's ultimate fate will be. The fall of the Assad seems increasingly likely, but it will not represent the final stage of this revolution. Meanwhile the Eternal city of Damascus awaits the final battle of this war to be fought on its land. But this will not be the last. According to the Islamic tradition the city will also see the rise of the avenger Christ at Doomsday, who will appear on the top of the Minaret of Jesus of the Omayyad Mosque to judge people for their actions. Then Damascus will be The Eternal City.

Billie Jeanne Brownlee is a PhD candidate in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter. Any views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.

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