Jun 28th 2018
A NEW Syria is emerging from the rubble of
war. In Homs, which Syrians once dubbed the “capital of the revolution” against
President Bashar al-Assad, the Muslim quarter and commercial district still lie
in ruins, but the Christian quarter is reviving. Churches have been lavishly restored;
a large crucifix hangs over the main street. “Groom of Heaven”, proclaims a
billboard featuring a photo of a Christian soldier killed in the seven-year
conflict. In their sermons, Orthodox patriarchs praise Mr Assad for saving one
of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
Homs, like all of the cities recaptured by
the government, now belongs mostly to Syria’s victorious minorities:
Christians, Shias and Alawites (an esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam from which
Mr Assad hails). These groups banded together against the rebels, who are
nearly all Sunni, and chased them out of the cities. Sunni civilians, once a
large majority, followed. More than half of the country’s population of 22m has
been displaced—6.5m inside Syria and over 6m abroad. Most are Sunnis.
The authorities seem intent on maintaining
the new demography. Four years after the government regained Homs, residents
still need a security clearance to return and rebuild their homes. Few Sunnis
get one. Those that do have little money to restart their lives. Some attend
Christian mass, hoping for charity or a visa to the West from bishops with
foreign connections. Even these Sunnis fall under suspicion. “We lived so well
before,” says a Christian teacher in Homs. “But how can you live with a neighbour
who overnight called you a kafir (infidel)?”
Even in areas less touched by the war,
Syria is changing. The old city of Damascus, Syria’s capital, is an
architectural testament to Sunni Islam. But the Iranian-backed Shia militias
that fight for Mr Assad have expanded the city’s Shia quarter into Sunni and
Jewish areas. Portraits of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, a
Lebanese Shia militia, hang from Sunni mosques. Advertisements for Shia
pilgrimages line the walls. In the capital’s new cafés revellers barely notice
the jets overhead, bombing rebel-held suburbs. “I love those sounds,” says a
Christian woman who works for the UN. Like other regime loyalists, she wants to
see the “terrorists” punished.
Mr Assad’s men captured the last rebel
strongholds around Damascus in May. He now controls Syria’s spine, from Aleppo
in the north to Damascus in the south—what French colonisers once called la
Syrie utile (useful Syria). The rebels are confined to pockets along the
southern and northern borders (see map). Lately the government has attacked
them in the south-western province of Deraa.
A Prize of Ruins
The regime is in a celebratory mood. Though
thinly spread, it has survived the war largely intact. Government departments
are functioning. In areas that remained under Mr Assad’s control, electricity
and water supplies are more reliable than in much of the Middle East. Officials
predict that next year’s natural-gas production will surpass pre-war levels.
The National Museum in Damascus, which locked up its prized antiquities for
protection, is preparing to reopen to the public. The railway from Damascus to
Aleppo might resume operations this summer.
To mark national day on April 17th, the
ancient citadel of Aleppo hosted a festival for the first time since the war
began. Martial bands, dancing girls, children’s choirs and a Swiss opera singer
(of Syrian origin) crowded onto the stage. “God, Syria and Bashar alone,”
roared the flag-waving crowd, as video screens showed the battle to retake the
city. Below the citadel, the ruins stretch to the horizon.
Bashar the Destroyer
Mr Assad has been winning the war by
garrisoning city centres, then shooting outward into rebel-held suburbs. On the
highway from Damascus to Aleppo, towns and villages lie desolate. A new stratum
of dead cities has joined the ones from Roman times. The regime has neither the
money nor the manpower to rebuild. Before the war Syria’s economic growth
approached double digits and annual GDP was $60bn. Now the economy is
shrinking; GDP was $12bn last year. Estimates of the cost of reconstruction run
Syrians are experienced construction
workers. When Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, they helped rebuild Beirut.
But no such workforce is available today. In Damascus University’s civil-engineering
department, two-thirds of the lecturers have fled. “The best were first to go,”
says one who stayed behind. Students followed them. Those that remain have
taken to speaking Araglish, a hotchpotch of Arabic and English, as many plan
Traffic flows lightly along once-jammed
roads in Aleppo, despite the checkpoints. Its pre-war population of 3.2m has
shrunk to under 2m. Other cities have also emptied out. Men left first, many
fleeing the draft and their likely dispatch to the front. As in Europe after
the First World War, Syria’s workforce is now dominated by women. They account
for over three-quarters of the staff in the religious-affairs ministry, a
hitherto male preserve, says the minister. There are female plumbers,
taxi-drivers and bartenders.
Millions of Syrians who stayed behind have
been maimed or traumatised. Almost everyone your correspondent spoke to had
buried a close relative. Psychologists warn of societal breakdown. As the war
separates families, divorce rates soar. More children are begging in the
streets. When the jihadists retreat, liquor stores are the first to reopen.
Mr Assad, though, seems focused less on
recovery than rewarding loyalists with property left behind by Sunnis. He has
distributed thousands of empty homes to Shia militiamen. “Terrorists should
forfeit their assets,” says a Christian businesswoman, who was given a plush
café that belonged to the family of a Sunni defector. A new decree, called Law
10, legitimises the government’s seizure of such assets. Title-holders will
forfeit their property if they fail to re-register it, a tough task for the
millions who have fled the country.
A Palestinian-Like Problem
The measure has yet to be implemented, but
refugees compare it to Israel’s absentees’ property laws, which allow the
government to take the property of Palestinian refugees. Syrian officials, of
course, bridle at such comparisons. The ruling Baath party claims to represent
all of Syria’s religions and sects. The country has been led by Alawites since
1966, but Sunnis held senior positions in government, the armed forces and
business. Even today many Sunnis prefer Mr Assad’s secular rule to that of
But since pro-democracy protests erupted in
March 2011, Syrians detect a more sectarian approach to policymaking. The first
demonstrations attracted hundreds of thousands of people of different faiths.
So the regime stoked sectarian tensions to divide the opposition. Sunnis, it
warned, really wanted winner-take-all majoritarianism. Jihadists were released
from prison in order to taint the uprising. As the government turned violent,
so did the protesters. Sunni states, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar,
provided them with arms, cash and preachers. Hardliners pushed aside moderates.
By the end of 2011, the protests had degenerated into a sectarian civil war.
Early on, minorities lowered their profile
to avoid being targeted. Women donned headscarves. Non-Muslim businessmen bowed
to demands from Sunni employees for prayer rooms. But as the war swung their
way, minorities regained their confidence. Alawite soldiers now flex arms
tattooed with Imam Ali, whom they consider the first imam after the Prophet
Muhammad (Sunnis see things differently). Christian women in Aleppo show their
cleavage. “We would never ask about someone’s religion,” says an official in
Damascus. “Sorry to say, we now do.”
The country’s chief mufti is a Sunni, but
there are fewer Sunnis serving in top posts since the revolution. Last summer
Mr Assad replaced the Sunni speaker of parliament with a Christian. In January
he broke with tradition by appointing an Alawite, instead of a Sunni, as
Officially the government welcomes the
return of displaced Syrians, regardless of their religion or sect. “Those whose
hands are not stained with blood will be forgiven,” says a Sunni minister.
Around 21,000 families have returned to Homs in the last two years, according
to its governor, Talal al-Barazi. But across the country, the number of
displaced Syrians is rising. Already this year 920,000 people have left their
homes, says the UN. Another 45,000 have fled the recent fighting in Deraa.
Millions more may follow if the regime tries to retake other rebel enclaves.
When the regime took Ghouta, in eastern
Damascus, earlier this year its 400,000 residents were given a choice between
leaving for rebel-held areas in the north or accepting a government offer of
shelter. The latter was a euphemism for internment. Tens of thousands remain
“captured” in camps, says the UN. “We swapped a large prison for a smaller
one,” says Hamdan, who lives with his family in a camp in Adra, on the edge of
Ghouta. They sleep under a tarpaulin in a schoolyard with two other families.
Armed guards stand at the gates, penning more than 5,000 people inside.
The head of the camp, a Christian officer,
says inmates can leave once their security clearance is processed, but he does
not know how long that will take. Returning home requires a second vetting.
Trapped and powerless, Hamdan worries that the regime or its supporters will
steal his harvest—and then his land. Refugees fear that they will be locked out
of their homeland altogether. “We’re the new Palestinians,” says Taher Qabar,
one of 350,000 Syrians camped in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Some argue that Mr Assad, with fewer Sunnis
to fear, may relax his repressive rule. Ministers in Damascus insist that
change is inevitable. They point to a change in the constitution made in 2012
that nominally allows for multiparty politics. There are a few hopeful signs.
Local associations, once banned, offer vocational training to the displaced.
State media remain Orwellian, but the internet is unrestricted and social-media
apps allow for unfettered communication. Students in cafés openly criticise the
regime. Why doesn’t Mr Assad send his son, Hafez, to the front, sneers a
student who has failed his university exams to prolong his studies and avoid
A decade ago Mr Assad toyed with infitah
(liberalisation), only for Sunni extremists to build huge mosques from which to
spout their hate-speech, say his advisers. He is loth to repeat the mistake.
Portraits of the president, appearing to listen keenly with a slightly
oversized ear, now line Syria’s roads and hang in most offices and shops.
Checkpoints, introduced as a counter-insurgency measure, control movement as
never before. Men under the age of 42 are told to hand over cash or be sent to
the front. So rife are the levies that diplomats speak of a “checkpoint
Having resisted pressure to compromise when
he was losing, Mr Assad sees no reason to make concessions now. He has
torpedoed proposals for a political process, promoted by UN mediators and his
Russian allies that would include the Sunni opposition. At talks in Sochi in
January he diluted plans for a constitutional committee, insisting that it be
only consultative and based in Damascus. His advisers use the buzzwords of
“reconciliation” and “amnesty” as euphemisms for surrender and security checks.
He has yet to outline a plan for reconstruction.
War, Who Is It Good For?
Mr Assad appears to be growing tired of his
allies. Iran has resisted Russia’s call for foreign forces to leave Syria. It
refuses to relinquish command of 80,000 foreign Shia militiamen. Skirmishes
between the militias and Syrian troops have resulted in scores of deaths,
according to researchers at King’s College in London. Having defeated Sunni
Islamists, army officers say they have no wish to succumb to Shia ones.
Alawites, in particular, flinch at Shia evangelising. “We don’t pray, don’t
fast [during Ramadan] and drink alcohol,” says one.
Are They The Next To Leave?
But Mr Assad still needs his backers though
he rules most of the population, about 40% of Syria’s territory lies beyond his
control. Foreign powers dominate the border areas, blocking trade corridors and
the regime’s access to oilfields. In the north-west, Turkish forces provide
some protection for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group linked to al-Qaeda, and other
Sunni rebels. American and French officers oversee a Kurdish-led force east of
the Euphrates River. Sunni rebels abutting the Golan Heights offer Israel and
Jordan a buffer. In theory the territory is classified as a “de-escalation
zone”. But violence in the zone is escalating again.
New offensives by the regime risk pulling
foreign powers deeper into the conflict. Turkey, Israel and America have drawn
red lines around the rebels under their protection. Continuing Iranian
operations in Syria “would be the end of [Mr Assad], his regime”, said Yuval
Steinitz, a minister in Israel, which has bombed Iranian bases in the country.
Israel may be giving the regime a green light in Deraa, in order to keep the
Iranians out of the area.
There could be worse options than war for
Mr Assad. More fighting would create fresh opportunities to reward loyalists
and tilt Syria’s demography to his liking. Neighbours, such as Jordan and
Lebanon, and European countries might indulge the dictator rather than face a
fresh wave of refugees. Above all, war delays the day Mr Assad has to face the
question of how he plans to rebuild the country that he has so wantonly