I lived in Syria for three out of the four and half years of war. I’ve never been physically harmed, even though there were several close calls. In another sense, though, I’ve come to realize this war has killed so much in me that I’ve turned into something completely unfamiliar; something that often works like a calculator.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither.”
Not a long time ago, he used to be my example. I often repeated that line to those who defended the Assad rule, to those who said that his reign was better than the chaos the country had endured from 1958 to 1970. After a catastrophic union with Egypt between 1958 and 1961, Syria had to deal with the aftermath of its failures until 1970, when the late Hafez al-Assad stabilized the country. Until 2011, Syria was very secure socially, economically, and militarily. Damascus was one of the safest cities in the world — but that was irrelevant to me. I believed in certain principles and demonized the regime that failed to live by them.
I would soon change my mind.
Over the last five years, the Syrian establishment has grown more brutal. Those reforms that were foreseeable in 2011, such as limiting the secret service’s influence and empowering political pluralism, now seem impossible. Corruption has reached unprecedented levels. The establishment’s values and propaganda have never been as exposed. And yet, my opposition to this regime has faded so much that I no longer know whether I’m learning to be pragmatic or if I’ve resigned myself, given up my former convictions, and, in the end, traded everything for temporary safety.
Last August was one of the most violent months of the war in Damascus. Once the negotiations collapsed and a ceasefire expired in the strategic border town of al-Zabadani, the rebels controlling the part of the Barada Valley that was home to Damascus’s main source of fresh water cut off water supplies to the capital. That was August 14. The next day, the Syrian military retaliated by bombarding the area, forcing those rebels to turn on the taps again.
As I browsed opposition websites, reading reports of the destruction and the number of casualties, I paused at a photograph of the bodies of three children. The picture didn’t specify whether the children were killed in the August attacks or if this was yet another horrifying image pulled from the seemingly endless archives of carnage caught on film.
They were two little boys, about seven years old, with a slightly older girl lying between them. They were dressed in vibrant colors: navy blue, pink, and yellow. Their outfits were very neat, as though they had just decided to rest for a few moments. There were no signs of trauma. They looked peaceful.
I was thinking of how their parents, if indeed they had survived the bombing, would feel about seeing their children lying dead in those clothes. Would they remember the day they bought the fabrics? Would they remember how they felt picking out something special for their children, excited to see the look of joy on their children’s faces when they brought home the surprise of a new outfit? Or were the children themselves there, carefully selecting just the right shade of yellow for a dress for the first day of ‘Eid — for a future that once seemed certain?
These children died because rebels in a small town with a tiny population cut off water supplies to millions of people in Damascus, the capital whose community embraces the patchwork of Syria’s ethnoreligious diversity, in the peak of the Middle Eastern summer, where temperatures exceed 104 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s difficult to blame the army for striking the town where they happened to live. The rebels who cut off the water supplies may have done so out of frustration, but the flow still had to return, no matter the cost. The children paid with their lives.
Securing and occupying strategic locations around Damascus — especially those isolated pockets of rebel control where the only aim is to destabilize the capital, not to achieve any strategic goal — is certainly an objective I support. Darayya, which lies on the southwestern gate of the heavily populated capital and faces its most important airbase, is one example.
On August 6, the Islam’s Martyrs Brigade declared Operation Darayya’s Flames, claiming to have killed 70 soldiers on the first day, and capturing strategic buildings near Mezza Airbase. In retaliation, according to Al Jazeera, by August 17, the Syrian military bombed Darayya with 325 barrel bombs, 4 vacuum bombs, 130 surface-to-surface missiles, 375 “hell” shells, 5 naval mines, 585 artillery shells, and 75 napalms. The city’s death toll reached 33 casualties in 11 days, including a woman and 3 children. Another 60 had been injured.
The violence is unspeakable, but when we look at the big picture again, we’ll see how Damascus was subjected to rocket and mortar attacks throughout August as well. On August 12 alone, activists counted 67 mortars fired against Damascus, killing 14 civilians and wounding 70. Saving Damascus, which is also where the majority of Darayya’s citizens took shelter after their city became a war zone, takes priority.
I had to experience that personally in April 2014, when the major battle for my mother’s hometown, Mleha, began. Until 2012, I lived in and owned an apartment in Mleha, which also houses the Air Defense Administration and lies on the road linking Damascus with its international airport. Our town had a population of 25,000 at the time, most of whom fled to Damascus or to the government-held town of Jaramana after the rebels captured the larger part of Mleha and the army began to lay siege by the end of 2012. Nearly 3,000 people lived there under siege until the last week before the battle began, when most of them headed for either the capital or the neighboring towns and cities.
Shortly before the town fell to the army, on the 112th day of the battle, the pro-rebel activists in the town documented 677 airstrikes; 701 surface-to-surface missiles; 6,000 tank and artillery shells, mortars, and rockets; and 12 barrel bombs. They documented 335 rebel deaths and 50 civilian casualties. We don’t know how many soldiers were killed, but it’s usually at least double the number of rebel casualties. By the time the battle ended, the commander of the Air Defense Administration had been killed. He was the second ADA commander to be killed in one year.
We, as citizens, longed for the earlier reconciliation efforts held between the government and the rebels in Mleha. Many failed negotiations had taken place in the past two years. Once the negotiations completely collapsed, however, we had to take sides. I now had to live with the idea of supporting an army that was leveling my town. I lost relatives, friends, and my own home, yet that seemed to be a smaller cost than risking Damascus, where the people of Mleha now live.
It’s not easy to live between the details and the big picture. Sometimes it can be soul-wrenching to support the army, an institution that holds my country together but that also contains villains capable of unspeakable inhumanity. There are soldiers who torture your recently drafted brother. Sometimes drunk soldiers will abduct a minibus with your girlfriend in it, and direct the driver to a battle zone. One of them will sit next to her, with one hand holding an AK-47 and another between her inner thighs. You have to live with the story she tells you about how she was so afraid that she was sticking her face on the window, crying, trying to get away from him. You have to ignore these details in the big picture of an army that has lost twice as many soldiers as America lost in Vietnam, just to defend your country.
The biggest challenge of all is to be able to make any sense out of the concept of retaliation. It is one thing to bomb a ghost town, where just a few unlucky civilians remain; it’s a whole different thing to target the heart of an enemy stronghold just to deter them from crossing a line in the sand.
On August 15, Zahran Alloush, the head of the Islam Army, launched an offensive against strategic Harasta, which is very close to the M5 highway route linking Damascus with what’s left of Syria. The army reportedly retaliated by targeting the marketplace in Duma, Alloush’s stronghold, killing 110 people. It was a massacre in every sense of the word.
It wasn’t the use of “illegal” and “indiscriminate” barrel bombs, which tend to be the focus of reporters and diplomats even though barrel bombs don’t kill nearly as many as shells and bullets do. Rather than barrel bombs, reports indicate the regime deployed guided bombs against a location known to be crowded with civilians. If these reports are true, this would mean the attack was the worst kind of retaliation: deliberately targeting civilians just to place pressure on those who rule them.
We may never know for sure what happened in Duma, except that 110 people were killed within seconds. But if the army did deliberately target civilians, how should I react? Should I condemn the army now? And what does it mean to condemn the army or the establishment? Does it mean to take measures against them, at a time when there has been already too much pressure undermining the whole country?
I have always thought of Damascus as the Middle East’s most conservative yet most libertarian city. The question that puzzles me the most now is: How much of Damascus is worth saving?
On the one hand, some will find no problem justifying the Duma attack, or any other like it. We live in a world where “the leader of the free world,” after suffering the attacks of 9/11, reacts by signing the PATRIOT Act and invading two countries, one of which had nothing to do with 9/11.
The problem in Damascus isn’t only that it’s surrounded by radical Islamic rebels. The problem is that the frontline is inside the city, in the south, where we have the presence of the Islamic State, and in the east, where the Islam Army and its Eastern Ghouta allies operate. Not that I think these people are evil, but they certainly pose an enormous threat to Damascus’s diverse community. I don’t think any government, no matter how democratic or civil, would tolerate such a presence that close.
Yet in Damascus, I met the kind of people who tolerated the Islamists operating around us, even though their neighborhoods, just like mine, were targeted with rebel mortars. Ammar, an IT worker who helped me set up my Internet connection, detested the regime so much that he said he would prefer that the Duma rebels take over Damascus. Before he moved to Damascus for a job, he lived in Duma under the radical Islamists and didn’t seem to have any difficulties with them that he wouldn’t have had with the Syrian authorities. He was a conservative Sunni Muslim — there was nothing that they wanted him to do that he didn’t want to do himself.
As an atheist and a secularist, I find it unimaginable to live under Islamic rule. The Syrian semisecular state itself is already too religious to me. Half of my friends are Christians and half the people in my family are Shiites; I fear they will be automatically doomed once ruled by the Islam Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, or Ahrar al-Sham. It’s not only the Libya-style chaos that scares me, but also an alternative religious establishment similar to that in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps my big picture is nothing more than my own political agenda. Perhaps Ammar, coming from a religious majority, has a different big picture in mind, in which people like me are insignificant.
There are few things I know for certain now. As much as I try to balance what’s personal with what’s political, the cost is that I completely detach myself from the situation. I can’t understand how some foreign governments fail to be pragmatic when it comes to dealing with my country, as if it were personal to them. First they feel sorry for us, then they demonize us, and then they sanction us and call us terrorists — and eventually, our refugees become their biggest problem.