The commander is thirty-six years old. A few strands of white in his dark, curly hair make him seem older, as do his words. He points to six young men, posed like football players in a team photograph on a wall of his forward command post, and says, “Two are martyrs, two are prisoners, and two are still working.” By working, he means fighting. Those recruits under his command were friends in their twenties. Of the two who died, he explains, “He was twenty-two years old when he was killed. And this one was martyred in June this year here in Tadamon.”
Tadamon is a ragged neighborhood of Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites on the southern outskirts of Damascus, bordering the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Yarmouk and perched astride the road to Jordan (see map below). The commander’s makeshift headquarters in a battered apartment building, where he fields calls on military radios and cell phones, is less then two hundred yards from other Syrians determined to bring down the regime he is defending. Although a regular army officer with a degree from the military academy in Aleppo, he commands paramilitary brigades of half-trained young men and former army conscripts of the year-old National Defense Forces (NDF). They protect their neighborhoods and, on rare occasions, take part in offensive operations. The NDF includes former members of the unpopular shabihah, mainly Alawite gangs whom the regime recruited at the beginning of the rebellion to add depth to the overstretched regular army. The commander provides his NDF troops with basic training, uniforms, weapons, ammunition, communications, and leadership.
“Most of the fighting is done by NDF fighters,” he says, “because they are the inhabitants of the region and know the region well.” On the other side are troops from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its erstwhile allies the Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other extreme Salafist militias. Some rebels are as familiar with the terrain as the NDF, because they too come from Tadamon. The commander knows many of their names. “You cannot imagine that some of our neighbors from this street here are now fighting on the other side against us,” he says. “During some clashes on the front, they called us by name.” He tells me that the previous commander on the other side was Nabil al-Laqoud, who came from Dera’a. “He was killed last year in Abu Trabi Street.” The commander asks me not to publish his own name, because he is speaking to me without authorization.
The commander and his opponents hole up in shattered buildings, fire small arms at each other, and wait. What they are waiting for is unclear, but it is not a military triumph. Neither side has achieved that in almost three years of fratricidal bloodletting. Instead, daily attrition decimates Tadamon and the rest of Syria without the decisive battles that would bring the war to a conclusion. The street fighting has begun to resemble the civil war in Lebanon, where opposing forces faced each other across a Green Line for fifteen years without either defeating the other.
The house where we drink coffee and discuss the war was in rebel hands a year ago, before the government recaptured most of the area. Part of Tadamon remains under rebel control, and the commander does not expect to conquer it soon. “There are more important fronts than Tadamon,” he says, and then names three: “Jobar. Barzeh. Qaboun.” Those contested districts in the north of the capital control access to Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and the ports of Tartus and Latakia. Rebel positions in Jobar are within mortar range of the city’s largest Christian districts. The insurgents frequently hit churches, houses, and public squares in the districts of Kassa’, Bab Sharqi, and Bab Touma. One afternoon in Kassa’, the Syrian novelist Colette Khoury showed me a bullet hole in her study window as well as handfuls of cartridges and shrapnel that she clears each day from her balcony. “We will die,” she says, “but we will stay.” Rebel damage to Damascus is minor compared to the government’s heavy artillery barrages on the rebel-held suburbs.
The commander says his sector has “been secure since last year,” when a government offensive restored regime control over several outlying sections of Damascus. Areas that were inaccessible or under bombardment when I visited last year have become safer, and there are quarters where going out to restaurants for dinner is normal again. Government gains in Damascus were matched by rebel success in the north of the country, where short supply lines from Turkey helped them to hold or besiege large parts of Aleppo and to launch the ethnic cleansing of the Alawite heartland near Latakia.
A car bomb was detonated near the commander’s office forty-eight hours before we met, ripping the façades from most of the buildings. Within hours, the little shops at street level were back in business. Tadamon’s inhabitants adapt to an endless staccato of automatic rifles and mortar rounds, making their way from home to work, taking their children to school, and visiting hairdressers, bakers, and butchers. Old men sit outside, absorbed in backgammon or gossip, ready to seek shelter when a mortar falls or a sniper’s bullet comes close. A Druze friend, who lives in Tadamon with his wife and children, told me he likes the area because it has a mixture of religious groups and it feels safe.
Tadamon is nonetheless a free-fire zone of checkpoints, kidnappings, and hostage exchanges that force adversaries to negotiate. To reclaim the body of a young fighter named Ribal, who had been a third-year English literature undergraduate at Damascus University, the commander engaged a local woman to act as a messenger to his opposite number, the local leader of the rebel FSA. The commander explains:
We exchanged the body of Ribal for eight or nine prisoners. Later, what was happening, some of my men told me the wife of this same leader was outside [the rebel area]. So, I sent my men and they brought her here. I brought her very gently, for some days. She was treated well, and no one harmed her. I telephoned her husband and said, “Hello, your wife is here.” …I told him, “She is well, but we need some things from you.” “Like what?” There were five women hostages kidnapped since the invasion of Al-Yarmouk camp. There was an exchange. I sent him his wife, and I sent him some medicine, a gift from me to him. He sent me a gift, a pistol, to begin a new friendship. His wife told him she was well treated. Sometimes, I telephone him and his wife answers. She always asks, “How are you?” This war created new kinds of relations in Syria.
The commander later sent his adversary packages of cigarettes and bread, both difficult to find in rebel areas under government siege. Dialogue with the FSA is desirable, he believes, because it is for the most part secular. I ask whether it is possible that the army and the FSA might one day unite against the Sunni Muslim extremists of the Nusra Front and ISIS. “I expect that,” he answers. “Look at the paradox. Salim Idris, the commander of the FSA, was our teacher at the academy in Aleppo.” He speaks of Idris with respect and affection, praising two books he wrote on electronics.
Idris, a Syrian army general before he defected, has failed to find common ground with his Islamist allies. The FSA and the Islamists have fought one another for control of areas near the Turkish border. General Idris’s assessment of his allies is candid: “They do not want to create a unified formation because, in all honesty, they have private goals: they all just want to be leaders themselves.” In an interview with the Saudi-financed daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Idris accused the Islamists of playing the regime’s game:
The Syrian regime says [to the FSA] do not fight us, and that those fighting the regime are a set of extremist foreigners who want to slaughter minorities. But look at things objectively and honestly, when these groups, like ISIS, come and execute a child in a public square, what message does this send to the world? Exactly the message that Assad wants to send to the world.
On August 4 this year, ISIS and other Islamist militias launched an offensive against Alawite villages in the hills above Latakia. A Human Rights Watch report, “You Can Still See Their Blood,” estimated that the rebels kidnapped more than two hundred Alawite women and children as they withdrew twelve days later. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, has written in these pages that government forces have indiscriminately attacked civilians with rockets, cluster bombs, and other heavy weapons and that they also used guns and knives to execute 248 civilians in a Sunni enclave in early May.1 But he and his organization also condemned Islamists for massacres and the ethnic cleansing of civilians “on a smaller scale”:
Human Rights Watch has collected the names of 190 civilians who were killed by opposition forces in their offensive on the villages, including 57 women and at least 18 children and 14 elderly men…. The evidence collected strongly suggests they were killed on the first day of the operation, August 4….
Given that many residents remain missing, and opposition fighters buried many bodies in mass graves, the total number of dead civilians is likely higher.
The Free Syrian Army, which distinguishes itself from the Islamists by claiming to represent Syrians of all sects, disassociated itself from the killings. Nonetheless, it continues to cooperate with extreme Islamist jihadists in other operations against the government. Sectarian killings and hostage-taking—largely of Alawites and Christians—by the rebels terrify the minorities, but they do not threaten the regime. Instead, they force communities to turn to the regime for protection without bringing the war closer to a conclusion.
The UN’s Human Rights Council, while condemning all factions including the government for atrocities, concluded its latest report on Syria, “There is no military solution to this conflict.”
Though armed struggle has failed to end the war through outright victory, international diplomacy has done no better. The UN–Arab League initiative, led first by Kofi Annan and then more recently by former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, has not broken the impasse. While diplomats pursued talks about talks, more than 150,000 Syrians died. Nearly seven million lost their homes, more than two million of them fleeing across the nearest border and five million living in penury with relatives, in schools, in other public buildings, or outdoors in public parks. Nearly a third of the population of twenty-three million are refugees or displaced internally.
“Children are paying the heaviest price in this war,” says United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Syrian director Yusuf Abou Jelil. “Within Syria, four million children are directly affected. Two million are displaced in Syria. One million are on the front lines. One million are refugees.” The escalation of suffering has reduced a country that fed itself before the war to living on international charity. Its medical and educational services, once among the best in the region, have been crippled. Children are suffering from malnutrition, and those in rebel areas cannot receive vaccines for polio, mumps, measles, and rubella. At the end of October, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of polio among children in northeastern Syria. In a recent New York Review blog post, Dr. Annie Sparrow, a professor of public health at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, describes her conclusions from nearly two hundred interviews with Syrian medical workers and civilians in the border regions of Lebanon and Turkey:
Over the past two and a half years, doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists who provide treatment to civilians in contested areas have been arrested and detained; paramedics have been tortured and used as human shields, ambulances have been targeted by snipers and missiles; medical facilities have been destroyed…. Five public hospitals have been taken over by the military, and there are no longer any left at all in the rebel-dominated cities of Idlib and Deir Ezzor. Fewer than forty ambulances in the country still function out of the original fleet of five hundred…. Now, more than 16,000 doctors have fled, and many of those left are in hiding…. At least thirty-six paramedics, in uniform on authorized missions, have been killed by Syrian military snipers or shot dead at checkpoints.
Emergency medical squads are routinely prevented from evacuating not only wounded rebel fighters but also injured children and other civilians from rebel-held territory.
Far from limiting the effects of the conflict on civilians, Bashar al-Assad’s counterinsurgency strategy appears to be deliberately targeting the civilian population and medical facilities in rebel areas, in order to deprive the armed opposition of its support.2
Appeals to international donors are failing to find an adequate response. One UN official says, “The level of funding is not sustainable.”