And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.
Mount Qasioun soars above the Damascus plain to a height of four thousand feet, a sheer escarpment that for millennia has borne witness to insurrection, invasion, siege, and annihilation. Mankind’s first, albeit legendary, murder occurred in Qasioun’s Cave of Blood, where Cain crushed his brother Abel’s skull with a stone. For many Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abel became the original martyr, the prototype for millions who followed him into blameless death.
Cafés on the summit used to afford a vista of the sprawling metropolis below, until the government banned visitors lest they act as artillery spotters for the rebels. Damascus divided in 2011 into hostile strongholds of the state and its armed opponents. Six and a half years later, the government has restored its rule to all the areas visible from Qasioun, apart from two besieged, nearly leveled, corners, one along the city’s eastern fringe and the other in a tiny pocket to the south. Occasional artillery and mortar rounds testify to the insurgents’ stubborn survival, but the rebellion no longer threatens the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The postwar era has begun.
“The regime stays,” one diplomat in Damascus told me. “That’s it. The time of regime change is over.” Terms such as “regime change” and “transition” have for the most part disappeared from political discourse. The government is establishing a new normal. Electricity has been restored from a few hours to twenty-four most days. Water flows from the taps, the garbage is collected, and taxi drivers moan about traffic. Brides in white chiffon sway and ululate as they ride in open convertibles to their wedding parties. Far from Damascus, only a few zones of rural Syria elude the government’s grasp: Idlib in the northwest, two areas adjoining the Jordanian and Israeli borders in the south, the Kurdish-held desert beside Iraq in the east, and a small enclave between Idlib and the Turkish border.
Damascenes have begun speaking of antebellum Syria with the dreamy yearning that Scarlett O’Hara had for Tara. They reminisce about driving along a 225-mile checkpoint-free road north past Homs and Hama to Aleppo. They recall strolling, day and night, without fear of robbers. Women did not suffer harassment in the streets. There were no potholes in the roads. No one asked about your religion. Visitors arrived from all over the world to see Syria’s ancient treasures and shop in its vaulted souks. Business was good. And on and on. Government supporters and those who wished that the war had had another result share the conviction that life was better before.
“I think in the first six months of 2018 there will be a new constitution for Syria,” a Syrian security source says, “but nothing will change.” Nothing? “The structure will stay the same. Rami Makhlouf and the Alawis are secure. Everything else can change, but it’s decoration.” Makhlouf, Assad’s fabulously rich first cousin, symbolizes the financial chicanery that inspired resentment and protests against the regime in 2011. “The sad thing is that corruption-wise, things are worse,” says a Syrian businessman who struggled to remain neutral throughout the war. “As a regime, if they are worried about the country, they should stop the corruption. If they stay like that, there won’t be any reconstruction. Five or ten people have 90 percent of the cake.”
Syrian malfeasance is paltry compared to that in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, where rampant bribery and official theft have crippled the economy, and lags behind the plundering by Assad’s oil-rich patrons in Russia and Iran. But it remains a grievance. Drivers on the twenty-five-mile road between the Lebanese border and Damascus, for example, must tip soldiers a dollar at one checkpoint and two packs of Marlboros at another to avoid lengthy inspections of their cars and documents. Small sums add up, and thousands of cigarettes find their way to the black market to supplement the soldiers’ meager salaries.
In society’s higher reaches, the illicit gains are greater. By evading international sanctions during the war, a new breed of entrepreneurs has enriched itself through arms deals, smuggling, and trade between government and opposition zones—including, many insist, brokering the sale of wheat and oil from areas controlled until recently by the Islamic State. Friends tell me that war profiteering has created so many nouveaux riches that they no longer recognize the clientele at the once-exclusive Aleppo Club. One can almost hear Lady Bracknell: “My dear, who are these people?”
Now that its position is more stable, the government craves international legitimacy. It has asked the United Nations to switch its vast wartime program of humanitarian aid to one of development, which would entail moving money from individual victims of the war to state institutions—a move the US has so far opposed. The United Nations, one UN official explained, “gives cash for work, things like removing rubble. The cash goes to the local community in exchange for their work. It’s happening everywhere [in Syria], but not on a large scale. But there is no development aid to build hospitals, schools, etc.”
Wary of the US’s veto power, the UN has so far maintained its humanitarian effort, albeit on a sharply reduced budget, as if the war were still raging rather than commit to reconstruction. The switch to development, although it would bolster the regime’s international image, would also require it to submit to oversight and transparency, which it would attempt to evade. The government, along with most of the populace, also wants the US and Europe to lift economic sanctions, arguing that they do more harm to civilians than to the senior officials they are intended to punish and encourage the corruption that accompanies sanctions-busting everywhere.
Some European Union member states, most of whose ambassadors fled when the US closed its embassy in February 2012, are sending diplomats back on regular visits to discuss assisting Syria’s reconstruction with or without the UN. “We have our papers and our statements on reconstruction, but only to implement when real political transition is on the table,” one diplomat told me. Transition implies the replacement of one regime with another, but Syria’s victorious government is staying put. Even without a transition, American and other Western intelligence agencies have resumed contact with Syria’s forbidding military intelligence chief, Ali Mamlouk, seeking information on foreign jihadis to prevent their return home undetected.
Idlib is especially troubling to the West, Russia, and the regime. It still holds the greatest concentration of jihadist forces, many of whom were transferred there when they agreed to surrender other areas to the army. One international aid staff member, who has worked on both sides of the battle lines, admitted that “when you group three thousand rebels in one area, they will fight each other.” A Moscow-trained security expert in Damascus believes that Assad can wait for Idlib’s fighters to destroy themselves or flee the country: “Idlib is not strategic. It has no petrol. Let it take another year.”
The Turkish army has entered Idlib province, to the apparent annoyance of the government but with the approval of Russia and Iran. Its stated purpose is to control the Islamist jihadis it once armed, but Kurds fear the real goal is to prevent them from creating a contiguous Kurdish-controlled region along the Turkish border between Afrin in the west and the Iraqi border zone they hold in the east. The Kurdish YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, People’s Protection Units) militia is less hostile to the regime than the jihadis are, but it nonetheless enjoys American support in the form of air cover, special forces protectors, funding, and weaponry. The Russian-backed Syrian army and American-armed Kurds have raced to seize the Euphrates Valley and its oilfields from the jihadis. Their lines of confrontation have moved close enough for mistakes to expand the war again.
Insurgents in the outlying districts are too weak and divided to unseat Assad, but they may yet sour the fruits of his triumph. US forces and bases in the Kurdish-held northeast have the potential to harass the Syrian army and undermine Iran and Russia. Taking a cue from his father during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, Assad retains the option of sponsoring anti-Western resistance to liberate the homeland from the US and its clients, especially in Arab regions where Kurdish dominion is unwelcome.
The senior Syrian official blames the US for prolonging the conflict by keeping the Syrian army out of certain areas. “It does not want the Jordanian and Iraqi borders in government hands,” the official insists. Jordan recognizes that American strategy entrenched rather than broke the “Shiite crescent” that King Abdullah predicted in 2004. Syria’s and Baghdad’s victories over the Islamic State, as well as the defeat of Iraq’s Kurds by the Iraqi army and Shiite paramilitaries, allow Iran’s influence to run across Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah’s enclaves in Lebanon. Persia, in effect, is reestablishing the direct route to the Mediterranean that the Byzantines denied it in the seventh century, checked for the moment by the US-backed Border Protection Force.
But this is a precarious gain that will be expensive to sustain, especially with American bases in northeast Syria. The Iranian-backed northern arc of Shiism across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon makes Sunni monarchs in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Jordan uneasy. They see Iran displacing them in the heart of the Arab world. Iran emerged victorious in Syria over dissidents the Sunni monarchs supported, and has become a more consistent and vociferous champion of Palestinian rights than Saudi Arabia.
While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rages against Assad, Iran, and the Shias, a Jordanian government spokesman said Jordan’s relations with Syria were “likely to take a positive turn.” King Abdullah’s bridge to Assad offers a degree of Sunni Arab amity to offset Iran. The strategy of Saudi Arabia, the jihadis’ largest financial benefactor, is less clear. It has cut arms supplies to the most extreme jihadis, conceding defeat in Syria; but it has escalated its challenge to Iran in both Yemen and Lebanon. When Saudi Arabia persuaded Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, to resign on November 5, 2017, many Lebanese feared that Saudi Arabia was signaling its encouragement of an Israeli attack or invasion of Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah and thus deprive Iran of its most valuable foreign military asset.
With Syria entering its precarious postwar period, the government and those who failed to bring it down blame each other for the devastation that they—with foreign-supplied armaments—have wrought over the past seven years. The war’s toll has been at least as high as those from the epochs of Sumerians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Turks, or French. Fighting since 2011 has left as many as half a million dead and far more crippled, blind, limbless, or otherwise scarred in body and mind. The fratricidal struggle has forced nearly half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million out of their homes, driven five million out of the country, and left thousands of orphans. Historic monuments have vanished; the country’s wealth has been looted. Mass exodus and distrust have unraveled the social fabric.
Many Syrians abroad, including the respected human rights lawyer Anwar Bounni, demand a reckoning for wartime murder, rape, and torture. Dossiers on the behavior of both the government and the insurgents, especially the Islamic State, grow thicker as evidence mounts. But the testimony is likely to remain of more use to scholars than to courts of justice, which cannot apprehend elusive jihadis and will be constrained from prosecuting government officials with whom most of the world—led by Russia, Iran, India, and China—is doing business. Someone is to blame for the country’s devastation, but neither side will take responsibility. Both bear the mark of Cain while claiming the unblemished cloak of Abel.
—February 7, 2018