Damascus' mood lifts as Syria's civil war enters 6th year

Vendors inside the historic al-Hamidiyah souq, an ancient, 600-meter covered bazaar, in the center of Damascus on April 24, 2016.



DAMASCUS, Syria — The currency has lost 90 percent of its value, and people avoid elevators because of frequent power cuts. Long lines of cars snake their way from gas stations, and the city is teeming with refugees.

And yet there are signs of normalcy and a new optimism in the Syrian capital as the civil war enters its sixth year.

Russia’s military intervention that began last September appears to have turned the tide in favor of President Bashar Assad.

Among government supporters and war-weary residents of this city, fears of a rebel victory — which appeared acute just a year ago — have been replaced by confidence that the regime will be able to survive.

“Assad definitely has the upper hand and the momentum is with the regime,” said a Damascus-based European diplomat who could not be identified under his country’s rules. “The intervention by Russia’s air force has completely upended the situation in his favor.”

The situation in Damascus may not be representative of Syria as a whole, especially in northern and eastern areas where fierce combat has continued despite a cease-fire now in its third month.

In Damascus, however, a major sign of the change is the near cessation of shelling of the mainly Christian neighborhoods in eastern Damascus since the truce brokered by the U.S. and Russia went into effect at the end of February.

Shops, cafes, hookah lounges and restaurants are able to remain open until late at night. Thousands of customers fill the streets on weekend nights in sharp contrast to the situation a few years ago when most residents huddled behind locked doors amid the boom of artillery fire.

The lively street life in the heart of the city contrasts with the darkness and silence of eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus less than a mile away from downtown. That area is occupied by rebels of Jaish al Islam, the puritanical, Saudi-backed militia that bans partying or drinking alcohol.

In government-controlled central Damascus, young women in miniskirts mix easily with those wearing headscarves and long coats, chatting and listening to Syrian and Lebanese music.

“The situation was very bad in 2012 and 2013, but things are definitely getting much better now,” said Ilian Set, Christian proprietor of the Asala al-Sharq restaurant in the Quas’a district.

Set, a schoolteacher, said he opened the restaurant to boost his income after his salary dropped from the equivalent of $600 a month to just $60 due to wartime inflation. He has refused appeals from two brothers living in Britain and Switzerland to join them.

“There is no country in the Middle East where we Christians enjoy more freedom than in Syria, and I feel I have a responsibility not to abandon it,” he said while helping serve customers who were sipping arak, the anise-flavored alcoholic spirit popular throughout the Middle East.

Traffic clogs many of the capital’s wide boulevards. Visitors from Iraq and other Arab countries pack the city’s famed Hamidiyah market — an ancient, 600-meter covered bazaar — and the city’s beautiful Umayyad Mosque.

The 1,300-year old mosque, which has a minaret where some believe Jesus Christ will make his second coming, also contains a shrine reputedly housing the head of John the Baptist. In 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit a mosque when he toured the temple and visited John the Baptist’s shrine.

Nahed Mustafa, a university student strolling by the mosque with a group of friends, said her family moved to Damascus from the embattled city of Aleppo in 2012 soon after Islamist fighters infiltrated the city’s eastern districts and serious fighting broke out with government troops.

“We are a secular Muslim family, and we could not risk coming under the rule of Wahhabists,” she said, referring to the extreme form of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia and some of its Persian Gulf allies.

The nearby market, a maze of alleyways that once was filled with foreign tourists, remains crowded with shoppers strolling down lanes. Vendors sell colorful spices and herbs, nuts, dried fruits, brass lamps, and jewelry.

Portraits of Assad adorn almost every corner, and a huge Syrian flag covers the main entrance to the marketplace. Photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as those of Shiite fighters killed in the war, also are on prominent display.

Russia’s deployment of air and ground forces to Syria enabled the Syrian army to go on the offensive and regain the strategic initiative. The recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State militants in March has been hailed by the government as a turning point in the war.

Hanan Abdullah, a housewife visiting the market with her daughter, said she was hopeful that the current round of peace talks in Geneva — which come after a series government victories — would lead to peace.

“Everyone is very tired of this war, we are facing so many hardships,” she said. “This makes me hopeful there will be a resolution this time.”

Once more travelers can reach the city’s international airport without the fear of rebel snipers who used to take potshots at vehicles. Several Syrian and foreign airlines offer flights to the port city of Latakia and a couple of foreign destinations including Tehran, reducing the sense of isolation caused by Western sanctions.

Many of the ubiquitous security checkpoints that seemed to spring up at every street corner a few years ago, are now gone or manned only at night. And the soldiers, policemen and militiamen at the remaining ones are much more relaxed than in the dark days of 2013. Most of the sentries no longer even bother to wear helmets or body armor, and generally just wave passersby through without even the most perfunctory pat-downs.

Despite outward signs of normalcy, the reality of a country racked by civil war lurks just beneath the surface.

According to the United Nations, more than 250,000 people have died so far in the conflict between Assad’s secular regime and a bewildering assortment of rebel groups, Islamic militias and Kurdish separatists.

About five million Syrians out of a prewar population of about 23 million have fled abroad. About eight million more have been displaced inside the country.

Syria’s currency trades at 525 pounds to the U.S. dollar compared to its pre-conflict value of 45 pounds to the dollar. Prices of basic foodstuffs have soared while salaries of most government employees have dropped to the equivalent of just a few dollars a month.

Oil output, one of the main pillars of the economy, has dropped from 380,000 barrels a day to just 8,000 now.

Tourism, a major source of foreign currency until 2011, evaporated during the conflict but is now picking up thanks to large numbers of Iranian and other Shiite pilgrims visiting shrines in Damascus and other safe locations.

“There finally seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, but we still fear that the whole peace process may collapse in the end,” said Bedros Kahvejian, a retired goldsmith of Armenian descent. “We worry the West will side with the Wahhabis in the end, because money talks and the Saudis have lots of it.”

Many Syrians are putting their hopes on U.S. and Russian-backed U.N. peace talks underway in Geneva.

“Everybody is looking at the talks right now, so a lot of what we see on the battlefields is just positioning, strengthening of their hand in negotiations,” said Ed Blanche, a Beirut-based analyst and member of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Slobodan Lekic last visited Damascus in August 2013.



The tomb of John the Baptist inside the world-famous Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus on April 24, 2016. John Paul II became the first Roman Catholic Pope to enter and pray in a mosque, when he visited the tomb in 2001.

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