Syria’s New Normal

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Protesters against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Hama, Syria, July 2011

And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

—Genesis 4:13

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…

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