Ever-president: Assad adorns venetian blinds in an office of the Syrian mobile phone company. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.Content warning: this article contains some graphic imagery.
“All is arranged—do hurry, the general is expecting you now.” It had taken the government press chief, Reem Haddad, eight months to convince the Syrian army to open up to Western journalists. It was a year since we had visited Syria. A year in which, according to more or less reliable figures, 76,000 people had died—of which one quarter were civilians, among them more than 3,000 children.
Now we were back. Syria is in the fourth year of war. According to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, there are 6.5m internally displaced people and 3m refugees abroad—more than half the pre-war population of roughly 18m.
Our translator, Bacel, an employee of the Ministry of Information, volunteered to accompany us on our journey. We knew Bacel from our last trip to Damascus—he has a dry sense of humour, practises yoga and smokes 40 hand-rolled cigarettes a day. On long trips he meditated and prayed for the safety of our journey.
In the heavily guarded military headquarters three generals were waiting for us, seated according to rank. The most senior was wearing a track suit. “It is my day off,” he said. Not long ago, he had put talking to the Western press to the test: “And we have been deceived. I talked for two hours with Der Spiegel and they totally misquoted me.” He ranted against the US and the Gulf states fuelling the war in Syria.
“We are not America,” we said. “We want to describe what we see without prejudice.” The general looked us straight in the eye. “Okay,” he said. “I will inform all army posts about your arrival.”
Then we called the presidential palace and Hamsa al-Kassir, press chief and close assistant to Bashar al-Assad, dispatched a car to pick us up—strictly a courtesy visit to secure the relationships. The palace, a granite colossus towering on a mountain above the city, was cold, empty and dark, save for a few rooms. “Electricity shortages are becoming more and more acute,” al-Kassir said. “And we start to feel the pressure of the international sanctions. It is not that the milk is becoming more expensive in the supermarkets, but the packages are becoming smaller.”
In the night we heard heavy mortar and anti-aircraft fire. Damascus is all but safe: neighbourhoods in the north-east and east are still controlled by different rebel groups and further away, on the southern front, a war of attrition is taking place.
The next morning, we heard the screaming sound of government MIG fighters and heavy bomb explosions. “There is hardly any movement on the ground,” a soldier chatting with us explained. “The frontlines have been stalemated for months now. Our only trump card now is airstrikes.”
We headed for Aleppo, the second city, roughly 300km to the north. Taxis are exorbitantly expensive, so we took the bus. We passed the contested Jobar district and continued our trip through mile after mile of devastated outskirts of Damascus. It took eight hours: with a stretch of the highway occupied by rebels, there was a big detour between areas controlled by Islamic State and al-Nusra.
“How far do you think IS is from here?” we asked Bacel during a coffee break at a checkpoint which also boasted a roadside café. “Over 50 kilometres,” he estimated. The soldier who brought us coffee smiled.
“No way—they are just behind that hill, 300 metres away,” he said. “And on the other side of the road is al-Nusra. Nearly every night, IS puts mines on the roads. And every morning, we clear them.” A job not without danger. “Last month, we lost two commanders and three soldiers.” Curious, I walked towards the hill but the Islamist black flag could not be seen.
At the Pullman Hotel in Aleppo, a young police lieutenant introduced himself: “This is your escort.” Outside, a pick-up with three soldiers with Kalashnikovs was already waiting. “For your own security,” he said. “There is still heavy fighting and large parts of the city are still in the hands of the terrorists.”
They make a desert and call it peace: a bust of Assad's father, Hafez, in the centre of Aleppo. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
Just 30km from the porous Turkish border, the city is of paramount strategic importance for all sides and the battle for Aleppo might prove decisive. In the summer of 2012, it was largely controlled by insurgents but in the last six months the tide has turned. Using airstrikes and the notorious barrel bombs—oil drums filled with TNT and junk metal—while besieging and starving neighbourhoods, the government is trying to regain control and cut off supply routes for the fighters. The moderate opposition has evaporated, driven away by or incorporated into al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, a coalition of numerous jihadist brigades.
“And here is Lama, your guide in Aleppo.” A young woman with a headscarf stepped forward, from the local department of the Ministry of Information. She was good-natured, smiled a lot and giggled all the time with Bacel—while not speaking a word of English. “She is an agent from the local secret service,” an army officer later confided.
We wanted to see the eastern front, near Raqqa, capital of the self-proclaimed IS ‘caliphate’. We left with our escort, plus a back-up car in case of emergency. Along the road was a string of destroyed villages. Vast areas were deserted. Some places had been the scene of tank attacks, with straight round holes in the walls. Other villages had been fired on with mortars or bombed. Thousands of pock-marked walls showed the aftermath of house-to-house fighting.
But in some villages we saw hardly any such ‘collateral damage’. All houses were flattened but there were no uprooted trees and no craters in the roads from shells and mortars—it looked like they had simply been blown up. We proceeded further south, through an empty desert landscape. Every ten kilometres or so, we saw what looked like medieval fortresses on hilltops, surrounded by high walls with dug-in tanks and heavy artillery.
Then, at a crossing, we came to a small building, outside a gypsy caravan and an old mobile ice-cream parlour. Inside, a small petrol stove emitted a comfortable heat.
The general-in-the-field cordially welcomed us. He ordered his soldiers to bring us food, a giant dish with rice and chicken. A law had recently prohibited officers from talking to the media but all those we met ignored it.
“The fire that ignited Syria shall ignite the West,” the general said (he didn’t give his name), picking the juiciest chicken thighs for his guests. He described himself as the first line of defence against the jihadists. “The day will come when the whole world will thank Syria because it defeated the extremists. Terrorist groups, trained by the West, shall rebound on the Western countries.”
It was exactly six days (as it turned out) before the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “The people of Europe and America do not deserve this. Their governments do. I wish them anything bad,” he said.
Had he recently been in combat? “Yes, a few weeks ago—a heavy battle against al-Nusra. Forty casualities. There was a heavy fog here. They never have the courage to face us. They are cowards. That’s the nature of the battle—hit and run.”
Did he have prisoners of war? “We don’t keep prisoners. We kill them immediately. Either they flee or we kill them. We shoot them on the spot and shovel them with a bulldozer under the ground. They are not men. I don’t consider them as human beings. They are less than animals to me. Down the road from where you came, 19 are buried in a mass grave. Do go to have a look on your way back—terrorists from Egypt, Sudan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.” He threw a few IDs on the table.
And how about the destroyed villages along the road—had he blown them up? “The villagers collaborated with the Free Syrian Army. Some villagers were used as human shields. We had no other option.”
Propaganda, all is phoney: the bitter military view of external criticism of regime repression. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
“When will the war be over?” we asked. “When the whole world will be convinced we are right.”
“Then it will be a long war.” “Yes.”
The general started his SUV and we drove into the desert, towards the ultimate front line with IS. Behind us was a truck with armed soldiers and an anti-aircraft gun on the back. “Our last outpost is here.”
At the front there was a wall of earth around a camp, with light artillery, a heavy machine-gun and a ripped Syrian flag, facing on to an empty desert and 20km of no-man’s-land. Behind the horizon, the ‘caliphate’.
You are now entering no-man's-land: the crossing near Raqqa. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
Here, only 50km from Raqqa, the front lines have ground to a standstill. Either party can occupy the desert in between but strategically that does not make much sense. If IS does not advance further west, the frontier has been drawn in the sand right here—a de facto split of Syria between the ‘caliphate’ in the east and the Assad regime in the west.
But it seems unlikely the international community will condone a de jure partition of Syria into various new states. Neither the US nor Russia nor Turkey will accept such an arrangement. In any future peace proposal a transition towards a federal or confederal union seems the only conceivable way, many European think tanks agree. This would include a role for Assad: “The current level of control and support for him make it highly likely that there will need to be one for him, quite possibly as ruler of one of the constituent parts of a future Syrian state,” the Dutch think tank Clingendael has concluded.
A carve-up of Syria was not to the liking of our general. “Will the government army reconquer Raqqa?” we asked. “Soon. Presumably in 2015.”
How did he know? “I know what is possible. I know our strength. I know the preparations. These are confidential. But Mister President said we will liberate Raqqa.”
Four mortars had just landed in government-controlled neighbourhoods of Aleppo. Thirteen people had been killed. Outside the city, the Syrian air force was attacking the rebels. With the army, we went to the old city—to the famous Baron Hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express and we dallied in the empty rooms.
The city centre was as good as deserted. Small bunches of soldiers with black headscarfs and wild beards were picketing small makeshift bunkers near the damaged national library. They looked like jihadists but appeared to be special troops from Latakia, original home of the Assads.
Against the odds: amid the debris of war, a boy sells dusters made of ostrich feathers. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
Walking to a tunnel under the old city, blown up by insurgents only three days earlier, the accompanying police lieutenant removed his epaulettes, fearful of snipers. Off we went to another hotspot, where an ‘Inferno 1’, a propelled-gas cylinder developed by the rebels, was shown to us. Quite ingenious, the local commander admitted; the device had caused huge explosions. “Till recently, the rebels used to attack us. But now we have the upper hand. So now it is us who are starting the attacks,” he said.
Would he win the war? “I am as confident that we shall win as I am confident I see you right now and here.”
A military victory? “Of course.”
The governor of Aleppo is a powerful man. It is by far the richest Syrian province and Marwan Olabi is a close confidant of Assad. We met him in a government building hit several times by mortars. The governor received us in his richly-decorated and well-heated office, a giant portrait of the president adorning the wall.
The peace plan of the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, proposes a ceasefire with the rebels, with Aleppo as a test case. Olabi doesn’t like it very much. “They are murderers—and they should be killed. It is a human law all over the world: he who kills should be killed,” he said.
“Mr President issued several decrees of amnesty. These citizens who did not commit killing, even those who have carried weapons, can freely return home and live as normal citizens restored in all their rights. But to murderers there is no solution except the victory.”
“At the cost of everything, even by use of barrel bombs? Is it true that the Syrian government uses barrel bombs?” we asked. “They have exaggerated that,” he said.
“You say it is exaggerated, but have they been used indeed?” we pressed. “Any state has the right to use its power when it is in a war with gangsters. But we as a state don’t hit civilians,” he replied.
Until now, the Syrian government has vehemently denied any use of barrel bombs. Thunderstruck by this admission, I dropped my delicate crystal glass of orange juice. The governor laughed. “To break a glass is to break evil,” the police lieutenant said with a smile.
In Homs, the strategy of the regime worked: besiege a city, cut off the supply routes one by one, starve the remaining population and force the insurgents on to the defensive through continuous bombardments. In May last year the government offered the remaining 1,900 rebels, trapped in the old city, a free exit. With a white UN car in front and accompanied in buses by a Jesuit priest, the last rebels left the city that was once the heart of the uprising, passing to the territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army.
We made our way south to Homs, the destruction along the way as vast as anywhere. We decided to stop by the general again, just to say hello. Outside the camp we saw an empty cage. Prisoners, after all, we wondered? He smiled, warmly as ever: “You already know: I don’t take prisoners.” He took out a smartphone with photos and videos of killed IS soldiers. “These pictures I wanted to show you last time. Sometimes they are just as old as 12 or 13. Partly they are forced. But I still consider them as fighters.”
The general displays his smartphone trophies. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
“Come on! They are just children!” I said. He smiled: “I still consider them as fighters.”
“Wouldn’t you better to send them to school?” “Perhaps that would be better.”
Our driver wasn’t listening. Soldiers jumped from the roadside, forcing us to stop. A huge man in battle dress howled in agony. Open the doors, his comrades gesticulated. Our driver locked them by pressing a button. The wounded soldier screamed in rage and grabbed his pistol but the others stopped him. “Drive on, drive on!” they shouted. Our driver opened his window and started arguing. “You idiot, drive on!” we shouted in turn. “Away from here!” Journalists die of stupidity in Syria.
We arrived at Homs at dawn. It was as bad as we had imagined. Amid dark skeletons of bombed-out buildings, soldiers tried to warm themselves at fires in empty oil drums. With the city in ruins, scrap wood was not hard to come by.
Soldiers struggle to keep warm at a Homs checkpoint. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
The next morning, we walked for hours through an apocalyptic scene peopled by hardly a soul. We counted exactly 11: a few civilians and scattered soldiers and militia members at checkpoints. In theory, the refugees were free to come back—some had, to the outskirts. The old city was like a moonscape.
Back to Damascus—a patchwork of shattered territories, some rebel-held, some government-controlled, the two sometimes separated only by metres. Once in a while, amid ruins reaching to the horizon, we came upon a tiny village or neighborhood where daily life seemed to be slowly picking up, with children playing on the streets and women shopping for tomatoes and bananas at outdoor stands.
A society under siege: devastation in Damascus. Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
‘Reconciliation’ is the new mantra of the Assad regime. The Aleppo governor mentioned the mechanism—negotiating local ceasefires, at grassroots level, with the leaders of clans who had once sided with the rebels. Reconciliation has become more attractive for Assad, who has seen the once mighty Syrian Arab Army dwindle in four years, from 325,000 to 150,000 men, due to casualties and desertions.
The regime increasingly relies on the National Defence Force established in 2013, a pot-pourri of 100,000 locally organised and highly motivated volunteers. In 12 days travelling some 1,200km, except for special forces in Aleppo we hardly saw any anything of the regular army. The bands of Assad’s soldiers at the roadblocks in Homs and Damascus were for the most part members of that force, obviously rooted in the local community.
This grassroots approach seems to work well in some instances. “These are not official understandings,” said Haddad, the government press chief, “but local experiments, so that both sides can cool down a bit. These are wafer-thin ceasefires, which can be broken any moment. But still …”
And what, finally, of the global dimension? Faisal Migdad is the Syrian deputy minister of foreign affairs. Migdad is attributed a strong influence, as rumours circulate that the minister, Walid Muallem, has recurring cardiac problems. He arrived late for our interview, amid a blizzard in Damascus.
“Is it possible the departure of President Assad will be part of a peace deal?” we asked him. He said he would be very frank.
“The European countries and the United States will never be able to make a president of Syria. The president of Syria is only made by the Syrian people. And he will only leave when the Syrian people will tell him to leave. They can discuss in Paris or in Washington or in London, or in the headquarters of the European Union, but they will never succeed. I think these stupid politicians have never understood the dignity of the Syrian people and wanted to make change in Syria along the old colonialist lines,” he said.
“I mean: they believe they are the gods of our present world and they can tell presidents to go—and they can bring in presidents to rule respective countries. And we saw what came from it: look at Iraq, look at Afghanistan, look at Egypt, which was shocked that the alternative was the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists—and they brought in General Sisi in the country …
“We believe that a peaceful settlement should be achieved for the Syrian conflict without any foreign interference. And I tell you: if this foreign interference from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United States and some European countries will stop, this whole conflict in Syria will take only—I will not exaggerate to say a few days, but a few weeks to stop.”
Did he mean, we asked, that he did not believe in a military solution? “No, we don’t believe in a military solution for the conflict between Syrians among each other. But we are also fighting terrorist organisations like IS, al-Nusra and al-Qaida. With terrorists we cannot and will not negotiate. We cannot give Syria to the jihadists.”
So, in bombing IS, was the US-led coalition backing the regime? “Look: combating terrorism is an international responsibility. It should be shouldered by everybody. Terrorism threatens world peace and security. But we believe that the present coalition, led by the United States, is more of a parade than actual work. It is not the way to end terrorism, where they should co-ordinate with the Syrian government—and with Russia, with China, with Brazil and others.”
“Then there are no contacts on the ground between western intelligence and the Syrian government?” we asked. “No. The issue is that they don’t want to co-ordinate,” he said.
So what now? “De Mistura said we have to start with Aleppo, and we accepted his plan and we are discussing with him the details of how we can achieve these objectives.”
Aleppo: test case for a ceasefire? Teun Voeten. All rights reserved.
Then could we expect a ceasefire in Aleppo soon? “Let’s hope. It will take time. We are fighting this conflict according to our priorities. If these terrorist organisations supported by Turkey [are] trying now to take over Aleppo, then Aleppo becomes a priority for us. When, in the south, at our front with Israel, terrorist groups are taking over certain areas, then this is a priority. So we are moving according to our priority. No army in the world can be everywhere,” he said.
“But, just for the record: in fact de Mistura does not call his freeze a ceasefire—because ceasefires could be violated anytime and ended anytime, while a freeze must continue. There might be violation of the freeze but the freeze will continue. Then we have to connect the dots. We call this ‘local reconciliations’.” But he was adamant there would be no reconciliation with IS.
“Then, will the army make a counter-attack on Raqqa?” we asked. “Yes, I can see that happen,” he affirmed.
At that very moment, not far from the ministry, a heavy blast sounded. “What do you think sir: is this incoming or outgoing fire?” The minister smiled: “I think it is outgoing.”
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